Newsom Taps California Election Chief Alex Padilla for US Senate

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California Secretary of State Alex Padilla speaks onstage at the Women's March Los Angeles on Jan. 20, 2018. (Amanda Edwards/Getty Images)

California Secretary of State Alex Padilla has been tapped by Gov. Gavin Newsom to fill the final two years of Vice President-elect Kamala Harris' U.S. Senate term, the governor’s office announced Tuesday.

Padilla, who will become California's first Latino U.S. senator, has served six years as the state's top elections official and more than a dozen years in state and local government.

Newsom offered Padilla the position in a video conference call recorded on Monday night, and released by the governor’s office on Tuesday morning. During the call, Padilla reflected on his working-class roots and the sacrifices his parents made.

“That's why I try so hard to make sure our democracy is as inclusive in California as we've built,” Padilla said. “And it's a hell of an important perspective to bring to Washington.”

Padilla was long the favorite to fill the Senate vacancy — created when then-Sen. Harris was elected vice president.

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Still, Newsom weighed the decision for weeks amid calls from allies to name a Black, Latino or LGBT candidate. Harris is currently the only Black woman in the U.S. Senate.

Should he seek to keep his Senate seat, Padilla will appear on the ballot for reelection alongside Newsom in 2022. At just 47 years old, he is poised to hold the seat for decades to come.

“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 grew up in the city of Pacoima, in Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley. His parents were both immigrants from Mexico; his father was a short-order cook and his mother cleaned houses.

At San Fernando High School, teachers encouraged Padilla to apply to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology — a school he had only seen in brochures.

“An acceptance letter was not just a chance of a lifetime for me, but frankly, the fulfillment of my parents' dreams and struggles and sacrifice,” Padilla told KQED’s Political Breakdown earlier this year.

Padilla returned home from college in 1994 to work for Hughes Aircraft Company as an engineer, but found the aerospace industry in post-Cold War decline.

It didn’t take long for him to find his new calling.

Like many California Latino politicians of his generation, Padilla’s interest in politics blossomed that fall in response to Proposition 187, the ballot measure that aimed to block undocumented immigrants from accessing public services.

“Prop. 187 changed my life trajectory dramatically,” Padilla said. “I realized that I needed to engage politically, finally, if we wanted to not be scapegoated anymore.”

After a brief stint working as an aide for California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, Padilla ran the upstart state Assembly campaign of Tony Cárdenas, a fellow Pacoima native, who won the seat in 1996.

“I went from volunteer to a volunteer organizer to campaign manager within a couple of months,” Padilla recalled.

In 1999, Padilla won a seat on the Los Angeles City Council, and two years later, he became the council president at just 28 years old.

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Padilla’s first political trial by fire came just after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001. With Los Angeles Mayor James Hahn stranded on a lobbying trip in Washington, D.C, Padilla was left as acting mayor — giving daily briefings in English and Spanish, and urging Angelenos to return to work and school.

Padilla went on to serve eight years in the state Senate before being elected secretary of state in 2014.

He inherited an office that faced criticism over its administration of elections — and took the helm on the heels of a midterm with historically low voter turnout.

Padilla presided over a number of initiatives credited with boosting democratic participation in the state, including a new “motor voter” program that automatically registered DMV visitors to vote, and the 2016 Voter’s Choice Act, under which more than a dozen counties automatically sent every registered voter a ballot.

After the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Padilla urged lawmakers to expand the principles of the Voter’s Choice Act statewide, backing a plan to send every registered voter a ballot while consolidating many in-person voting locations.

The changes resulted in historic turnout: More than 70% of eligible Californians cast a ballot (the highest mark since 1952), and the state avoided having any widespread voting issues.

However, not every initiative Padilla pursued as secretary of state went off without a hitch. A state audit found the “motor voter” program was responsible for hundreds of thousands of discrepancies in voter registration files. And Los Angeles County’s transition to the Voter’s Choice Act model resulted in long lines and delays during the March 2020 primary.

And though his job calls for the nonpartisan administration of elections, Padilla has raised some eyebrows by remaining active in Democratic party politics, regularly endorsing candidates and ballot measures. This fall, he was criticized for authorizing a contract for voter outreach with a firm that had ties to Joe Biden’s presidential campaign.