Now that Kamala Harris has been elected vice president, the fight for her Senate seat is on.
A packed field of candidates is currently pitching California Gov. Gavin Newsom: Per the state’s laws on Senate vacancies, Newsom is able to appoint a new lawmaker to the job who will serve out the remaining two years of Harris’s term. Whoever’s picked will be able to run for the seat in 2022 as well.
“There’s a hundred chores that I’d prefer. I’m not kidding,” Newsom has previously said. “This is not something that I wish even on my worst enemy, because you create enemies in this process you know, not just friends. And it’s a vexing decision. It’s a challenging one.”
Thus far, there are more than 10 candidates who’ve expressed interest or been floated in reports, including California Secretary of State Alex Padilla, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, Rep. Karen Bass, and Rep. Barbara Lee.
There are also multiple campaigns aimed at swaying Newsom — most notably an effort from the state’s Legislative Black Caucus that is urging Newsom to appoint a Black woman, and another from the Latino Legislative Caucus calling for a Latino person.
“One argument is that this seat has been occupied by a Black woman, and it should be filled by one,” says California strategist Steven Maviglio. “Another is that this state is roughly 40 percent Latino, and it’s never had a Latino senator.”
Harris’s Senate seat is especially coveted because of the influence that the populous state has as a Democratic stronghold, and the likelihood that this appointee could serve for a long time. (Senior California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who is 87, has now held her seat for going on 30 years.) The person chosen for the seat is expected to run for reelection — and potentially many terms after that.
Experts and organizers familiar with state politics said that Newsom is likely considering the representation that different candidates will bring, their electability, and their efficacy at the roles they’ve had. Newsom, too, will have his own legacy to weigh and has previously signaled that he hopes to make history with appointees.
“It’s a rare thing that a governor gets to appoint a senator who could stay in office for decades,” says Mindy Romero, the head of the Center for Inclusive Democracy at the University of Southern California. Any candidate who isn’t selected for this opening could have another shot at a Senate seat if Feinstein does not pursue reelection in 2024. That opportunity, however, is still a full presidential election cycle down the line.
Two campaigns for the Senate seat, briefly explained
There is growing pressure for this appointee to provide much-needed representation in the very white and very male Senate: Some lawmakers and grassroots organizations are urging Newsom to choose a Latino person, while others would like him to choose a Black woman.
Many groups are focused on this Senate seat because of how rarely such opportunities come along in California, a diverse state with an extensive bench of Democratic talent that’s previously had to wait years for an opening. (Former Sen. Barbara Boxer, also a white woman, had held her seat for more than two decades prior to Harris’s election in 2016.)
Currently, Harris is the only Black woman serving in the Senate, and California’s state Legislative Black Caucus, as well as organizations including Democracy for America and Black Lives Matter, have said that her replacement should also be a Black woman.
“Kamala Harris has a legacy that she’s built, and it’s very important for Gavin Newsom’s legacy to honor that,” said Charles Chamberlain, the executive director of Democracy for America. Harris was the first Black and South Asian American senator that California elected, and only the second Black woman to serve in the Senate.
Black Lives Matter emphasized in a recent statement that it was “non-negotiable” for Newsom to appoint a Black woman as her replacement. “If there is not a single Black woman in the Senate, then the Senate is simply not a proper representation of the people,” the group wrote.
Both groups, and the legislative Black Caucus, have backed Reps. Karen Bass and Barbara Lee — two longtime California lawmakers — for the role.
“We are adamant that this position must go to an African-American woman as a result of our hard work in this last election, as well as our hard work in California and representing the Democratic Party,” Rep. Shirley Weber, chair of the legislative Black Caucus, said at a recent press conference.
Then there’s a set of lawmakers and organizers pressing for Newsom to appoint a Latino person, who would be California’s first-ever Latino senator — representation that some have described as “long overdue” in a state that’s about 40 percent Latino.
NALEO Educational Fund, a nonprofit that facilitates Latino participation in the American political process, is among those urging Newsom to do so along with the state’s Latino Legislative Caucus and the League of United Latin American Citizens.
“The Latino population of California, which is the largest of any state, should have a representative in the state that understands its priorities and needs as well as those statewide,” NALEO CEO Arturo Vargas said. “As we as a nation deal with the dual crises of Covid-19 and the economy, which have had a disproportionate impact on Latinos, we need to have someone in the Senate who has a keen understanding of that.”
In addition to Padilla and Becerra, Vargas mentioned Hilda Solis, a former US representative who was labor secretary during President Barack Obama’s first term and is now a member of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, as another contender.
“We’re united in, respectfully, asking our governor to recognize our community, its contributions and its needs,” said Assemblyman Robert Rivas, and vice chair of the Latino Legislative Caucus, at a recent press conference.
As Vox’s Teddy Schleifer has reported, a contingent of prominent women donors also wrote to Newsom this week urging him to choose a woman of color.
The list, explained
The list of people who’ve expressed interest for this seat — or been named in various reports — is a lengthy one, so much so that Newsom has joked about how many people have pitched him. “You may be the only one that hasn’t, unless you just did, and that is only a slight exaggeration,” he quipped to a reporter earlier this year.
California — given its size and prominence in Democratic politics — has quite a lot of options to choose from, with some lawmakers also reportedly in contention for roles in the Biden administration. “The good news for Newsom is that the bench is deep and wide,” says Maviglio. Here’s a list of some of the potential contenders for Harris’s Senate seat.
Alex Padilla, California secretary of state
Many experts believe California Secretary of State Alex Padilla is probably Newsom’s most likely pick to succeed Harris. Padilla, who is Latino, has a multitude of credentials working in his favor: He’s been elected to a statewide office, he’s from Southern California, and he recently did a strong job overseeing the state’s election processes.
Both of California’s senators have come from the San Francisco Bay Area since 1992, so some experts believe Newsom will pick someone from the Los Angeles area. Padilla, who grew up in Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley, would fit that bill.
Padilla, 47, served on the Los Angeles City Council from 1999 to 2006, then in the state Senate from 2006 to 2014. Since 2015, he has held his current post of secretary of state, recently responding to the California Republican Party’s attempt to mislead voters by putting up fake ballot drop-off boxes and labeling them as official.
“We need not just racial, ethnic, and gender diversity, but we also need geographic diversity,” Vargas said. “The bulk of the Latino population being in the southern part of the state, it would be such an asset to have somebody in the Senate who understands that population, because they have lived those experiences.”
Xavier Becerra, California Attorney General
California Attorney General Xavier Becerra — the first Latino person to hold this office — is among the candidates who would bring experience at both the federal and state levels if he’s chosen for the job.
Becerra, 62, had served in the House for over two decades before he was appointed as the state’s Attorney General when Harris vacated the position in 2016. He’s represented multiple Southern California districts near Los Angeles, given redistricting during his tenure, and also chaired the House Democratic Caucus. Becerra had also previously worked as as a deputy Attorney General for the state’s Justice Department and served one term as a member of the California assembly.
In his current role, he’s known for taking on Trump: Becerra has led more than 100 lawsuits against the administration including challenges to the travel ban and the president’s attempted rollback of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.
Barbara Lee, US House member, 13th District
Lee — a Black woman who’s represented part of the Bay Area for decades — shares some similarities with Harris but is viewed as more progressive than the vice president-elect.
Lee is a top choice among groups that would like to see a Black progressive woman appointed. A former co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, Lee has represented Oakland and much of Alameda County in the House of Representatives since 1998, and previously served in the state legislature.
Her record is firmly on the left, and her votes on war powers have garnered attention: She was the only member of Congress to vote against the use of force against terrorists in 2001, and in 2019, GovTrack ranked her the furthest left of all US representatives. Her age, however, could be an issue — at 74, she is older than roughly 85 percent of current US senators.
Karen Bass, US House member, 37th District
Rep. Karen Bass, 67, saw her national profile go way up when she was considered one of the top contenders for Biden’s vice presidential pick earlier this year.
A former community organizer, Bass has represented a Southern California House district since 2011 and served as the state Assembly speaker prior to that. Bass — who was the first Black woman elected to that role — has been praised for her ability to work across party lines, while championing strong progressive ideas.
She’s currently the chair of the Congressional Black Caucus and was a chief author of the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, a measure Democrats introduced to address police reform this past year.
Bass experienced some scrutiny during the vice presidential search, when footage emerged of her speaking favorably of former Cuban leader Fidel Castro, comments she’s since walked back. During her time in the House, she has focused on criminal justice reform and child welfare policies — both areas she could continue to work on in the Senate.
Ro Khanna, US House member, 17th District
Ro Khanna is another pick that would satisfy many progressives. Khanna, like Harris, is of South Asian descent, as a child of Indian immigrants.
Khanna, 44, had not held elected office prior to being elected to Congress in 2016, in a district that includes much of Silicon Valley. He worked in the Commerce Department for two years during Obama’s first term. Notably, Khanna is among just six representatives who do not take campaign money from PACs or corporations, and he was a national co-chair for Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’s 2020 presidential campaign.
The Justice Democrats, a progressive PAC that helped fuel the rise of New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, has not endorsed a contender for the Senate seat. But the organization posted on Twitter that “[Khanna’s] voice in the Senate would be a major boost for our movement for justice.” Sanders himself also voiced support for Khanna, tweeting that he “has a bold vision for America and is a proven fighter for working people.”
Katie Porter, US House member, 45th District
Rep. Katie Porter — after serving in the House for one term — has established herself as a vocal progressive willing to take on Trump administration officials and business leaders.
Porter, who is a white woman, was among the wave of Democrats elected to the House in 2018, and she’s since successfully defended her battleground district, which covers part of Orange County.
Porter, 46, was a consumer protections attorney prior to joining the House, and now sits on the House Oversight and Financial Services Committees. She — and her whiteboard — have become synonymous with the pointed questioning of witnesses including CDC Director Robert Redfield and Consumer Financial Protection Bureau Director Kathy Kraninger.
She’d also previously worked to help distribute relief to California families in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis and is a tenured law professor at the University of California Irvine.
Robert Garcia, mayor of Long Beach
Long Beach may not be California’s most well-known city. But the port city just south of Los Angeles is among the 50 most populous in the country, and its mayor, the 42-year-old Peruvian American Robert Garcia, is on the Senate shortlist.
Garcia wouldn’t be the first mayor from a non-major city to make a name for himself this year — former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg outlasted most of the Democratic primary field in his presidential campaign. Garcia is openly gay, and he is both the first Latino and first gay mayor of Long Beach. He and his mother immigrated to the Los Angeles area from Lima, Peru, when he was 5. But Garcia may not get the nod due to lack of name recognition.
“I love Robert Garcia,” said Paul Mitchell, vice president at Political Data Inc. who also works at UC Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies. “But if you did a poll in LA of ‘who is Robert Garcia?’ or ‘who is the mayor of Long Beach?’ you’d get very few people who know who the mayor of Long Beach is.”
Hilda Solis, former US secretary of labor
Former Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis, 63, would bring a wide range of credentials to the Senate.
Solis served in both houses of the state legislature between 1992 and 2001, then was in the US House from 2001 to 2009, representing the northeast portion of the Los Angeles area. Obama pulled her out of Congress to make her secretary of labor for four years, and since 2014, Solis has served on the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors.
If appointed to the Senate, Solis is sure to make addressing climate change a top priority. She served on several environmentally focused committees while in the House, including the Committee on Energy and Commerce, the Committee on Natural Resources, and the Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming. A daughter of immigrants from Nicaragua and Mexico, Solis is also a major proponent of immigration reform.
London Breed, mayor of San Francisco
Mayor of San Francisco London Breed — the first Black woman to be elected to this role — has been highlighted as a strong leader during the coronavirus pandemic.
Breed, 46, won a special election in 2018 following the death of late San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee. Previously, she had served as the head of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, which works on areas including housing and infrastructure policy in the city.
Breed is a relative moderate in the heavily left-leaning city and has clashed with city officials over how to approach affordable housing measures. She’s been in the spotlight for the efficacy of her coronavirus response, which included a rapidly implemented stay-at-home order this past spring.
Clarification, November 24: This article has been updated to clarify the Justice Democrats’ stance on Rep. Khanna as a potential appointee for the California Senate seat.