With the presidential race called for Democrat Joe Biden and his running mate, Sen. Kamala Harris, on Saturday, California Gov. Gavin Newsom must now fill her vacant U.S. Senate seat — and he has the opportunity to make history.
Never shy about making a political splash, Newsom could appoint California’s first-ever Latino senator. He might select a Black woman to replace Harris, who was only the second Black woman in the nation’s history to serve in the U.S. Senate. The Democratic governor, who championed same-sex marriage while mayor of San Francisco, may choose to send to Washington California’s first senator to have come out as gay.
Newsom is already fielding entreaties to do all of the above, and the pressure promises to intensify until Harris steps down from the Senate to be sworn in as vice president. Newsom’s political calculus also may factor in the likelihood that his appointee could win the seat in 2022.
The governor could also 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.
In congratulating Biden and Harris, Newsom said he is confident that they “can turn hurt into healing and deep-seated divisions into common ground, repair our standing around the world and rally our nation together in this time of unprecedented crisis.”
He also called Harris’ achievement inspirational, an indication of how difficult his decision may be when filling her Senate seat.
Kamala Harris will be the first female vice president, as well as the first Black and Asian American person to occupy that post.
“She’s tough, she’s passionate, she’s persistent and she’s devoted a lifetime to the highest American ideal of justice for all,” Newsom said in a statement Saturday. “Today, her ceiling-shattering accomplishment will put wings on the aspirations and imaginations of young women and people of color all across this country and around the world.”
The Times reached out to a variety of political strategists for a list of the most likely contenders from whom Newsom might choose to replace Harris for the final two years of her Senate term.
Rep. Karen Bass (D-Los Angeles)
Bass, 67, rocketed into the national spotlight this summer as one of Biden’s potential picks for vice president. Now the head of the Congressional Black Caucus, Bass is a seasoned legislator who served as speaker of the California Assembly before her election in 2010 to the House of Representatives.
The daughter of a mail carrier and a homemaker, Bass grew up in the Venice-Fairfax area of Los Angeles and later taught in USC’s physician’s assistant program. Before entering politics, the Democrat worked as a community organizer in the 1980s and 1990s, when the crack epidemic spurred her to create the Community Coalition, a nonprofit group that worked to close or convert liquor stores in South L.A., attract more funding to local schools and organize residents.
She was part of a wellspring of activism that included young civil rights leaders who went on to form L.A.'s political establishment, including former Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, L.A. County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas and state Sen. Maria Elena Durazo (D-Los Angeles).
Bass’ stature in Washington grew this year after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi requested that she shepherd a bill to set national policing standards following the death of George Floyd while in Minneapolis police custody. In Congress, Bass earned a reputation for her pragmatism and unassuming style and for being a team player who does not seek the limelight.
California Atty. Gen. Xavier Becerra
If picked by Newsom, Becerra would become California’s first Latino U.S. senator. Though the ability to make history with an appointment is no doubt appealing to the media-savvy Newsom, in Becerra the governor would also be sending a veteran D.C. politician back to the nation’s capital. It would be the second time the 62-year-old Becerra is the follow-up act to Harris, after being appointed in 2017 by then-Gov. Jerry Brown to fill the remainder of her term as attorney general before winning the job in the 2018 election.
The son of Mexican immigrants, Becerra grew up in Sacramento and earned his bachelor’s and law degrees at Stanford University. After working as a staff member at the statehouse and as a deputy attorney general, the Democrat joined the California Assembly to represent Los Angeles at age 32.
Two years later, Becerra won a seat in Congress representing downtown Los Angeles, marking the first of 12 terms in which he became the first Latino member of the House to sit on the Ways and Means Committee and to chair the House Democratic Caucus.
Despite a lengthy career in national politics, Becerra is best known in California and across the country as the top legal antagonist of the Trump administration. As the state’s attorney general, Becerra has filed more than 100 lawsuits against the federal government over issues related to immigration, healthcare, the environment and civil rights.
Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia
Though Garcia is the new kid on the block in California politics, he is a plausible pick if Newsom wants a fresh face for the job.
Newsom and Garcia, 42, are said to be political allies. Newsom endorsed Garcia in his race for mayor in 2014, when he became the youngest, first Latino and first gay leader of Long Beach. And Garcia was an early backer of Newsom’s run for governor, a sign of loyalty that likely won’t be forgotten.
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Garcia has been an outspoken supporter of the governor and the state’s handling of the crisis. Newsom offered his condolences to Garcia after the mayor’s mother, a Peruvian immigrant who brought him to the U.S. at age 5, and stepfather died of complications from COVID-19.
Garcia was also chosen as one of more than a dozen rising political stars to deliver a keynote address at the Democratic National Convention this year. When asked if they would support Garcia as the next U.S. senator from California, 57% of voters said yes in a recent poll conducted by the USC Schwarzenegger Institute.
Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Oakland)
Lee, 74, is widely seen as one of the most liberal members of Congress. The Oakland Democrat was the only member of Congress to vote against the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force, a resolution approved after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks that opened the door to the war in Afghanistan. The resolution was used by President George W. Bush, President Obama and President Trump to justify military action without congressional approval.
First elected to Congress in 1998 after nearly a decade in the California Legislature, Lee is a former chairwoman of both the Congressional Black Caucus and the Progressive Caucus. She has been a strong advocate for expanding access to abortion by repealing what is known as the Hyde amendment, which prohibits federal funds from being used to pay for abortion except when necessary to save a woman’s life or in cases of rape or incest.
Lee got her start in politics working for former Bay Area Rep. Ron Dellums. She was elected to the Assembly in 1990 and to the state Senate in 1996. In Sacramento, she pushed legislation to establish the California Commission on the Status of African American Males and to provide more aid for pregnant public school students and address issues of homelessness.
Born in El Paso, Lee helped integrate San Fernando High School’s cheerleading squad after her family moved to California. Lee is a graduate of Mills College and a single mother of two sons.
Secretary of State Alex Padilla
Padilla, 47, is a former Los Angeles City Council president and state senator. He has been one of Newsom’s most loyal political allies over the past decade and chaired his ill-fated 2010 run for governor. For years, Padilla has been mentioned as a possible successor to Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who gave him his first major break in politics when she hired him as a staff member.
Padilla has served as California’s secretary of state since 2015 and was one of the first statewide officials to criticize President Trump’s unfounded allegations in 2016 that millions of California ballots had been cast illegally. In 2017, he bristled at requests by Trump’s voter fraud commission for access to detailed voter information from the state, citing privacy concerns.
His most notable achievement as chief elections officer was his push for enactment of the state’s Voters’ Choice Act, allowing counties to swap out neighborhood polling places for community vote centers as long as they also mailed a ballot to every registered voter. But another high-profile program — enacting the state’s new automatic voter registration program at DMV offices — was beset by a number of errors when it debuted in 2019.
The son of Mexican immigrants, Padilla grew up in Pacoima and earned a degree in mechanical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Shortly after returning to Los Angeles, he became involved in politics and was elected to the Los Angeles City Council when he was just 26 years old.
Kamala Harris’ groundbreaking rise to the vice presidency could make her an unusually creative vice president.
Whom else might Newsom select?
Other contenders who have a legitimate shot at getting a call from Newsom have surfaced, and the behind-the-scenes cajoling, hint-dropping and out-and-out demands for others to be named will likely continue until the governor makes the announcement.
Among those to keep in mind:
- State Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins of San Diego
- San Francisco Mayor London Breed
- California Insurance Commissioner Ricardo Lara
- Rep. Katie Porter (D-Irvine)
- Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf
- Los Angeles County Supervisor Hilda Solis
Times staff writers John Myers, Jennifer Haberkorn and Sarah D. Wire contributed to this report.