Essential California: Meet your new senator

Alex Padilla holds his son Alejandro as he is sworn in as secretary of state in 2015
Alex Padilla holds his son Alejandro as he is sworn in as secretary of state by Gov. Jerry Brown on Jan. 5, 2015.
(Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press)

Good morning, and welcome to the Essential California newsletter. It’s Wednesday, Dec. 23, and I’m writing from Los Angeles.

After months of relentless lobbying and fervent speculation, Gov. Gavin Newsom has chosen California’s next senator.

California Secretary of State Alex Padilla will replace Vice President-elect Kamala Harris in the U.S. Senate, making him California’s first Latino senator.

[Read the story: “Alex Padilla to become California’s first Latino U.S. senator, replacing Kamala Harris” in the Los Angeles Times]


Newsom faced competing pressures to select either a Latino politician or a Black female politician for the role, with either choice potentially rectifying broader issues of representation: Latinos outnumber any other ethnic group in California, yet the state has never had a Latino senator. But without a Black woman chosen to succeed Harris, the number of Black women in the Senate would dwindle back to zero.

Padilla, a longtime Newsom ally, had been widely considered to be the most likely choice, even as pressure for the governor to appoint a Black woman intensified in recent weeks.

The governor took swift action Tuesday to fill Padilla’s newly vacant state office — and potentially salve some relationships — by selecting Democratic Assemblywoman Shirley Weber as California’s next secretary of state. If confirmed by the state Legislature, Weber would be the first Black woman to hold that position in state history.

Who is Alex Padilla?

Padilla, an L.A. Democrat and longtime Newsom ally, rose through local and state political office to become California secretary of state. As the state’s chief elections officer, he undertook several efforts to expand voter registration services and voting by mail.

As my Sacramento colleagues Phil Willon and Patrick McGreevy report, Padilla entered politics during the anti-immigrant tumult of the 1990s, after California voters approved measures requiring “English-only” public schools and banning immigrants who were in the U.S. illegally from government assistance and services. Padilla has said that Prop. 187 was “a big part of the reason” he went into public service.


[See also: “Prop. 187 forced a generation to put fear aside and fight” in the Los Angeles Times]

Raised in the Pacoima neighborhood of the San Fernando Valley, Padilla is the son of two Mexican immigrants. His father worked as a short-order cook at Du-Par’s, and his mother cleaned houses in more affluent parts of the Valley.

His political career burned bright early: In 1999, he won a seat on the powerful Los Angeles City Council.

He was just 26 at the time and still living at his parents’ home in the northeast Valley. His mother became a U.S. citizen two days after his election, joining his father, who had taken the citizenship oath three years earlier.

When Padilla became City Council president two years later, this paper declared his rise to be “nothing short of meteoric, even in an age of rapid political turnover.” At 28, Padilla became the first Latino to serve as council president in more than a century. He had moved out of his parents’ house by then, into his own place around the corner.

He graduated to state politics a few years later, as the then-youngest member of the state Senate. Padilla’s state Senate tenure, which was ended by term limits, included an emphasis on health and safety issues, as my colleagues report. He won approval of a bill that requires California restaurants to post calorie information on their menus to help reduce obesity and authored a smoke-free housing law.


Now 47, Padilla has served as California’s secretary of state since 2015. Padilla became one of the first statewide officials to tangle with President Trump over his unfounded allegations in 2016 that millions of California ballots had been cast illegally.

His Senate appointment does not require confirmation by the state Legislature, and he must win in a 2022 election to hold onto the seat.

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

The coronavirus wave pushes California to the brink of 2 million cases. It took almost 10 months for California to record its millionth confirmed coronavirus case. Now, just six weeks after crossing that milestone, the state is on the cusp of surpassing 2 million. Los Angeles Times

The pace of new COVID-19 hospitalizations is spiking so quickly in Los Angeles County that it is now literally off the charts, forcing officials to redraw the graphics used to illustrate the grim projections for what is ahead. If disease transmission behavior does not change, a projection issued by the county Department of Health Services says that L.A. County could be headed to between 700 and 1,400 new hospitalized patients a day by New Year’s Eve. Los Angeles Times

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A rare veto from L.A.’s mayor: Mayor Eric Garcetti vetoed a a proposal backed by the City Council to spend money diverted from the Los Angeles Police Department’s budget on an array of services, including sidewalk repairs. Garcetti called for the money to be focused on community engagement programs, saving city jobs and more. Los Angeles Times

Meet downtown’s dancing Santa: Steven Traylor’s spirit (and music) animates the streets of downtown L.A. Los Angeles Times

Steven Traylor, 59, dances on Broadway in downtown Los Angeles
Steven Traylor, 59, dances on Broadway in downtown Los Angeles to music that he plays on an amplifier on his shopping cart. Trayor said he goes out several times a day to exercise and also uplift people.
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

“The worst Christmas I ever had was the one that changed my life.” Columnist Mary McNamara writes about how her father’s Christmas Day heart attack was the moment that finally led her mother to sobriety. Los Angeles Times

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President Trump suggested that he may not sign the bipartisan COVID relief package passed by Congress: Trump complained in a video that he tweeted out Tuesday night that the bill delivered too much money to foreign countries, but not enough to Americans. He also called the $600 direct stimulus payment “ridiculously low” and said he was asking Congress to increase it. Los Angeles Times


Congress approved hospice care reforms to improve oversight and transparency in an omnibus spending bill: The new measures will address some of the serious flaws in hospice care highlighted by a recent Los Angeles Times investigation that found widespread fraud and hundreds of instances in which California patients were harmed, neglected or put at risk. Los Angeles Times

Fresno mulls an emergency ordinance to shut down retail shops: A proposed Fresno City Council ordinance would shut down all local retail for at least five days if the number of ICU beds in the county falls to zero. Fresno Bee


President Trump pardoned Duncan Hunter, the former California congressman who last year pleaded guilty in a campaign finance scandal. Hunter, an outspoken supporter of Trump who had been scheduled to begin his nearly one-year prison sentence next month, admitted to using more than $150,000 in campaign donations to buy video games, dog food, luxury hotel rooms and even plane tickets for his family’s pet rabbits. Los Angeles Times


As the coronavirus raged, Sonoma County did little to enforce rules on large weddings: The county has ranked worst in the Bay Area for the prevalence of COVID-19 cases for most of the year. San Francisco Chronicle

Why a negative COVID test doesn’t “clear” you for holiday gatherings: “By the time you get a negative test result, you may no longer be negative. And even if you have no symptoms, you can easily infect others.” Los Angeles Times


In the overwhelmingly white wine industry, Black Lives Matter has brought renewed attention to Black vintners. “The big question now: Will the recent publicity and awareness carry over to systemic change within the typically conservative wine sector?” Santa Rosa Press-Democrat


My wonderful colleague Christina Schoellkopf has said goodbye twice to loved ones in hospice this year. If you are in the wrenching position of saying goodbye while social distancing, Christina hopes this advice — culled from hospice experts and her own experiences — can bring you and your family some comfort. Los Angeles Times

A poem to start your Wednesday: “Fact” by Rae Armantrout. Ronnow Poetry

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Los Angeles: partly sunny, 73. San Diego: cloudy, 70. San Francisco: sunny, 57. San Jose: sunny, 61. Fresno: foggy, 54. Sacramento: sunny, 55. More weather is here.


Today’s California memory comes from Roger Houston:

I first visited California in 1968. I was in the Army and had a leave to visit San Francisco. I drove a car around Fisherman’s Wharf. Wow! Long-haired guys and tie-dyed blouses. And these oddballs did not obey traffic lights. I almost ran over several of them. They were jaywalking! Later I flew to L.A. and took my AWOL bag on a hitchhiking journey. While thumbing on a freeway, a CHP car stopped, picked me up and drove me near Disneyland. He was super friendly and advised where it was safe. I still think of him as an older brother.

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.