Essential California: Filling that Senate seat

The U.S. Capitol
The U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C.
(J. Scott Applewhite / Associated Press)

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

The stakes keep rising in California’s favorite political parlour game: Who will Gov. Gavin Newsom choose to succeed Kamala Harris as the state’s junior senator?

Newsom is thought to be making his decision by the end of the year, and the political jockeying has only grown more intense. Here’s a look at where things currently stand.

The landscape was shaken up last week when state Atty. Gen. Xavier Becerra — widely considered to be on the short list for a Senate appointment — was tapped by President-elect Joe Biden to serve as secretary of Health and Human Services.


Becerra’s likely ascension to Washington does more than just take him out of the Senate horse ace. It also cements Newsom‘s new role as a political kingmaker.

Before Becerra’s nomination, Newsom had one high-profile seat to fill. Now he has two, with the possibility of additional rippling vacancies, depending on whom he taps. That’s a whole lot of say in determining what the future of California politics will look like, potentially for decades to come, for one first-term governor.

The Senate seat is obviously flashier, but the state AG position is also a powerful launching pad — need I remind you what Vice President-elect Harris was doing a mere four years ago? (In a situation not unlike the current one, albeit with fewer vacancies, then-Gov. Jerry Brown appointed Becerra to serve as California attorney general after Harris won her 2016 Senate race. Becerra then won reelection in 2018.)

Now back to the Senate “race” at hand. Secretary of State Alex Padilla, a close ally of Newsom who chaired his short-lived 2010 run for governor, is widely considered the current front-runner, with the backing of Sen. Dianne Feinstein and prominent Latino groups.

[See also: “As Newsom mulls over a U.S. Senate pick, Latino lawmakers and activists say it’s their time” in the Los Angeles Times]

Latino lawmakers and activists have been heavily lobbying the governor to appoint a Latino to fill Harris’ seat. As my Sacramento colleague Phil Willon reported last week, plenty of positions of power in California have been held by Latino politicians over the last two decades, including that of Los Angeles mayor and leadership roles in both chambers of the Legislature. But the U.S. Senate has remained elusive.


But the pressure on Newsom to appoint a Black woman to follow Harris’ history-making turn as California’s first Black senator has been equally intense. A laundry list of Black women leaders in the state signed an open letter to Newsom on Wednesday, urging him to appoint Rep. Karen Bass of Los Angeles or Rep. Barbara Lee of Oakland to the seat, thereby ensuring that the number of Black women in the Senate doesn’t dwindle back to zero when Harris leaves.

So, as my columnist colleague Erika D. Smith writes, “what’s a governor who loves to talk about equity to do when faced with this phalanx of qualified candidates of color?”

The solution Erika proffers in her column is certainly unique: “Here’s a thought,” she writes. “We should help him out by urging Dianne Feinstein to step down early — preferably before the next Congress — so that California will have two open seats in the U.S. Senate instead of just one.”

[Read the column: “Should California’s next U.S. senator be Black or Latino? Both if Feinstein quits” in the Los Angeles Times]

Feinstein, who is 87, was elected to a fifth six-year term in 2018. Questions about whether she will serve until her term ends in January 2025 intensified after the publication Thursday of a New Yorker story citing sources close to the senator who — “speaking on background, and with respect for her accomplished career” — suggested that she is struggling with cognitive decline, particularly with her short-term memory.

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


Los Angeles County shattered its daily record for new coronavirus cases, with 12,741 reported Thursday, as hospitals continued to fill with patients across the state. In Southern California, ICU availability fell to 7.7% on Thursday, down from 9% the day before. The situation was even more dire in the San Joaquin Valley region, which is now reporting 1.9% availability, down from 4.2%.

More Californians are also dying of COVID-19 than at any other point in the pandemic. The state has averaged 146 deaths a day over the last week — breaking an all-time record set in August. Across the nation, more than 290,000 Americans have died from COVID-19 and its complications. Los Angeles Times

But there is light at the end of the tunnel. On Thursday, a U.S. government advisory panel endorsed Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine, in a major step toward an unprecedented vaccination campaign that could finally conquer the outbreak. A final decision by the Food and Drug Administration is expected within days. Millions of shots would then ship to begin vaccinating healthcare workers and nursing home residents. Los Angeles Times

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Formerly homeless motel residents were kicked out — to make room for L.A.’s homeless: The management of an extended-stay Studio 6 motel in Commerce locked out formerly homeless residents, even as L.A. County was buying the property to house homeless people. Los Angeles Times

Genevieve Marilyn Green, a mother of three, livestreams video with her phone through a fence
Genevieve Marilyn Green, a mother of three, livestreams video with her phone as Mikki Morris talks from inside of fencing outside the Studio 6 motel in Commerce. The motel residents were locked out of their rooms.
(Al Seib/Los Angeles Times)

Los Angeles Hanukkah history: From quaint family gatherings in Victorian times to latke buffets and puppet shows in the postwar era, a brief look back at the evolution of the Festival of Lights in L.A. Los Angeles Magazine

Thirty-two L.A.-centered books to read or gift: A genre-spanning guide from scholar and performer Mike the Poet. L.A. Taco

Inside Johnny Depp’s self-made implosion: “It wasn’t just erratic and violent behavior that wrecked one of the world’s most bankable stars. It was his unquenchable thirst for revenge.” The Hollywood Reporter

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President-elect Joe Biden is naming Susan Rice director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, giving her broad sway over his administration’s approach to immigration, healthcare and racial inequality and elevating the prominence of the position in the West Wing. Biden is also nominating Denis McDonough, who was President Obama’s White House chief of staff, to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs. Associated Press


A shipment of illicit COVID-19 tests was seized off a flight at San Diego airport. The seizure is part of a larger trend seen at border crossings and commercial ports, as the black market rises to profit off the demand for testing. Los Angeles Times



Global carbon emissions dropped a record 7% due to COVID-19. But don’t count on the reductions to last. Los Angeles Times


Looking for an opportunity to volunteer this holiday season? There are plenty of ways to connect with your community, including distributing meals at a food bank, tutoring from home and delivering meals to seniors. Los Angeles Times

San Francisco took the first official step toward reopening schools this week, notifying public health officials that the district intends to start bringing students back starting in late January. San Francisco Chronicle

The Museum of Latin American Art auctioned dozens of works from its permanent collection last week. The Long Beach museum defended the controversial move, citing diversity as the goal. Los Angeles Times

A poem to start your Friday: “Nineteen-twenty-nine” by William Waring Cuney. Poetry Foundation

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Los Angeles: partly sunny, 63. San Diego: partly sunny, 63. San Francisco: cloudy, 55. San Jose: cloudy, . Fresno: partly sunny, . Sacramento: cloudy, 57. More weather is here.


Today’s California memory comes from Ted Mathews:

L..A still had electric streetcars crisscrossing the city in 1955 when I got my first job selling The Times, the Mirror, the Herald-Express and the Examiner at the intersection of Washington and Crenshaw. I was hired by “Red,” a professional “news boy” who ran that corner. He was disabled and had a profound limp. He gave me a coin bag to tie around my waist and a stack of newspapers to sell to people in cars and those using the streetcars across the intersection from him. Each paper sold for a dime. I got three-and-a-half cents per paper, plus tips!

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.