LOS ANGELES - Election Day is over but California already is consumed with its next high-profile political contest — the competition to fill Kamala Harris’ soon-to-be-vacant U.S. Senate seat.
In this race only one vote matters, because there is only one vote. The selection falls to Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom, who is being pressured by rival interest groups, fellow Democrats and even friends intent on swaying his decision.
Harris will be sworn in as President-elect Joe Biden’s vice president on Jan. 20 and it’s not yet clear how soon before then she will give up her seat. Newsom has said he has no timeline to make an announcement.
“We are working through the cattle call of considerations,” he told reporters this week. “I want to make sure it’s inclusive, I want to make sure that we are considerate of people’s points of view.”
One of those points of view is coming from the state’s Black politicians, who are pushing Newsom to replace Harris with another Black female. Harris, the daughter of immigrants from Jamaica and India, is one of just two Black women to ever serve in the Senate. Carol Moseley Braun, who represented Illinois from 1993-1999, is the other.
A group of Black California lawmakers have organized a lobbying drive behind U.S. Rep. Karen Bass, who represents parts of Los Angeles and its suburbs. She is former speaker of the California Assembly, heads the Congressional Black Caucus and was on Biden’s vice presidential short list. She’s also been mentioned as a possible pick for Biden’s Cabinet.
Following Harris’ historic role in the Senate “it just makes sense to continue a tradition, but particularly from the perspective of African-American women,” said Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, part of the group pushing Bass.
Sen. Kamala Harris, D-CA, speaks during the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs hearing titled "CBP Oversight: Examining the Evolving Challenges Facing the Agency", in the Dirksen Senate Office Building on June 25, 2020 in Washington,DC
There also is a campaign to name California’s first Hispanic senator. Latinos represent the largest single demographic group in California, outnumbering whites, Asians or Blacks.
The political action committee Latino Victory Fund is backing Secretary of State Alex Padilla, a Newsom confidant many see as a leading contender. Padilla, the son of Mexican immigrants, “embodies the American dream,” the group says on its website that also promotes a #PickPadilla hashtag.
Newsom has an eye on history — he became a national figure in 2004 when as San Francisco mayor he decided the city would sidestep the law and issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. He also recently nominated the first openly gay justice to the California Supreme Court.
“It goes without saying it’s highly unlikely that this particular appointment will be a straight, white male,” longtime Newsom friend and adviser Nathan Ballard said.
Filling the Senate seat is only part of Newsom’s considerations.
If he decides to select Padilla or state Attorney General Xavier Becerra, another Hispanic and a former congressman, he would need to fill that post, too, giving him a second opportunity to diversify state officeholders with a woman, a minority or both.
And because Harris’ term runs through January 2023, his Senate choice has to be ready to begin fundraising and campaigning for a 2022 election. Competition to hold the seat could come from Democrats the governor bypassed, among others.
While there are abundant candidates for the Senate pick, Ballard said an existing relationship with the governor would be a plus — Newsom wants a senator who is “simpatico” and shares his progressive values — and the person should have a track record of running statewide.
With Newsom dealing with the coronavirus pandemic, the threat of deadly wildfires and budget challenges in Sacramento, he doesn’t have time to forge a new relationship.
“It can’t be somebody who needs a lot of babysitting and hand-holding,” Ballard said. The pick “has to be able to defend themselves and run for re-election,” as well as help Newsom secure a second term in 2022.
“There’s a way to make these appointments to maximize the diversity,” he added. “If you are the governor, you want to use this to play chess and add some qualified new blood to vacant offices.”
Others likely to get consideration include Rep. Barbara Lee, another Black member of Congress with progressive credentials, and Lt. Gov. Eleni Kounalakis, an ambassador to Hungary during the Obama administration who is a prolific fundraiser and, if chosen, would also give Newsom the opportunity for a double pick since he would choose her replacement.
Several mayors are possible contenders, including San Francisco’s London Breed, who in Black and has ties to Harris, and Long Beach’s Robert Garcia, the city’s first openly gay mayor. Picking Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, who flirted with a presidential run and has Mexican-Jewish-Italian roots, would fill the seat as well as remove a potential Newsom rival in the future.
Others frequently mentioned as Senate candidates include U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff, who rose to national prominence during President Donald Trump’s impeachment hearings; and U.S. Rep. Katie Porter of Orange County, a rising Democratic star who had nearly $10 million stockpiled in her political committee in mid-October.
But both are white at a time when Newsom is expected to make a pick that highlights diversity. And they could wait: California’s other Senate seat is held by 87-year-old Dianne Feinstein, the chamber’s oldest member. Her term runs through January 2025, but there is speculation she could step down early, given her age.
It’s also possible Newsom sidesteps the competition and installs a caretaker in the Senate from among party elders to hold the seat until after the 2022 election. That person would step aside after a new senator is elected.
Padilla, who ran Newsom’s aborted campaign for governor in 2009, might have an inside edge. He and Newsom are personal friends and close in age — Padilla is 47, Newsom, 53. He’s run statewide before and has a national reputation for voting reform. Bass has not run statewide.
He’s from Southern California, which would help balance statewide political power since Newsom, Harris and Feinstein all have San Francisco Bay Area roots. And he has a low-key style that would be unlikely to outshine the governor.
Does Newsom run the risk of angering groups who lose out on the Senate pick and who might make his re-election bid more difficult? Ballard doesn’t think so.
“Gov. Newsom is always playing the long game,” he said. “This is not the only important appointment he is going to make as governor.”