Black And Latino Leaders Push Newsom To Pick A Woman Of Color To Succeed Kamala Harris In Senate

Senator Kamala Harris speaks during the first press conference with Joe Biden in Wilmington, Delaware, on Aug. 12, 2020. (Olivier Douliery/AFP via Getty Images)

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Sometime in the next two months, Governor Gavin Newsom will make one of the most consequential decisions of his political career: choosing a replacement for California Senator Kamala Harris, now the vice president-elect.

His calculation will take into account experience and policy positions, but also who Harris is and what she represents: a barrier-busting Black and Indian woman, a child of immigrant parents and the first female — and woman of color — vice president.

Groups from different wings of the Democratic Party are lobbying hard to see her seat filled by someone who will embody a similar step forward in representation at the highest levels of government. The post-Harris vacancy is also sharpening attention on the paucity of diverse voices in Congress.

The legislative branch has been growing more diverse in recent years, but the gains are happening faster in the House — the Senate is still overwhelmingly white and male. Only nine senators out of 100 identify as Latino, Black or Asian, and there are no current senators who identify as Native American. Men make up about three-quarters of the upper chamber of Congress.

It's with these dismal numbers in mind that Newsom is weighing his choices — and groups are jockeying fiercely to maintain or expand their representation in Congress.

THE FIRST LATINO SENATOR FROM CALIFORNIA?

The California Latino Legislative Caucus in Sacramento has announced it will hold press conferences up and down the state, starting next week, asking Newsom to appoint "a Latina or Latino" to succeed Kamala Harris. Nonprofit leaders with CHIRLA, LULAC and NALEO will join members of the state Assembly and Senate in the pitch.

Latinos make up nearly 40% of California's population and a majority of students in public education. The state has never sent a Latino to the Senate.

"It sends a message that California respects the diversity of the state," said state Senator Maria Elena Durazo, who chairs the caucus. "California will be a state that will give recognition to communities of color. For us, this is about a historic opportunity."

The most-talked about Latino/a names in the unofficial Senate pressure campaign are statewide officeholders and allies of the governor: Secretary of State Alex Padilla and Attorney General Xavier Becerra. Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia, newly elected L.A. City Councilman Kevin de León, Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez and L.A. County Supervisor Hilda Solis round out many speculative lists.

Rep. Tony Cárdenas, who represents the northeast San Fernando Valley and chairs the campaign arm of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, is campaigning in favor of Padilla. In a statement, he said Padilla "would serve in the U.S. Senate with the same work ethic, integrity, and selflessness that defined his time in the Los Angeles City Council, California's State Senate, and most recently as California's Secretary of State, where he protected voting rights."

For Zenaida Huerta, a member of the L.A. County Democratic Party's central committee, Newsom's history-making choice should zero in on a progressive Latina for the job.

"This election has shown women of color are the backbone of democracy in America," Huerta said. "Latino voters have been critical in deciding elections. And yet, somehow, they're disproportionately underrepresented in elected office."

Huerta favors Congresswoman Nanette Barragán, an attorney first elected in 2016 to represent the 44th District, stretching from Carson and Compton south to San Pedro. She has been outspoken about the Trump Administration's treatment of migrant children at the border and environmental issues.

"I feel strongly that we need an activist senator, and she would be one," Huerta said.

BLACK LEADERS ALSO TOP THE LIST

Haley Taylor Schlitz says Newsom should keep in mind Inauguration Day 2021, when Harris will raise her hand to become vice president — and the only Black woman senator will be changing jobs.

"At that exact moment in time, we lose our only voice in the Senate — we are once again voiceless and voteless," Schlitz, a second-year law student, said. She wrote an op-ed in The Grio about why a Black woman should succeed Harris. "That's not acceptable. And it's not something that we as Black women across the country should be okay with."

Prominent African American leaders in California topping the list of potential senators include Rep. Karen Bass of Los Angeles and Rep. Barbara Lee of Oakland. Both were also floated as potential vice presidential choices for Joe Biden. State Senator Holly Mitchell has apparently ruled out the job, having just won a seat on the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors.

"There's a life experience that comes with growing up and being a Black person in America," said Charles Chamberlain, chairman of the progressive group Democracy for America. The group is officially pushing for a Black progressive woman, like Lee or Bass, to replace Harris. "Gavin Newson should be honoring Kamala, and thinking of his legacy, by making sure that he replaces her with someone who is in her vein."

POLICY PRIORITIES

Pablo Alvarado is co-founder of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network (NDLON), which is circulating an open letter and soliciting signatures from people pressing Governor Newsom for a woman of color to take over from Harris — and, he adds, that politician should be a champion for immigrants' rights.

Alvarado likened Harris' work in the Senate to that of the late Senator Ted Kennedy. "It was incredible the way he pushed, the way he negotiated," Alvarado said. "It wasn't until Senator Harris came to the Senate that we had a strong voice again advocating for migrant workers and their families."

Alvarado cited police reform, reinstating DACA, stopping deportations and opening a path toward residency as NDLON's top priorities for the Biden-Harris administration and Congress.

"The reality is we've never been a priority for the Democratic Party," Alvarado said. "We have been a priority for Republicans — for the wrong reasons. So they can stigmatize us, persecute us and deport us."

Newsom hasn't tipped his hand when it comes to his pick. Whomever he appoints will serve out the remainder of Harris' term, which ends in 2022.

What is clear — he won't be able to make everyone happy.

"It's unfortunate that there has to be a competition over this single seat in the Senate," Schlitz said. "It's because there's so little diversity in the Senate — along with a bunch of other industries in America."