Meet Alex Padilla, California’s first Latino U.S. senator and a rising political star since his 20s
People have been saying Alex Padilla is a politician to watch since he was in his early 20s.
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology-trained engineer gave up a career in aerospace to enter politics at an early age. At 26, he became Los Angeles’ youngest council member. Then, he went on to be the face of city government in the days after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
That brought him national prominence. “This can only be helpful, if you want to be crude in the political sense, to whatever future plans he has,” one political consultant said of Padilla at the time.
Now, he is set to become California’s first Latino U.S. senator, appointed by Gov. Gavin Newsom to fill the term of Vice President-elect Kamala Harris.
Alex Padilla will be the first Latino to represent California in the U.S. Senate. He will succeed Vice President-elect Kamala Harris.
Padilla grew up in Pacoima, the middle child of a Mexican-born housekeeper and a short-order cook who were determined to see their children succeed.
He often said his upbringing there had a major influence on his life.
Padilla was trained as an engineer at MIT and then returned home to write software for satellites at Hughes Aircraft. But politics beckoned at an early age.
At 22, he ran the successful Assembly campaign of Tony Cardenas, then a little-known owner of a real estate agency. Cardenas is now a congressman representing the San Fernando Valley. Padilla later managed the bare-knuckled 1998 campaign that propelled Richard Alarcon into a state Senate seat by a mere 29 votes.
In 1999, Padilla jumped into the race for Alarcon’s former council seat. He was barely known outside political circles, but he put together a potent cadre of backers, including labor unions and then-L.A. Mayor Richard Riordan. Padilla won by a landslide.
He made history when he took office. As The Times reported: “26-year-old Alex Padilla became the youngest member of the Los Angeles City Council, taking the oath of office administered by 87-year-old former Councilman Ernani Bernardi.”
He offered a special tribute to his parents.
“A teary-eyed Padilla dedicated his first term to his parents, Santos and Lupe, immigrants from Mexico. He said that his mother became a U.S. citizen two days after his election, and three years after his father took the citizenship oath,” said The Times article on his swearing-in ceremony.
Two years after his election, Padilla shocked the old guard at City Hall by beating a veteran council member, Ruth Galanter, to win enough votes on the City Council to become president of that body. At 28, he became the youngest person and first Latino to serve as council president in more than 100 years. But his tenure was not without controversy, with some saying his lack of experience was an issue.
Padilla’s rise in politics — along with that of Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa — was seen at the time as a watershed moment for Latino representation in the city. A 2005 Times article made clear Padilla was seen as going places:
When Latino leaders gathered recently to celebrate the election of Antonio Villaraigosa as mayor of Los Angeles, White House aide Ruben Barrales told them it was great to welcome “a dynamic Latino leader” with “unlimited political potential.”
“But enough about Alex Padilla,” he concluded.
As City Council president, Padilla played a role in the selection of William Bratton as chief of police and was involved in negotiations for approval of the downtown development known as L.A. Live, as well as modernization of Los Angeles International Airport. Padilla also strongly opposed an effort to have the Valley secede from Los Angeles to form a new city.
A pivotal moment in Padilla’s career came during the 9/11 terrorist attacks when he served as acting mayor for four days while Mayor Jim Hahn was stuck in Washington, D.C. Jack Weiss, a former federal prosecutor who served with Padilla on the City Council, recalled being with Padilla when there was a report that one of the planes hijacked by terrorists might be heading into Los Angeles, though that later proved to be false.
“Padilla has been omnipresent on Los Angeles radio and television. He has assuaged and assured over and over, in English and Spanish, displaying far more polish than his 28 years and his rocky start as council president might have suggested,” The Times wrote in a profile that year.
In 2006, Padilla won election to the state Senate, to which he was reelected in 2010.
His state Senate tenure, which was ended by term limits, included an emphasis on health and safety issues. He won approval of a bill that requires California restaurants to post calorie information on their menus to help reduce obesity. He also authored a smoke-free housing law.
Secretary of state
Padilla has been secretary of state since 2015 and was 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. In 2017, Padilla rejected 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 Voter’s 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 — the state’s automatic voter registration program at DMV offices — was beset by a number of errors when it debuted in 2019.
When interviewed by High School Insider, Padilla was asked to give advice for teenagers getting involved in political life.
“It’s a lot easier and more important than you think,” he said. “A lot of people assume that you need to know somebody. You don’t need to know somebody.”
The stories shaping California
Get up to speed with our Essential California newsletter, sent six days a week.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.