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Column: For Newsom and California, there’s a lot more riding on Biden’s decision than who becomes vice president

Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), left,  and Rep. Karen Bass (D-Los Angeles).
Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), left, and Rep. Karen Bass (D-Los Angeles) are on Joe Biden’s short list for vice president. Picking either woman would be big news for California.
(Associated Press)

Gov. Gavin Newsom would be anointed a kingmaker — or queenmaker — if Joe Biden selected California Sen. Kamala Harris as his running mate.

That’s because Newsom, on his own, would select Harris’ Senate replacement if the Democratic presidential ticket won on Nov. 3. The U.S. Constitution gives governors that right.

If Biden instead chose another Californian, U.S. Rep. Karen Bass of Los Angeles, Newsom would not have a formal role in her replacement. Voters in her 37th Congressional District would select a new representative in a special election. And that would alter the L.A. political landscape.

So for Newsom and California, there’s a lot more riding on Biden’s decision than who fills out the Democratic presidential ticket.

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Harris and Bass are among the women on the presumptive presidential nominee’s short list of potential running mates.

Others include former national security advisor Susan Rice, Illinois Sen. Tammy Duckworth and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren.

There’s heavy political pressure for Biden to choose a woman of color. That presumably leaves out Warren, who is white. Warren is too liberal for him anyway, although she excites party progressives.

Some Biden insiders think he should select a Black woman in this political atmosphere with the Black Lives Matter movement fighting hard for racial equality.

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That would exclude Duckworth, a Thai American who has a compelling story: She is an Iraq war veteran who lost both legs piloting a helicopter in combat, and the first senator to give birth in office.

That leaves Harris, Bass and Rice, who are Black, as the leading contenders. And the top two seem to be Harris and Rice.

Joe Biden’s shortlist for vice president includes two prominent Californians — Sen. Kamala Harris and Rep. Karen Bass — and politicos in the Golden State are divided over the choice.

Rice, 55, would be a good choice. The diplomat served in both the Clinton and Obama administrations in high-level foreign policy positions. She was Obama’s U.S. ambassador to the United Nations before becoming national security advisor. Biden got to know her well when he was Obama’s vice president.

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Rice certainly would be hammered by President Trump for initially mislabeling the 2012 attack on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi. She called it spontaneous, although it turned out to be a planned terrorist assault. But Trump will pounce on whomever Biden picks.

One drawback: Rice has never run for public office. She could flub up on the campaign trail. But she has operated successfully on the world stage and is classy.

Bass, 66, is very likable and evokes a positive attitude, is a liberal who can deal productively with Republicans — she initially proved that as California Assembly speaker — and has been a civil rights fighter all her career.

But she’s relatively unknown, including to Biden. And she has never run for office outside her district, so there’s some question about how she’d fare in a bruising national campaign. I suspect darn well.

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Harris, 55, is charismatic and can deliver a stinging campaign punch — Biden was stung by her in an early presidential debate. But she flopped running for president. And she carries baggage from unremarkable — critics say disappointing — stints as state attorney general and San Francisco district attorney.

But Biden is apparently drawn to Harris because she and his late son, Beau, had a strong alliance when both were state attorneys general.

Many political pros think Biden would be crazy to put any Californian on the ticket.

“He’d be well advised not to pick a Californian,” says Darry Sragow, a veteran Democratic strategist who publishes the nonpartisan California Target Book, which handicaps congressional and legislative races.

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“One, it won’t add to his electoral votes because he already has California’s 55 in the bag. Two, most of the country doesn’t like California. They can’t relate to us and think we don’t relate to them,” Sragow said.

Joe Biden’s ticket could do far worse than adding Rep. Karen Bass of Los Angeles, who is smart, energetic and successful at achieving goals — including a guiding a police reform bill through the House.

“He’s probably going to pick someone from a different state — or no state, like Susan Rice.”

Rice was born and raised in Washington, D.C., the daughter of public policy scholars.

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But what if Biden did choose Harris?

It would be a huge gift to Newsom. If the Biden-Harris ticket won — as current polls show is likely — he’d be able to reward a Democratic ally by choosing the senator’s successor.

And if Newsom picked an elected statewide official — such as Atty. Gen. Xavier Becerra or Secretary of State Alex Padilla — he’d get a twofer: He could also select their replacements, subject to legislative confirmation.

Newsom likes to be the “first” at things — being the first governor to decree a statewide “stay at home” order during the virus pandemic — and he could name the first Latino U.S. senator from California.

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Becerra would seem the most qualified by experience, having been a U.S. House member from Los Angeles for 24 years before being picked by Gov. Jerry Brown to replace Harris when she was elected to the Senate in 2016.

There’s also Rep. Adam B. Schiff of Burbank, the House Intelligence Committee chairman who helped lead the impeachment of Trump. He’s on everyone’s potential Senate list. But he isn’t close to Newsom. Neither is another option: L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti.

Bass catapulted to Biden’s short list thanks to her pragmatism and unassuming style, which have impressed progressives, moderates, even Republicans.

If Newsom wanted to replace Harris with another woman, Bass should top his list. Other possibilities include Lt. Gov. Eleni Kounalakis, state Controller Betty Yee, state Treasurer Fiona Ma, state Senate leader Toni Atkins of San Diego and L.A. County Supervisor Hilda Solis, a former House member and U.S. labor secretary.

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If Bass became vice president, there’d be a special election to fill her House seat.

Prominent potential candidates include L.A. County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, L.A. City Councilman Herb Wesson and state Sen. Holly Mitchell. Wesson and Mitchell are running against each other for Ridley-Thomas’ termed-out supervisorial seat. It gets complicated.

We can speculate on and on — at least until Biden ends the VP suspense.


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