Newsletter: Essential California: The Senate guessing game

Close-up shot of two people holding miniature California flags
Which junior senator will wave the bear flag in D.C. next year? Only time will tell.
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

Good morning, and welcome to the Essential California newsletter. It’s Wednesday, Nov. 11, and I’m writing from Los Angeles.

President-elect Joe Biden insisted Tuesday that he would not be stymied by President Trump’s increasingly aggressive attempts to thwart the transition of power, calling Trump’s claims to be the rightful winner “an embarrassment” that will tarnish his legacy.

Biden’s comments came a few hours after Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo flippantly told reporters “there will be a smooth transition to a second Trump administration,” casting unfounded doubt on Biden’s election even as leaders of foreign nations continued to send congratulations to the Democratic president-elect.

[Read the story: “Biden calls Trump’s attempts to cling to power ‘embarrassing’ and says he’ll push on” in the Los Angeles Times]


But even as President Trump has continued to slow the transition process with denials and lawsuits, Californians have barely paused from their current favorite parlor game. No amount of chaos, it seems, can distract us from speculating about who will fill Vice President-elect Kamala Harris’ Senate seat.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom is tasked with appointing a replacement to fill the junior senator’s seat when she assumes her new role in January, and the fierce behind-the-scenes politicking has reached a fever pitch.

As my Sacramento colleagues Phil Willon and Taryn Luna report, the governor could technically call for a special election to fill the vacancy or opt to name a placeholder candidate who would be willing to keep the Senate seat warm until the 2022 election — but neither of those scenarios appears likely.

Phil and Taryn reached out to a variety of political strategists for names of the most likely contenders and put together a short list that includes California Atty. Gen. Xavier Becerra, Rep. Karen Bass and Secretary of State Alex Padilla.

[Read the story: “One of these people could be Vice President-elect Kamala Harris’ successor and California’s next senator” in the Los Angeles Times]

As with all matters of speculation, it’s worth clearly stating upfront that no one (except maybe California First Partner Jennifer Siebel Newsom, unless she’s tired of hearing about California politics at the dinner table) really knows anything, but here are some of the factors at play.

As my colleagues note in their story, Newsom has the opportunity to make history with his choice, and he has been fielding all sorts of entreaties about what that could look like.

So what does that mean? His choice is unlikely to be a white man, and almost certainly not a straight white man. “Diversity is a given,” Newsom’s longtime advisor Nathan Ballard told NPR. “It’s not going to be someone who looks like Gavin.”

The question, then, is what kind of history he wants to make.

Newsom could appoint California’s first Latino or Latina senator — along with Becerra and Padilla, Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia made Phil and Taryn’s short list. Los Angeles County Supervisor Hilda Solis and California Insurance Commissioner Ricardo Lara are also among the names that have been bandied about.

Or he could appoint California’s first openly LGBT senator — state Senate President pro Tempore Toni Atkins would fit the bill, as would Garcia and Lara.

He could also choose a Black woman. Harris is only the second Black woman ever elected to the U.S. Senate, and her departure will, staggeringly, put the total number of Black women in the Senate in the year 2020 at zero. South L.A. Rep. Bass (who joined Harris on the short list for Biden VP picks) and Oakland progressive Rep. Barbara Lee are both on Taryn and Phil’s list. San Francisco Mayor London Breed has also been spoken of as a contender.

A few other names that have been mentioned include Rep. Katie Porter of Irvine, Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf, Lt. Gov. Eleni Kounalakis, state Controller Betty Yee, Treasurer Fiona Ma and Rep. Ro Khanna of Fremont.

As Scott Wilson noted over at the Washington Post, a track record of success in statewide races is likely to play a factor in Newsom’s decision, particularly because Harris’ successor will be up for reelection in just two years.

On that note, perhaps it’s worth revisiting the fate of California’s last appointed senator. In 1991, Republican Gov. Pete Wilson plucked an Orange County lawmaker from “relative obscurity” to fill the Senate seat Wilson himself had vacated when he won his gubernatorial election. The appointee’s name was John Seymour, and if you don’t remember it, you are not alone.

Five months into Seymour’s tenure as a senator, nearly 80% of California voters said they didn’t know enough about him to have formed an opinion. The Republican senator spent less than two years in office before losing mightily to Democrat Dianne Feinstein in a November 1992 special election.

Newsom has yet to announce a timetable for his choice and, if anything, seems a bit annoyed by the prospect. He has called the pending decision (and, by extension, the fervent lobbying that has accompanied it) “vexing,” “challenging” and “not something I’d wish on my worst enemy.”

[See also: “California’s most intense campaign: The private pursuit of Harris’ Senate seat” from Politico]

And who could blame him? Every possible option ends with only one happy Californian heading to Washington and countless rejected suitors (and those who have been lobbying for them) feeling slighted.

And now, here’s what’s happening across California:

Eleven counties moved back to more restrictive tiers in California’s coronavirus reopening system Tuesday, an unprecedented regression as the state contends with an increasingly worrying surge in infections. Among the backsliders were San Diego, Sacramento and Stanislaus counties, all of which moved into the purple tier — the strictest category of the state’s reopening roadmap. This week also marked the first time that no counties moved forward into a less-restrictive tier. Los Angeles Times

[See also: “San Francisco, facing a coronavirus uptick, shuts down indoor dining again” in the Los Angeles Times]

Supreme Court justices on Tuesday sounded ready to uphold the Affordable Care Act for the third time and reject the latest challenge from its conservative critics, including President Trump. Los Angeles Times

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A divided Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors escalated its running power struggle with Sheriff Alex Villanueva, voting to explore ways he could be removed from office, including through a change to the state’s constitution. Los Angeles Times

L.A. County’s medical examiner launches a rare independent review of the sheriff’s deputy shooting of Andres Guardado. The investigation is the first of its kind in 30 years, coroner’s officials said. Los Angeles Times

A young man in a graduation cap and gown
Eighteen-year-old Andres Guardado, pictured, was shot in the back five times after he was chased by sheriff’s Deputies Miguel Vega and Chris Hernandez on June 18 in Gardena.
(Courtesy Guardado Family)

L.A. may turn the Convention Center into a pandemic homeless shelter. This move is a reflection of the increasingly desperate situation thousands of homeless people face living on the streets. Los Angeles Times

West Hollywood residents have voted out the two longest-serving members of their City Council, with newcomers Sepi Shyne and John Erickson unseating longtime council members John Heilman and John Duran. Shyne runs a holistic healing business for humans and pets, and Erickson is the director of public affairs for Planned Parenthood Los Angeles. Los Angeles Times

L.A. location filming got an October boost, but pandemic fears slow Hollywood’s return. Los Angeles Times

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Deaf Americans are picking a new name for President-elect Joe Biden in colloquial American Sign Language. But many have taken to social media this week to denounce the top contender, saying it looks like a gang sign. Los Angeles Times

L.A. Metro CEO Phil Washington will run Biden’s transition team for transportation. Meanwhile, Mayor Eric Garcetti, who led the search that brought Washington to Metro, has been discussed as a potential cabinet appointee, perhaps as Transportation secretary, in the Biden administration. Los Angeles Times

Prop. 15, which would have loosened California’s business property tax rules, was officially defeated Tuesday. The measure sought to force large businesses to pay higher property taxes but probably fell victim to concerns about its economic effects on employers and consumers amid the pandemic-sparked recession. Los Angeles Times

In a major victory for the California GOP, Orange County’s 48th Congressional District flips back to red. Democratic Rep. Harley Rouda conceded to Republican challenger Michelle Steel on Tuesday, two years after Rouda unseated longtime incumbent Dana Rohrabacher to briefly turn the seat blue. Los Angeles Times

Does this Hoosier senator think California is not part of the United States?! During a conference call, Indiana’s junior senator suggested that Trump and Biden tied in the popular vote — so long as you don’t count California. The senator ended the conference call before reporters “could ask him to explain why votes in California should be ignored.” Indy Star

Fresno Mayor-elect Jerry Dyer tests positive for COVID-19 after election-night dinner exposure. Dyer had been at a dinner with Fresno county Supervisor Steve Brandau — the same individual who, after experiencing mild COVID-19 symptoms, attended a Fresno County Board of Supervisors meeting earlier that same Tuesday, potentially exposing dozens of others. Fresno Bee


How might a nationwide mask mandate play out? Look to the battle over seat belt laws. Stat News


Wednesday is Veterans Day. Earlier this year, the coronavirus forced the cancellation of WWII veteran Lt. Col. Sam Sachs’ planned 105th birthday party. But the celebration continued anyway: Thousands of people sent Sachs birthday letters, and an hourlong parade of well-wishers streamed past his Lakewood senior living facility on the big day. Los Angeles Times

Lt. Col. Sam Sachs, a World War II veteran, celebrates his 105th birthday
Lt. Col. Sam Sachs, a World War II veteran, celebrates his 105th birthday as a surprise parade drives by.
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

Disneyland announces more furloughs: In a memo to employees, Disneyland Resort President Ken Potrock blamed the state’s coronavirus protocols for keeping the reopening timeline for the theme parks — which have been shut since mid-March — in “limbo.” Los Angeles Times

Golden Gate Bridge tolls may go up as the transit district that operates it faces a financial crisis. San Francisco Chronicle

How California Pinot Noir became a global phenomenon: “I think there’s no doubt that short-term, ‘Sideways’ [the 2004 Alexander Payne movie] was a huge boon for Pinot Noir and caused Merlot sales to plummet.” Wine Enthusiast

A poem to start your Wednesday: “At a Days Inn in Barstow, California” by Chloe Honum.

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Los Angeles: sunny, 68. San Diego: sunny, 68. San Francisco: cloudy, 57. San Jose: cloudy, 63. Fresno: cloudy, 61. Sacramento: cloudy, 61. More weather is here.


Today’s California memory comes from Julie Amstutz:

Well, here we are, some 60 years after my husband Joe signed with the Los Angeles Chargers. Moving to California was a real treat. Two of his college friends had already moved here, and they lived in the San Fernando Valley. The Hollywood Freeway was almost completed, and that was a treat too, being able to take it to Studio City. Nothing was built around the Van Nuys Boulevard area, just big corn fields out there. We found an apartment on Fruitland Drive, and our neighbor was a Hollywood actor named Earle Hodgins. He was in almost every old Western that you could watch. It was a special time, driving our convertible hard top in a very special place. We are still here and still loving California.

If you have a memory or story about the Golden State, share it with us. (Please keep your story to 100 words.)

Please let us know what we can do to make this newsletter more useful to you. Send comments, complaints, ideas and unrelated book recommendations to Julia Wick. Follow her on Twitter @Sherlyholmes.