Padilla gets nod as next senator

Newsom names secretary of state to replace Harris; pick sends first Latino from state to U.S. chamber

By Ryan Carter | SCNG

Gov. Gavin Newsom on Tuesday appointed Secretary of State Alex Padilla, a San Fernando native and self-made political success story, to fill the U.S. Senate seat left vacant by Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, making Padilla California’s first Latino to serve in the post.

He will join Sen. Dianne Feinstein in representing the state.

Newsom then nominated Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, D-San Diego, to succeed Padilla as secretary of state. If confirmed by the Legislature, Weber will become the first Black woman to hold that position. Weber has been in the Assembly since 2012 and chairs the California Legislative Black Caucus.

Padilla

As the child of Mexican immigrants who grew up in working-class Pacoima, Padilla’s rise is a historic nod to the Latino constituency, which represents nearly 40% of the state’s population and is an ever increasing share of the leadership clout.

He’s regarded by his peers as ambitious, laser-focused, analytical, intensely wonkish when it comes to the inner workings of government, and brilliant; he was an engineer before he was an elected, earning a degree from the respected Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“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.

In a quiet selection process, that many pundits thought may have been headed for a head-turning surprise, Padilla was, well, no surprise.

He always was thought to be on the short list. But that list also was thought by many to be a logjam of other names in a behind-the-scenes skirmish among Latino and African American constituencies vying for Newsom’s attention.

People who many believed carried those respective demographic banners was another L.A. icon, Rep. Karen Bass — a revered forger of consensus who was among the finalists to be President-elect Joe Biden’s running mate — and Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia, a charismatic, openly gay up-and-comer in state politics. Oakland-area Rep. Barbara Lee was regarded as the most likely hopeful in the top half of the state.

Attorney General Xavier Becerra, however, was regarded by many to be the co-front-runner with Padilla, for weeks. But when Becerra got Biden’s call to become the next Health and Human Services secretary, it appeared to have left Padilla atop the list.

In the end, Newsom took someone he is most familiar with, someone he regarded as a peer and a partner in running the state. Newsom also gets to play a key role in determining who gets to replace Padilla in Sacramento, which also may have figured in his decision.

“I am honored and humbled by the trust placed in me by Gov. Newsom, and I intend to work each and every day to honor that trust and deliver for all Californians,” Padilla said in a statement.

Padilla has been California’s top elections official since 2015. He’s overseen the state’s vast elections apparatus, including the rollout of a more robust vote-by-mail system. In public sessions, he speaks about the elections process with gusto and precision, like a mechanic who knows every tiny moving part of a complex machine.

With the elections process facing unprecedented slings and arrows from an administration that vehemently declares the November vote a fraud, Padilla was among the system’s most ardent and eloquent defenders.

Padilla aimed specific scrutiny at the multimillion- dollar L.A. County elections makeover, which advanced from a troubled primary vote marred by gaffes and long election day lines to a smooth-running, nearly flawless November experience.

The 47-year-old, already a veteran of various elected posts, will hold the Senate seat through 2022, when he will have to run for reelection.

Harris hasn’t given a date for her resignation, but she will be inaugurated as vice president on Jan. 20.

As the appointment rippled through Padilla’s hometown, local leaders celebrated the moment for L.A., and for Latinos.

“This is a huge, historic day, not just for California, but for Los Angeles and the Latino, Latina community,” said L.A. County Democratic Chair Mark Gonzalez, who said Latino’s strong political voice has “had the governor’s back. This is a huge deliverable that the governor has made.”

Latino groups applauded the choice. Hispanas Organized for Political Equality (HOPE), said the group was “thrilled.”

“As a longstanding champion of education equity, environmental justice and civic participation,” the group said in a statement, “and a dedicated public servant, we are certain that Secretary Padilla will serve as the United States Senator for California with the strong leadership and steadfast commitment to equity and justice that is needed to move our country forward.”

“I think it was one of the easier calls for the governor, although it came with some difficulty,” said Jaime Regalado, professor emeritus of political science at Cal State Los Angeles.

Padilla was regarded as a loyalist, he said. And while there was tension between coalitions lobbying for the seat, two other posts — California’s secretary of state and attorney general — could well be filled by woman of color, Regalado said. Gonzalez said that after losing the sole Black woman in the U.S. Senate, “Democrats must commit to redoubling our efforts to recruit, guide, and uplift Black leaders up and down the ticket.”

Even as they basked in the glow of the appointment, such groups as HOPE were pushing for the next attorney general — to replace Becerra — to be a Latina.

Hometown kid

Padilla’s path to the Senate was rooted in his blue-collar hometown.

Padilla grew up in a working-class neighborhood in the northeast end of the San Fernando Valley. It’s heavily Latino, where murals display a mile of cultural imagery and stand-tall messages. It’s not surprising that it’s where trailblazing, bilingual rock ‘n’ roll icon Ritchie Valens was born.

Its heavily blue-collar population earns an average per capita income of about $22,000; it’s also where 15% live below the poverty level. It’s being pummeled by the pandemic, as people of color in such densely populated areas bear an disproportionate burden of the COVID- 19 outbreak.

Amid its challenges, it’s a proud place with deep roots.

After graduating with honors from San Fernando High School, Padilla earned an engineering degree from MIT. Immersing oneself in scientific and mathematical principles isn’t the usual route to politics. But many believe he taps that degree to solve a different sort of technical problem now.

In 1999, Padilla switched gears and careers, winning a seat on the L.A. City Council. He’d become the council’s first Latino president — and its youngest — serving from 2001 to 2006.

He would swiftly learn to navigate the complexities of labyrinthine L.A. politics. Attaining that mastery would provide him a springboard to higher office, where he pushed legislation on health, education, environment and infrastructure. Voters gave him the nod for the state Senate in 2006, where he served until 2014 before becoming secretary of state.

In that role, he oversaw the state’s massive push to get mail-in ballots to all registered voters.

Bass — talked about for a Senate seat or cabinet post, and now likely to be considered to replace Padilla — said her fellow Angeleno was instrumental in modernizing the state’s electoral process, leading to a safe and secure election this year amid a firestorm of partisan scrutiny.

“Today, our state gains yet another champion following a distinguished line of individuals who have shattered glass ceilings and hurdled obstacles in their way,” Bass said in a statement.

Long Beach’s Garcia buoyed the choice, too.

“He has my 100% support in his 2022 reelect ion,” Garcia tweeted. “Proud of him and our state. Go Alex!”

Padilla’s experience has snared him many connections along the way, as he worked for many well-known names in the Democratic Party, from Sen. Dianne Feinstein to U.S. Rep. Tony Cardenas.

Along the way, Padilla was a frequent guests at local voter education drives, returning again and again to high school gyms and community centers, speaking with enthusiasm and reverence about the importance of voting and civic engagement.

On his way to the Senate, local leaders see him as a model for a generation of Latino leaders, from immigrant roots.

He is “a symbol of hope for our generation and for all children of immigrants who grew up — and are growing up — like us,” said L.A. City Council President Nury Martinez, whose district includes Pacoima. “His upbringing is like mine and so many of us in the Northeast San Fernando Valley. Children of service workers, products of San Fernando High School. “Growing up in Pacoima may not be easy, but it definitely makes us who we are. So believe me when I tell you he will be what he has always been a true fighter for working-class communities and the true pride of Pacoima.”

Padilla reflected on those roots.

“We grew up in a tough neighborhood — sirens and gunfire were a constant, but we were grateful for what we had, including a backyard,” he said in a statement. “But it was just those conditions that got me active in political activism: As a teenager, I helped organize neighbors to take back the streets from crime and joined protests with my mother against environmental racism. And in 1994, after California voters passed a sweeping anti-immigration ballot initiative, I put aside a job in engineering to dedicate my life to public service.”

Cardenas was among that same generation.

“I am so incredibly proud of one of my closest and dearest friends, Alex Padilla, on being named the next U.S. Senator for the state of California,” Cardenas said Tuesday, whose San Fernando Valley congressional district includes Padilla’s hometown. “Alex and I grew up two blocks away from each other, in a neighborhood where we were told we would not amount to anything. We came up in public service together. We served together on the LA City Council and we’ll serve together again in the U.S. Capitol.”

Padilla still lives about five miles from where he grew up watching his father rise from a dishwasher to a head cook, and his mother work endless jobs housekeeping for affluent families.

It’s a story he’s not bashful about telling.

“I’m the proud son of immigrants,” he said. “My parents met as immigrants from Mexico. They fell in love, got married, and applied for green cards, ready to embrace a country that valued hard work and opportunity.” City News Service and the Associated Press contributed to this report.

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  • Posted On: 12/23/2020 7:11:26 AM
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