California Gov. Gavin Newsom selected Secretary of State Alex Padilla on Tuesday as the state’s next U.S. senator, a historic pick that sends a Latino to the Senate for the first time in the state’s history.
While Padilla had been the favorite, a video released by Newsom’s office shows him getting emotional after Newsom offered him the job, reflecting on the hard work of his parents, who came to the United States from Mexico and worked as a cook and a housekeeper.
“It’s a hell of an important perspective to bring to Washington,” he told Newsom.
Padilla, 47, was appointed to fill out the remainder of Vice President-elect Kamala Harris’ term. She plans to step down from the seat in January ahead of Inauguration Day, on Jan. 20. Padilla will need to run for a full term in 2022. The appointment gives him an advantage, but he’s still likely to face challengers; California’s top-two primary system allows two Democrats to face off in a general election.
“Through his tenacity, integrity, smarts and grit, California is gaining a tested fighter in their corner who will be a fierce ally in D.C., lifting up our state’s values and making sure we secure the critical resources to emerge stronger from this pandemic,” Newsom said in a statement.
Padilla’s appointment gives a new level of representation to Latinos, who make up the state’s single largest demographic group at nearly 40% of the population. But Newsom’s choice of Padilla also means there will be no Black women in the 100-member Senate. Harris, who is Black and Indian, was the only Black woman in the Senate, and Black leaders had been lobbying Newsom to appoint either Reps. Karen Bass or Barbara Lee to replace her.
“Secretary Padilla has a track record as a skilled legislator and a steadfast advocate for justice, and I believe he will be a powerful voice in the Senate for those who continue to be denied our country’s promise of equality,” Lee said in a statement.
Bass, who had been vocal about the need for the Senate to have a Black woman, said Padilla would be a “ champion following a distinguished line of individuals who have shattered glass ceilings and hurdled obstacles in their way.”
Padilla was first elected as California’s top elections official in 2014 and won a second term four years later. In that position, he has overseen California’s vast elections apparatus, including the rollout of a more robust vote-by-mail system. In the November election, California mailed a ballot to every registered voter. Prior to that, he oversaw the implementation of the Voter’s Choice Act, a 2016 law that allowed counties to mail all registered voters a ballot. The state now has 22 million voters.
Padilla lives in Los Angeles with his wife and three sons, ages 5, 7 and 13.
His appointment will bring geographic diversity to California’s representation in Washington. Dianne Feinstein, California’s other senator, is from San Francisco, and politicians from Northern California have held some of the state’s highest political offices for decades. Harris built her political career in San Francisco before moving to Los Angeles.
Feinstein, whom Padilla once worked for, announced her support for his nomination in early December.
He and Newsom have a long relationship. When Newsom first ran for governor in 2009, Padilla chaired his campaign. Newsom dropped out when former Gov. Jerry Brown entered the race and instead ran for lieutenant governor, a job he held for eight years. When he ran again for governor in 2018 in a competitive primary, Padilla endorsed him over other prominent Democrats, including former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.
The campaign arm of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and the Latino Victory Fund were among the groups advocating for Newsom to select Padilla.
“This marks a long-overdue milestone for the Latino community, and it’s a bold step towards having a Senate that looks like the communities it serves,” Nathalie Rayes, Latino Victory Fund president & chief executive officer, said in a statement.
Padilla has been on the state’s political scene for more than two decades. He was first elected to serve on the Los Angeles City Council in 1999, at age 26.
He represented a Los Angeles-area district in the California state Senate from 2006 to 2014, where he chaired the Committee on Energy, Utilities and Communication. He authored a wide range of legislation, including a law to make restaurants list their calorie counts and another to create California’s earthquake early warning system. He has an engineering degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and he previously served on the school’s governing board.
Padilla, having won twice statewide, starts with an advantage going into the 2022 campaign. In 2018, he won reelection with 7.9 million votes, more than Newsom and the second-highest total for any statewide officer behind Controller Betty Yee.
But a generation of California politicians are hitting term limits in their current jobs or seeking to move up in the state’s political pecking order. Underscoring the quick pivot to a reelection campaign, Padilla released a nearly two-minute video Tuesday doubling as a bio spot and a campaign ad, paid for by “Alex Padilla for Senate.”
Republicans quickly criticized Newsom’s announcement.
“Through the looking glass of California politics, our state’s top elections official will now become a U.S Senator without an election,” Republican state Assemblyman Kevin Kiley, a frequent critic, tweeted.
Padilla also faced criticism this year for awarding a $35 million contract to SKDKnickerbocker for a voter education campaign ahead of the November election. SKDKnickerbocker had ties to Joe Biden’s presidential campaign, prompting criticism that Padilla was using taxpayer dollars with a political agenda. Then Yee, the state’s controller and a fellow Democrat, refused to authorize payment of the contract, saying her office didn’t have authority.
In choosing Padilla, Newsom gives himself yet another appointment. He’ll be able to select California’s next secretary of state. He’s also weighing his choice for California’s next attorney general, as President-elect Joe Biden has named California Attorney General Xavier Becerra to head the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.