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California first: A Latino U.S. senator to replace Harris

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Copyright 2018 The Associated Press. All rights reserved

FILE - In this Nov. 2, 2018, file photo, California Secretary of State Alex Padilla speaks in San Francisco. California Gov. Gavin Newsom appointed Secretary of State Alex Padilla on Tuesday, Dec. 22, 2020, as the state's next U.S. senator to fill the seat being vacated by Vice President-elect Kamala Harris. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg, File)

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

Padilla called it a “tremendous point of pride” to be the state’s first Latino senator and reflected on the hard work of his parents, who came to the United States from Mexico and worked as a short-order cook and a housekeeper.

“There’s millions of other families that are equally contributing in powerful ways in each community throughout the state and throughout the nation,” he said in an interview. “These are important perspectives to bring to policymaking and problem solving.”

Padilla, 47, 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.

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,” Newsom said in a statement.

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

Bass, who had been vocal about the need for the Senate to have a Black woman, congratulated Padilla, a fellow Los Angeles native with whom she served in the Legislature. She said 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.

Padilla said he doesn’t take the comments personally and plans to be the best senator for all Californians.

“We celebrate the milestone, but all it is is an opportunity to do good work and improve people’s lives," he said.

Later Tuesday, Newsom announced he would nominate Assemblywoman Shirley Weber as California’s next state elections chief. Weber, of San Diego, heads the California Legislative Black Caucus and would be the first Black person to hold the office. The nomination is subject to approval in the Legislature.

Weber presided over the Electoral College that met in Sacramento earlier this month.

Newsom called Weber, the daughter of sharecroppers, “a tireless advocate and change agent with unimpeachable integrity.” Padilla called her a fierce advocate for civil rights and voting rights.

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. 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.

Padilla lives in Los Angeles with his wife and three sons, ages 5, 7 and 13.

His appointment will bring geographic diversity to California’s representation in Washington. California’s other senator, 87-year-old Dianne Feinstein, is from San Francisco. Harris is from neighboring Oakland and built her political career in San Francisco before moving to Los Angeles. Newsom is the former mayor of San Francisco.

Feinstein, for whom Padilla once worked, supported his nomination in early December.

He and Newsom have a long relationship. When Newsom first ran for governor in 2009, Padilla chaired his campaign. 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, Padilla endorsed him over other prominent Democrats.

The campaign arm of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and the Latino Victory Fund were among the groups advocating 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 and chief executive officer, said in a statement.

Republicans quickly criticized 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.

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, at age 26.

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.

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

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

He said he does not have regrets about awarding the contract to the firm and that it's “only a matter of time" before the payment issue is settled.

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Associated Press writer Janie Har in San Francisco and Michael R. Blood in Los Angeles contributed.