Governor appoints Alex Padilla to U.S. Senate

Secretary of State Alex Padilla at a 2019 news conference in the state Capitol. (Photo: Rich Pedroncelli/AP)

Alex Padilla, California’s chief elections officer and a former state legislator and L.A. City Council president, was appointed Tuesday by Gov. Gavin Newsom to fill the U.S. Senate seat of Vice President-elect Kamala Harris.

The appointment is historic: Padilla, 47, becomes California’s first Latino U.S. senator, representing a state in which about 38 percent of the population is Latino. Newsom had been under heavy political pressure to replace Harris with a Latino, and had been lobbied heavily over the appointment.

“The son of Mexican immigrants — a cook and house cleaner — Alex Padilla worked his way from humble beginnings to the halls of MIT, the Los Angeles City Council and the state Senate, and has become a national defender of voting rights as California’s Secretary of State,” Newsom wrote in announcing Padilla’s appointment.

Padilla said he was “honored and humbled” by the governor’s decision. “We will get through this pandemic together and rebuild our economy in a way that doesn’t leave working families behind,” Padilla said.

Newsom’s action is the first part of a trifecta. The governor now will fill the vacant positions of state Attorney General Xavier Becerra, who is joining President-elect Joe Biden’s administration as Health and Human Services secretary, and of secretary of state, which Padilla is vacating to go to the Senate.

[UPDATE: Newsom later Tuesday appointed Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, D-San Diego, to replace Padilla. Weber chairs the Legislative Black Caucus. Weber, if confirmed by the Legislature, will be the first African American to serve as California secretary of state.]

Padilla served on the L.A. City council from 1999 to 2006, a stint that included five years as Council president. He then served eight years in the state Senate. He was elected secretary of state in 2014 and won reelection in 2018. His successor, chosen by Newsom, will serve out Padilla’s unexpired term, then likely stand for election in 2022.

Padilla, one of three children, grew up in Pacoima in the San Fernando Valley and earned a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from MIT in 1994.

Newsom’s appointees for attorney general and secretary of state must be confirmed by both houses of the Legislature, heavily controlled by Democrats.

Becerra, a Democrat, faces a more difficult path and he must be confirmed by the U.S. Senate, which currently is narrowly controlled by Republicans. Two hard-fought, close elections in Georgia next month may tip that balance.

Padilla and Newsom have long-standing connections. Padilla served as Newsom’s campaign chairman years ago when Newsom contemplated a run for governor.

“When I was doing his first race for governor, Alex was our statewide campaign chair, he traveled widely with Newsom, and Alex introduced him at town halls and fund-raisers,” noted political strategist Garry South. Newsom and Padilla remained close through Newsom’s years as lieutenant governor and governor.

The crux of Padilla’s appointment is whether he can be elected on his own after he finishes serving Harris’s unexpired term.

“The real question about 2022 is will Padilla basically get a free ride or will Democrats who aren’t pleased with the appointment decide to challenge him,” South said. The same applies to whoever is appointed to Becerra’s position, he added.

In 2018, Padilla won reelection with 7.9 million votes, or more than 64 percent of the total cast, which Newsom described as “the most votes of any Latino elected official in the United States.”

Assemblywoman Lorena G0nzalez of San Diego already has announced her intention to run for secretary of state.

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