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LA's Alex Padilla Appointed US Senator. First Latino To Represent California In Senate

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FILE: California Secretary of State Alex Padilla speaks during a news conference at Uber headquarters in San Franciscoin 2018. He will serve in the U.S. Senate seat held by Vice President-elect Kamala Harris. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
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Governor Gavin Newsom announced Tuesday that he will appoint his longtime political ally, Secretary of State Alex Padilla, to represent California in the U.S. Senate, ending months of speculation about a successor to Vice President-elect Kamala Harris.

Padilla will serve until Harris' term is up -- meaning he'll face re-election in 2022.

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Growing up in Pacoima as the son of Mexican immigrants, Padilla was a political wunderkind in Los Angeles, vaulting to prominence as a 26-year-old member of the city council. He was elected the first Latino city council president in 2001 -- an unconventional path for an M.I.T.-trained mechanical engineer.

Padilla later served in the state senate and in 2014 waged a successful campaign to become California's top elections official. As Secretary of State, Padilla has lowered barriers to voting, especially for young people. (He launched a pre-registration program for 16-and-17-year olds and helped extend the deadline to register to vote through Election Day.)

Padilla also oversaw a troubled rollout of the "motor voter" system that automatically registers eligible people to vote when they go to the DMV, unless they opt out. The program was challenged by lawsuits and found to have errors, but Padilla said last year it was a "transformative success for our democracy" that helped millions sign up to vote or update their registration information.

In a year marked by a global pandemic and protests for racial justice, Californians cast ballots at a rate not seen since 1952, when the voting age was still 21. Padilla can claim credit as the official who shepherded the state to a mostly-mail election system.

PRESSURE ON THE GOVERNOR

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U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Newsom faced an all-hands-on-deck persuasion campaign from powerful Latino and Black Democratic groups, progressive organizations, and labor leaders all jockeying for their preferred candidates.

Last week, Black women organizers called on Newsom to choose a Black woman for the seat during demonstrations in L.A. and Sacramento. National civil rights leaders and elected officials such as Rep. Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts argued Newsom should ensure Black women are still represented in the upper chamber of Congress when Harris exits -- and pushed for him to choose between two "seasoned policymakers" in California's House delegation: Reps. Barbara Lee of Oakland or Karen Bass of Los Angeles.

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U.S. Rep. Karen Bass. (Kevin Dietsch-Pool/Getty Images)

But there have been crosscurrents -- highlighting the lack of diversity in the overwhelmingly white and male population of the Senate.

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Last month, California Latino leaders held a series of events to urge the governor to opt for an important "first": the state has never sent a Latino to the Senate, though they make up nearly 40% of the state's population, the most of any racial or ethnic group.

Many names surfaced -- Padilla's chief among them. Attorney General Xavier Becerra was also considered a top contender for the role before he was plucked for a job leading the Dept. of Health and Human Services in the Biden Administration.

The power to elevate a political colleague to a national profile in a secure Democratic seat has been a burden for Newsom -- last month, he joked about relentless emails and phone calls, telling POLITICO the choice was "not something I'd wish on my worst enemy."

Harris refrained from making an endorsement, and has not said when she plans to step down from the Senate, though one obvious deadline looms: the swearing-in of a new Congress in early January. She may have been waiting to vote on a COVID relief package which made its way (haltingly) through congressional negotiations, before passing this week.

One thing Newsom has surely been keeping in mind: his own political future.

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He's long been assumed to be eyeing a presidential bid someday. But Harris is now likely to scoop up the lion's share of major California endorsements and fundraising for a future Democratic presidential primary race.

Winning favor with African American political organizations would likely help Newsom in a future national campaign -- while making history with the first Latino Senator from California would theoretically shore up his reelection chances and any future statewide ambitions.

KAMALA HARRIS' LEGACY

Padilla is following in the footsteps of a barrier-breaking figure in Harris, the first woman and person of color to be Vice President.

The former San Francisco D.A. served six years as California's Attorney General before winning a 2016 election to take over for Senator Barbara Boxer after the veteran legislator retired. Harris was the first African American to represent California in the Senate.

The assumption is that Harris' replacement in Congress will be in line with progressive policy positions, especially on healthcare (she was a co-sponsor of Bernie Sanders' Medicare for All bill) and immigration.

Several outlets, including the nonpartisan organization GovTrack, rated her voting record at or near the most liberal among members of the Senate. It was a different story during her time as California's top cop, when progressives argue she was no friend to criminal justice reforms. They say she helped pass truancy penalties that criminalized parents of school children, oversaw attorneys who fought the release of eligible nonviolence prisoners, and opposed legalizing marijuana -- until she joined the Senate.

The amount of power the new junior Senator from California will wield depends a lot on the outcome of two Senate runoff elections in Georgia on Jan. 5. If Democrats can flip both seats, Vice President Harris would cast the tie-breaking vote for her party. The other scenario is that the GOP holds on to one or both seats and legislative gridlock continues for the foreseeable future.