Editorial: Here’s what California needs in its next senator

Sen. Kamala Harris, left, endorses California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom for the California governor's race in 2018.
Sen. Kamala Harris, left, endorses California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom for the California governor’s race in 2018.

Gov. Gavin Newsom has the chance to make one of the most consequential choices in a generation if he decides to appoint a new senator to replace Vice President-elect Kamala Harris.

We say “if” because state law gives Newsom two options: He can appoint a senator to fill the remaining two years of Harris’ term, or he can call a special election. It’s pretty clear that Newsom will choose to appoint California’s next senator. That’s his right, and few leaders would forgo such an opportunity.

California’s next senator could help shape the nation’s immigration system, the ongoing recalibration of the criminal justice system and the do-or-die fight against climate change. He or she will help determine whether and where vital federal dollars flow to build transportation, water and energy infrastructure. And he or she will serve as both an ally to and a check on the Biden administration and, if elected to a full term in 2022, future presidents.


It’s vital that California — the most populous state with the world’s fifth-largest economy — have strong, wise, forward-looking voices in the Senate. Fortunately for Newsom, he has a deep bench of talented candidates for the job. Still, we have some specific qualities we want to see in California’s next senator.

It’s imperative that Newsom appoint a senator of color. And if he picks a woman, that would be even better. Harris is one of just nine nonwhite members of the Senate. Her departure means there will be just two Black senators and two Asian senators. (Harris, the daughter of Indian and Jamaican immigrants, is both.) Quite simply, at 91% white and roughly 75% male, the Senate does not reflect the demographics of the nation — and most certainly not of California.

For this appointment, we think Newsom would do well to elevate one of the increasing number of Latino or Black leaders California voters have elected in recent years. The governor has some excellent choices, including Secretary of State Alex Padilla and Rep. Karen Bass (D-Los Angeles).

At nearly 40% of the population, Latino residents now constitute a plurality in California, yet the state has never had a Latino senator. Newsom could make history with his appointment and make the Senate, where Latinos hold 4% of the seats, look more like America, where they make up nearly 20% of the population.

This year we have seen racial injustice and systemic inequity play out in front of our own eyes, in the killing of George Floyd and other Black people by police and in the COVID-19 pandemic, which has disproportionately hit Black and Latino families. It is more important than ever that American institutions confront and dismantle deep-seated racism, and that starts with ensuring there are more voices from historically oppressed and underrepresented groups at the highest levels of government.

We also want to see a senator from Southern California. For the last three decades, California’s senators have hailed from Northern California — specifically, the Bay Area. Likewise, statewide elected offices and legislative leadership positions have disproportionately been filled by Northern Californians. The majority of residents may live and work south of the Grapevine, but the state’s political center of gravity has been to the north.

And yes, geography matters. Southern California is like its own state. It’s the entertainment capital and home to the nation’s largest port complex, with an economy heavily dependent on international trade and tourism. It still has the nation’s smoggiest air and relies on federal policies to sustain its water supply. It’s an epicenter of economic inequality, with a yawning gap between the wealthy coastal enclaves and deep poverty in inland and inner city communities. The issues and needs of this region are unique, and it’s past time we had a senator who deeply understands them.

Lastly, we hope Newsom picks a bridge builder. We’re not naive — the era of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has been one of craven political gamesmanship. Yet savvy Democratic senators have been able to seize opportunities for bipartisan legislation on criminal justice reform, habitat conservation and wildfire protection. We want California’s next senator to know when to stand firm on matters of principle and when to negotiate to get things done. The country needs lawmakers who understand that their mission is not to score points for their political party, but to vigorously defend our institutions, safeguard our freedom and serve the people by passing sensible, effective legislation.

Again, Newsom has several talented leaders to choose from. But he needs to pick one who reflects the faces, voices and values of California, who represents the burgeoning population of Southern California, and who has a track record of getting things done.