By Dan Walters | CalMatters Columnist
The jousting over Gov. Gavin Newsom’s appointment of a U.S. senator to succeed Vice President-elect Kamala Harris is fast becoming the epitome — or nadir — of identity politics.
It’s a mindset in which the personalities, talents, character and accomplishments of individual human beings are secondary to being defined by their race, ethnicity, gender, age and/or sexual identification — and are expected to automatically reflect the values and mores of their designated categories.
Inevitably, then, politics become a competition among identity groups for power and distribution of public goods — a modern version of tribalism that succeeds the earlier vision of America as a melting pot that blends immigrant cultures into a unique society.
Oddly, ordinary Americans increasingly resist such categorization. We intermarry, we happily live in integrated neighborhoods, we have and adopt children of mixed ethnicity, we send our children to integrated schools and we embrace food and music from disparate cultures. That’s especially true in California, the most ethnically and culturally complex of the 50 states.
Harris herself is both a product of the melting pot vision — her mother migrated from India, her father from Jamaica and they met as students at the University of California — and of the politics of identity. Depending on the audience and the moment, she identified herself as Black or Indo-American, but she also married a white man who is Jewish.
Not surprisingly, therefore, Newsom is feeling pressure from identity groups to choose a new senator from within their ranks, each saying Newsom “must” pay homage with an appointment.
Willie Brown, the former Assembly speaker and San Francisco mayor who was also Newsom’s political mentor, is leading a public drive for a Black woman to succeed Harris, who is also a former Brown protégé.
San Francisco Mayor London Breed, still another Brown protégé, is on his list, along with Congresswomen Karen Bass of Los Angeles and Barbara Lee of Oakland.
The LGBTQ Victory Fund is another group publicly pushing Newsom to make history by appointing the nation’s first openly non-heterosexual senator.
Several women’s organizations are demanding that Newsom replace Harris with another woman.
Finally, Latino groups are pressing Newsom to honor the state’s largest ethnic group by appointing California’s first Latino senator.
Asked about his intentions during a briefing on COVID-19 this week, Newsom said he doesn’t have a self-imposed deadline, “But progress has been made in terms of getting closer to that determination.”
The odds-on favorite among political handicappers is that Newsom will appoint a Latino, possibly Secretary of State Alex Padilla, who has a lengthy and close relationship with the governor.
As the cynics — or realists — see the situation, Newsom has already given a nod to Black and LGBTQ groups by naming Martin Jenkins to a seat on the state Supreme Court. He could placate one of the other groups by naming a successor to Padilla in the secretary of state’s office. The same dynamics would apply if he chose another Latino, Attorney General Xavier Becerra, for the Senate.
While the competition for Newsom’s senatorial appointment typifies identity politics, it also demonstrates their unfortunate aspect of ignoring what should be the most important factor. We should have someone in the Senate of good character and demonstrated competence and who approaches the position with an independent mind, as the state’s other senator, Dianne Feinstein, has done.
It should not matter which identity group wins the competition. It should matter that whomever Newsom chooses will be seen as representing every Californian, not just one faction of the state’s 40 million residents.
CalMatters is a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters.