Alex Padilla becomes first Latino US senator for California

California Secretary of State Alex Padilla was picked to fill Vice President-elect Kamala Harris' seat in the U.S. Senate. Mr. Padilla, the son of Mexican immigrants, will be the first Latino senator in California's history.

Rich Pedroncelli/AP/File
California Secretary of State Alex Padilla speaks during a news conference at the Capitol in Sacramento, California, Jan. 28, 2019. Mr. Padilla's appointment as U.S. senator gives a new level of representation to Latinos, who make up 40% of California's population.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom selected Secretary of State Alex Padilla on Tuesday to be a United States senator, a pick that sends a Latino to the Senate for the first time in the state’s history.

A video released by Mr. Newsom’s office showed Mr. Padilla becoming emotional after Mr. Newsom, a close friend, offered him the job. Mr. Padilla reflected on the hard work of his parents, who came to the U.S. from Mexico and worked as a cook and a housekeeper.

“It’s a hell of an important perspective to bring to Washington,” he told Mr. Newsom.

Mr. Padilla was the favorite in a crowded field of possibilities 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.

Mr. Padilla will need to run for a full six-year term in 2022. The appointment gives him an advantage, but he’s still likely to face challengers, some within his own party. 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,” Mr. Newsom said in a statement.

Mr. 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 of almost 40 million.

But Mr. Newsom’s choice means there will be no Black women in the 100-member Senate. Ms. Harris, whose father is Jamaican and mother Indian, was the only Black woman in the Senate, and Black leaders had been lobbying Mr. Newsom to appoint either U.S. Rep. Karen Bass or House colleague 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,” Ms. Lee said in a statement.

Ms. Bass, who had been vocal about the need for the Senate to have a Black woman, congratulated Mr. Padilla, a fellow Los Angeles native with whom she served in the Legislature. She said Mr. Padilla would be a “ champion following a distinguished line of individuals who have shattered glass ceilings and hurdled obstacles in their way.”

The praise wasn’t universal. Democrat London Breed, the first African American woman to be elected mayor of San Francisco, called the decision “unfortunate.”

“This is a real blow to the African American community, to African American women, to women in general, and I think it’s really challenging to put it in words,” she said.

Mr. Padilla was first elected as California’s secretary of state 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 for the first time mailed a ballot to every registered voter. Mr. Padilla previously 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 a record 22 million registered voters.

Mr. Padilla lives in Los Angeles with his wife and three sons.

His appointment will bring geographic diversity to California’s representation in Washington. California’s other senator, Dianne Feinstein, is from San Francisco. Ms. Harris is from neighboring Oakland and built her political career in San Francisco before moving to Los Angeles. Mr. Newsom is the former mayor of San Francisco.

Ms. Feinstein, for whom Mr. Padilla once worked, announced her support for his nomination in early December.

He and Mr. Newsom have a long relationship. When Mr. Newsom first ran for governor in 2009, Mr. Padilla chaired his campaign. Mr. 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, Mr. 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 Mr. Padilla’s selection.

“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.

Republicans quickly criticized Mr. 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,” tweeted Republican state Assemblyman Kevin Kiley, a frequent critic.

Mr. 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.

He represented a Los Angeles-area district in the California state Senate from 2006 to 2014 and 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.

Mr. 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 Mr. 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, Mr. Padilla released a nearly 2-minute video Tuesday doubling as a biographical spot and a campaign ad paid for by “Alex Padilla for Senate.”

Mr. Padilla 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 Mr. Padilla was using taxpayer dollars with a political agenda. Then Ms. Yee, the controller and a fellow Democrat, refused to authorize payment of the contract, saying her office didn’t have authority.

In choosing Mr. Padilla, Mr. 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 after Mr. Biden named the current office-holder, Xavier Becerra, to head the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

This story was reported by The Associated Press. AP writer Janie Har in San Francisco contributed.

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