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Editorial: Let California voters have a real say in Kamala Harris’ replacement

Editor’s note: This piece is a dissent to The Times Editorial Board’s position on this issue, which you can read here.

Rather than choose a senator based on various criteria — whether ideology, demographic profile or other factors, however worthy — Gov. Gavin Newsom should simply let voters decide.

Of course, in a theoretical sense, the voters ultimately pick anyway. Kamala Harris’ term is up in 2022; no matter whom Newsom picks as an interim senator, an election will have to be held at that time. The question is whether, in practicality, the winner will be the voters’ choice or the governor’s.

It’s difficult to unseat an incumbent, even an appointed one. That person has the name recognition, the title and the Democratic political machinery behind her or him. So once the appointment is made, the die is cast for the long term, especially in a state that leans as heavily Democratic as California. That’s not really the voters choosing.

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The position can’t be left open until the 2022 election, nor would that be desirable. Californians are entitled to their full share of representation for the next two years, and President-elect Biden will need as much legislative support as possible.

But instead of installing his own choice, Newsom should appoint a temporary Democratic caretaker to the position, someone who won’t seek election to a full term in 2022. Perhaps someone whose age makes an eight-year commitment to Washington (the last two years of this term plus a full six-year term following) highly unlikely. A Jerry Brown, for example, whose dedication to battling climate change is as fierce as that of any politician in the nation.

Newsom has the power to call a special election in 2021, but that’s a bad option. It would take months to conduct, leaving the Senate short one Democratic member, and California one senator, for too long. It also would give alternative candidates too little time to mount an effective campaign.

Sacramento insiders say Newsom isn’t inclined to do either of these things, and it’s easy to understand why. Rarely do executives choose not to exercise the powers they are given. If Newsom makes a choice, as expected, that person is indebted to him. It increases his power base as well as ensuring that the new senator is aligned with Newsom’s priorities. And yet, we think Newsom should resist the temptation, and show restraint.

Voters on both sides of the political spectrum are increasingly disenchanted with the business-as-usual political machinery of elections. It’s why so many conservative Republicans rejected that party’s approved candidates and chose establishment-bashing Donald Trump in 2016. It’s why so many young progressives reacted vehemently to the nomination of Hillary Clinton the same year — part of the reason Trump won that election. The fix was in. Everyone knew who was going to get Democratic support and the nomination, and many Bernie Sanders supporters were having none of it.

It’s hard to forge exciting new political alliances when establishment politics run so strong. But at minimum, we can allow for more grass-roots efforts and more out-of-the-box candidates.

With two years to prepare for the 2022 election, perhaps politically engaged millennials and Gen-Zers will organize for a progressive candidate, different from any of the names currently being floated for Harris’ seat. Or voters might want to swing less progressive, as they did on many propositions on the November ballot. Who knows, Republicans might even come up with a moderate candidate who appeals to voters here.

None of this stands much chance of happening if the governor installs a senator now who plans to run as the incumbent in 2022, with all the advantages that confers.

The first two years of a new president’s administration are often the most consequential. The people of California supported Harris’ ascension to the vice presidency — a historic moment. Now the state’s voters should get their say on who should replace her.

— Karin Klein, Jon Healey and Erin B. Logan


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