OAKLAND, Calif. — Here’s the only thing certain about California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s pick to fill Kamala Harris‘ Senate seat: it won’t be a straight white man.
The Democratic governor is at the eye of what may be the most diverse lobbying campaign to sweep this state. Latino leaders are reminding Newsom how large their plurality is in California. South Asian and Black organizations have emphasized their political contributions — and the fact that his choice will replace a senator from their communities. And that’s only a slice of the jostling for Newsom’s attention.
“We always used to say about California politics that it isn’t a zero-sum game, that there’s plenty of seats around the table for everyone," said Democratic consultant Roger Salazar, a former White House spokesman in the Clinton administration. “Well, unfortunately in this case, it’s one seat. So while the pool of candidates for U.S. Senate may be very diverse, this is a case of musical chairs where all but one is going to be left sitting on the floor.”
California has long been a vast tapestry of diverse communities, some of which have amassed significant political power over the past 60 years. Ahead of where the country is trending as a whole, California has had a majority-minority population for two decades, offering a peek into the nation’s future political calculus.
The Senate choice is quintessentially Californian and a no-win scenario for Newsom. Checking all these boxes is difficult; Senate seats are rare, there are powerful advocates campaigning to have someone from their community in the seat and, inevitably, someone is going to feel left out.
For Newsom, 53, widely seen as a future Democratic presidential candidate, the choice comes with the benefit of satisfying one constituency — and the risk of alienating other potential allies who could help him down the road.
The political reality has drawn groups like BOLD PAC, the campaign arm of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, which joined the fray this week, urging Newsom to appoint Secretary of State Alex Padilla as Harris’ successor.
“Latinos make up forty percent of the state of California, make countless contributions to its economy, its history and culture, and yet the state has never been represented by a Latino voice in the U.S. Senate,’’ Rep. Tony Cárdenas, the organization’s chairman, said in a statement to POLITICO. “With the success of the Biden-Harris campaign, we have the opportunity and obligation to change that.”
IMPACT, an Indian American PAC, endorsed Rep. Ro Khanna on Thursday. The organization raised $10 million this year — an amount which organizers said reflected the choice of the first South Asian on a major presidential ticket. Khanna has also been boosted by liberals who backed Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and launched a petition to support the Silicon Valley Democrat for the spot. Khanna was the popular and high-profile national co-chair of Sanders’ presidential campaign and has been vocal on major issues like cannabis legalization and deploying tech jobs to rural America.
Khanna, an Indian American born in Philadelphia to Punjabi immigrants, is an avatar for what is now the second-largest immigrant group in California, and one that has placed its stamp on the Silicon Valley. “As an Indian American, Ro also represents the fastest growing community in California," IMPACT executive director Neil Makhija said.
He noted that in the last decade alone, "the Indian American population has doubled in California," and their political engagement, which had been minimal, "has expanded rapidly over the last five years."
Campaigns to push for a woman of color (Rep. Barbara Lee) and LGBTQ candidates (California Senate Pro Tem Toni Atkins) are all trying to bend Newsom’s ear on the Senate seat.
Aimee Allison, who heads SheThePeople — a national group that aims to boost representation and political activism among women of color — has publicly lobbied for a woman of color, and Lee in particular.
Democracy for America, a progressive grassroots political action group founded by former presidential candidate Howard Dean, has launched a website with a grassroots petition encouraging Newsom “honor" Harris’ legacy by appointing another “powerful, progressive Black woman.” They’re pressing for Rep. Karen Bass of Los Angeles or Rep. Barbara Lee of Oakland, two progressive icons.
Rick Zbur, executive director of Equality California, weeks ago announced that Newsom’s choice should be a landmark LGBTQ candidate and publicly advanced five names: Atkins, Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia, state Sen. Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco), Insurance Commissioner Ricardo Lara and Rep. Mark Takano
The complexities are now bearing down on Newsom, the straight white man with all the keys.
“The clout of the Latino caucus in California has grown exponentially over the years … legislative packages don’t go anywhere unless they go through the Latino Caucus," Salazar said. “The [Asian Pacific Islander] caucus is also has been flexing their muscle over the last few years … the African American vote in California has been trending upwards.”
"And the LGBTQ community? Twenty years ago, people would hide their orientation, and now, thankfully, it’s a badge of honor," he said.
Insiders are busy texting, calling and emailing the governor and some of Newsom’s inner circle — including First Partner Jennifer Siebel Newsom, chief of staff Ann O’Leary and even his sister, Hillary Newsom Callan — and working through influential labor leaders, political consultants and campaign veterans to get a word into him about the choice. Newsom joked last week that the some efforts were all-out, involving offers to shop for his groceries and babysit his kids.
Newsom said this week that he is even weighing whether the next senator from California should be a "placeholder" that encourages voters to pick among a large slate of candidates when Harris’ current term expires in 2022 — or if her replacement should reflect Harris’ politics. Few believe he will choose a placeholder, however.
“I want to make sure that we are considerate of people’s points of view, and we are in the middle of that as we speak," he said.
Former U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer, who for 24 years held the seat now occupied by Harris before retiring in 2017, said she’d advise Newsom to ignore the political fallout — and go with his good instincts and his heart.
“Not everybody will be happy with what you do, understand that,’’ Boxer, a Democrat, said she’d advise him. “If you’re strong, and you know what you’re doing, convey it. It’s going to be a monumental decision, however you go.”
The most expected path is that Newsom will choose one of two Latino officeholders, Padilla or Attorney General Xavier Becerra. Boxer pointed out that picking one of them gives Newsom "a two-fer" because state law allows him to also appoint their replacement. Padilla is considered to be closer personally to the Democratic governor.
"He has a lot of possibilities to chose from, but Gavin Newsom doesn’t like to be in the center of conflict,” veteran California political analyst Sherry Bebitch Jeffe said. "In the end, the loyalty of people like Padilla will win out…because I suspect he will go with that and will satisfy a growing constituency."
In that scenario, he could satisfy the growing Latino base with the U.S. Senate seat, and still satisfy women’s groups with his pick of the Padilla secretary of state vacancy, for instance — amassing more allies on his side and chits in his pocket.
Geography is also at play, Jeffe said. Some of the most dominate political players in the state, including Harris, Newsom, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, maneuvered there through places like San Francisco, in Northern California, so there’s an urge to pluck someone from the south.
"More than gender or race, he needs to appoint a Southern Californian, because there are very few from this region around him — either in his Cabinet or among his closest advisers," Jeffe said.
Regardless, Newsom would likely want the next California senator in place before Jan. 3, when the 117th Congress is sworn in. Harris could resign early to give her successor — and the state — a slight advantage in seniority as a courtesy. Feinstein had similar seniority over her colleague Boxer even though they were each first elected in the same 1992 election; that’s because Feinstein was filling out a term and was entitled to be sworn in earlier.
There remain a number of people who say Newsom should go the placeholder route by appointing someone who would agree to serve only two years and then let voters decide in 2022 on how to fill the open seat. Senate seats in overwhelmingly Democratic California are virtually lifetime appointments.
"That could be a safe deal," the way to allow Newsom to extract himself from the party fray, and to provide an even playing field for the crowd of eager Democrats who are eyeing that seat, said former congressman, state senator and California Democratic Party chair John Burton.
Even former governors Jerry Brown, a Democrat, and Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican, have been suggested as caretakers.
Burton said one thing is clear: right now, no one envies Newsom in the task. "It’s a pain in the ass, because everybody wants the job,’’ Burton said. "He’s got a whole lot of competent people to pick from."
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