California Gov. Gavin Newsom is being wooed. Multiple suitors keep calling, dropping emails, practically offering, half joking, to babysit his children.
Through it all, Newsom has remained tight-lipped about whom he will appoint to finish Vice President-elect Kamala Harris’s term in the U.S. Senate. While only a two-year appointment, it may be one of the most consequential decisions Newsom will make as governor.
The rare open seat for one of the plum, prized positions in American politics gives the appointee incumbency advantage when Harris’s term is over in 2022. Not to mention, in a state where senators tend to get re-elected over and over—Sen. Dianne Feinstein was first elected on Nov. 3, 1992—the appointment could lead to a job for life.
While Newsom says he hasn’t begun to choose, his short list seems to grow by the day. So does the pressure from various Democratic interest groups. (The process is “vexing,” he told NPR.) On a recent day, Justice Democrats, a progressive Political Action Committee, pitched Rep. Ro Khanna, a national chair of Sen. Bernie Sanders’ 2020 Presidential campaign. At the same time, California Latino elected officials and supporters rallied in Sacramento for Newsom to send a Latino to the Senate for the first time in state history, and Black Lives Matter issued a petition calling for a black woman to fill Harris’s seat. Willie Brown, the former San Francisco mayor and Newsom’s political mentor, is also insisting Newsom pick a Black woman, though he has also suggested that Newsom would be smart to appoint himself for political longevity’s sake.
By most accounts, Newsom wants to make a historic choice. Diversity is a given, since Harris was one of only three current Black U.S. senators and the only Black woman. Pundits also speculate that Newsom will likely pick someone who holds a statewide office.That would give him two appointments, the Senate seat and the position vacated by his pick. Newsom would also want someone simpatico, who shares his political passions and priorities and/or can help advance them. As Newsom pushes to become the nation’s climate governor—the first ads for his re-election campaign feature wildfires and the slogan, “Climate change is real”—a partner in the Senate could help advance and inspire bold policies.
Below, the most talked about candidates for Harris’ seat and their environmental/climate actions or positions, if any, keeping in mind that there are at least a dozen other viable prospects. (They include Khanna, who is vice chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, Betty Yee, the state controller and Fiona Ma, the state treasurer. All the shortest short lists, however, include (in no particular order) California’s Attorney General, Xavier Becerra; Secretary of State Alex Padilla; Rep. Karen Bass (37th district-Los Angeles); Rep. Barbara Lee (13th district-Oakland); and the mayor of Long Beach, Robert Garcia.
1. Xavier Becerra, 62, California Attorney General, served 12 terms (1993-2017) in Congress representing downtown Los Angeles, before accepting former Gov. Jerry Brown’s offer to fill Harris’s state Attorney General position in Jan. 2017, when she joined the Senate. As attorney general, Becerra has been a ferocious attack dog against President Donald Trump, suing the administration 105 times, with more than half the suits challenging its rollbacks of environmental rules and enforcement. His office has won 60 suits, with many still pending. In 2018, Becerra’s office launched an environmental justice division with four attorneys devoted to challenging the federal government’s rollbacks of environmental protections, reducing environmental toxins and prosecuting industries polluting the air, water and land in vulnerable communities. As the son of Mexican immigrants in a state where Latinos make up about 40 percent of the population, Becerra’s appointment would boost Newsom’s standing with a major constituency, but he is on another short list: President-elect Joe Biden’s list for U.S. attorney general.
2. Alex Padilla, 47, California Secretary of State, has a long political resume. He started as an intern for Sen. Dianne Feinstein and became the youngest president of the Los Angeles City Council at age 26. Before winning his election to be secretary of state in 2014, Padilla served as a state senator for two terms. He earned a degree in mechanical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a leading climate research institution, and heavily promoted a ballot measure in 2015 to ban plastic bags to curb pollution and climate change. He is close to Newsom personally and politically, and political wisdom has it he would be a motivated ally and partner as Newsom tries to push bold climate policies before his 2022 re-election.
3. Karen Bass, 67, chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, is starting her sixth term in the House of Representatives, where she chairs the Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights and International Organizations. She spent six years in the California Assembly, the last two as speaker. Her fights for social and environmental justice go back to her days as a community organizer in Los Angeles in the 1980s. Her claim to fame in Congress is her leadership on police reform measures. but she lists climate change as one of her major issues and has been a consistent vote against Trump’s environmental rollbacks. In 2018, after the United Nations issued a dire warning about the global climate crisis, Bass issued a petition calling on the Trump Administration to commit to reducing carbon emissions and incentivizing the use of clean energy, a symbolic gesture given the Trump administration climate denials and push for fossil fuel development. Biden is considering her for several positions in his incoming administration.
4. Barbara Lee, 74, vice-chair and founding member of the LGBT Caucus, has served in Congress since 1998 (and in the state assembly for six years, from 1990 to 1996). Her history in Washington goes back to 1975, when she joined the office of Rep. Ron Dellums, where she rose from intern to become his chief of staff. She gained fame after the 9/11 attacks for being the only member of Congress to vote against the Iraq War and has been a leader in anti-war legislation. In 2018, she introduced the Women and Climate Change Act, which aims to create a Federal Interagency Working Group on Women and Climate Change. The bill, she said in a statement, was prompted by the reality that “as climate change worsens, provoking historic droughts, rising sea levels and violent storms, women and girls will bear the brunt of this global crisis.” Lee is also being considered for a Biden administration post.
5. Robert Garcia, 42, mayor of Long Beach, would seem like an outlier. A Peruvian-American whose family emigrated to California when he was five, Garcia, who holds a doctorate in education from California State University at Long Beach, is the only mayor on the short list. But he has become a prominent voice on several issues, most notably the coronavirus, and, especially, the environment. In 2015, during his inaugural address, Garcia declared his intention to make Long Beach a national climate leader. He commissioned an assessment of the city’s vulnerability and potential responses from the Aquarium of the Pacific, a trusted source for scientific information in the greater Los Angeles area. The responses have included a citizen’s guide to building a climate resilient Long Beach, published in 2017, workshops for different communities to discuss climate hazards and possible solutions, programs for Cal State, Long Beach students to engage communities vulnerable to sea rise and coastal flooding, a lecture series and other actions. Garcia may not be known outside of southern California, but voters given brief bios of prospective Senate appointments for the USC Schwarzenegger California Issues Poll chose Garcia above all other short-listers, followed by Bass, Padilla and Lee. And although voters also said they were not interested in having a “historic first” in the Senate, Garcia would be California’s first openly gay senator as well as its first Latino.