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Pressure Mounts on Newsom Over Pick to Succeed Harris as California's New Senator

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Gov. Gavin Newsom will soon announce his pick to serve the remaining two years of Vice President-elect Kamala Harris' Senate term. (Courtesy of Gavin Newsom, via Twitter)

With Kamala Harris set to become vice president of the United States next month, Gov. Gavin Newsom is under growing pressure to fill her U.S. Senate seat with someone who reflects the state’s diversity.

And in a state as diverse as California, whatever choice the governor makes is bound to disappoint at least some of his supporters.

“This is not something that I wish even on my worst enemy, because you create enemies in this process,” Newsom said on Election Day when the outcome was still hypothetical.

Asked what kind of person Newsom would choose to fill Harris' seat for the remaining two years of her term, he mused about a few of the considerations.

“You've got people that voted for Kamala Harris. And so is it in her image? Do you sort of extend that narrative? I mean, all these questions have to be worked through," Newsom said. "Is it a caretaker or someone who can turn around a win? Is it someone that's qualified that may not win but would be fabulous? I mean, all these things have to be factored in.”

So too does electability: Newsom's appointee will be up for reelection in 2022.

At the time, Newsom said it was not a decision he relished, acknowledging that some people will be unhappy with whoever he appoints.

Over the past month, pressure and lobbying have only grown.

“I think it would be a tremendous mistake to replace Kamala Harris with a man,” said Aimee Allison, founder of She the People, which supports more political representation for women of color.

To her, not appointing a Black woman to replace Harris — who made history as the first Black person to represent California in the Senate — would be backsliding.

“If he does not, then what we have is a Senate with zero black women representation. And really, it's that stark and it's that serious,” Allison said.

As Allison sees it, Newsom has two great choices in Barbara Lee and Karen Bass, two Black congresswomen who know Capitol Hill well and would hit the ground running on day one.

“It's not just identity, it's readiness to lead; who will be ready in the Senate on day one," she said.

Allison said Newsom should appoint someone who will fight for the issues Harris championed, such as criminal justice reform and Black maternal health.

“I feel very strongly that without a vocal advocate in the Senate, that Black women in our broader communities are at more risk,” she said.

Newsom is also under pressure from other communities. Jacqueline Martinez Garcel, CEO of the Latino Community Foundation in San Francisco, is part of a coalition pushing the governor to make history by naming the state’s first Latino senator.

“It's about time that we have representation for the largest ethnic group in the state in the U.S. Senate,” Martinez Garcel said.

“It’s not just having a Latino. It's someone who understands the immigrant experience here in California, what it's like to be part of a farmworker community and family and bring that voice and that representation to the U.S. Senate floor. That's what matters,” she added.

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One person who could fit that bill is Alex Padilla, California’s secretary of state. Padilla is the son of immigrants from Mexico and a long-time Newsom ally. Some political analysts say Padilla has the inside track, and picking him would give Newsom a second big appointment — someone to fill out the rest of Padilla’s term.

"The only thing better than collecting a large political IOU as governor is collecting two very large political IOUs,” said political analyst Dan Schnur, who teaches at UC Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies.

“If he appointed Padilla or [California] Attorney General Xavier Becerra, if he were to appoint the state controller, Betty Yee, or the state treasurer, Fiona Ma, he would be able to then appoint their replacements to those statewide offices, make history twice and collect two big political chits along the way,” he said.

Schnur worked for Pete Wilson, the last California governor to name a U.S. Senator. Wilson, a Republican, was a senator himself when he was elected governor in 1990, giving him the opportunity to name his own replacement.

Schnur says during his gubernatorial campaign, Wilson promised to name a successor who was a pro-choice Republican, which significantly limited his options.

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“Otherwise, Wilson would have more than likely appointed someone with a much broader base of support and network statewide,” Schnur said, as opposed to the person he chose, a little-known state senator from Orange County named John Seymour.

Seymour went on to lose that seat to Dianne Feinstein two years later. Of course, California was a very different place back then, and Schnur says one thing is certain about whoever Newsom picks.

“I think the one safe bet to make is I am more likely to start as quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers than Gavin Newsom is to pick a white man to fill that Senate seat,” he joked.

In other words, while some high-profile officials, like Congressman Adam Schiff, a white man, might make good senators, it just doesn’t look like now is their time.

While different people are advocating for different appointments, there is also a sense of reluctance to pit one community against another while lobbying Newsom.

“This is not a moment where communities need to be fighting with each other, but really looking fully at how we can make sure that there is fair representation,” Allison said.

In response to Feinstein's announcement this week that she would support Padilla as Harris’ replacement, Allison suggested that the 87-year-old senator step down herself.

“Her politics are old-fashioned and out of step with who we are. She believes that the seat should be filled with someone other than a Black woman? I think she should be ready to give up her seat and advocate for that," she said.

Harris won’t officially vacate her seat until she is sworn in as vice president on Jan. 20. But, says Martinez Garcel of the Latino Community Foundation, time is not Newsom’s friend.

“The longer he waits, the harder it's going to get. And he's very diplomatic and he's going to piss more people off and we know that's not something that he likes to do,” she said.

For a governor dealing with a surging COVID-19 pandemic, the French Laundry dining faux pas and various other crises, Newsom could use the appointment to change the subject. Or, he might prefer to wait until the air of crisis dissipates.

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