By Laurel Rosenhall
In a strange and tumultuous year, 2020 delivered this paradox for Gov. Gavin Newsom: As Californians endured enormous suffering amid devastating wildfires and a deadly pandemic, their governor accumulated an unusual trove of power to shape Democratic politics for years to come.
Newsom filled two major positions Tuesday — naming Secretary of State Alex Padilla to the U.S. Senate seat held by Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, and tapping Assembly member Shirley Weber to replace Padilla as California’s top elections official. The governor will likely fill one more elected office early next year, naming an attorney general to replace Xavier Becerra, whom President-elect Joe Biden has nominated to his cabinet.
It’s a spate of political christenings California hasn’t seen in nearly 70 years. Not since Gov. Earl Warren made three major appointments over several weeks in December 1952 and January 1953 has a governor named so many people to such heights of power in such a short period of time, said California historian Alex Vassar.
“It’s a tremendous amount of power to, through fiat, be able to turn the page on generational leadership within the Democrat party, and therefore California,” said GOP political consultant Rob Stutzman.
In appointing Padilla and nominating Weber, Newsom demonstrated that he’s using his authority to bring more ethnic diversity to state politics, as many Democratic activists urged in a year when Americans poured into the streets to protest racism. Padilla — the son of immigrants from Mexico who grew up to become an MIT-educated engineer — will be California’s first Latino senator. Weber — the daughter of an Arkansas sharecropper who became a scholar of the African diaspora — will be California’s first Black secretary of state.
But the decisions apparently didn’t come easily. Though Padilla, 47, was seen as a frontrunner all along — a longtime ally of Newsom’s, he got his start as an aide to Sen. Dianne Feinstein and was widely known to be interested in running for the office — Newsom said last month that picking someone to replace Harris was a “vexing decision” that he wouldn’t “wish even on my worst enemy.” He complained of being inundated by messages from people who wanted the job.
In the end, identity politics were at the heart of the strongest advocacy campaigns: Those who wanted Newsom to pick a Latino to represent California’s largest ethnic group, versus those who wanted him to pick a Black woman to replace Harris, the only Black woman in the U.S. Senate. By making a double appointment — announcing he’d picked Padilla in the morning, and Weber in the afternoon — Newsom seemed to try to appease both camps.
“It’s a well thought out strategy, politically,” said Fernando Guerra, a political science professor at Loyola Marymount University. “He totally deflects the criticism from the other major interest group lobbying for that appointment.”
Latino advocates hailed the decision as a victory for equality, a generation after Californians voted to prohibit undocumented immigrants from using public services by passing Proposition 187. The measure was later overturned by the courts but opposition to it helped propel a cadre of Latino Californians — including Padilla — into politics.
“What a turnaround today marks for California from a mere quarter century ago when Latinos were the target of irresponsible state leaders and punitive ballot measures,” said a statement from Thomas A. Saenz, president of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.
Taisha Brown, chair of the California Democratic Party’s Black Caucus, said Newsom “has denied Black females representation in the United States Senate… at a time when Black women were critical in delivering the White House” to Democrats.
Still, she said the governor “couldn’t have picked a better person” in nominating Weber as the next secretary of state.
“I know she will do a wonderful job, but it is not a substitution for the US Senate seat,” Brown said.
Weber must still be confirmed by both houses of the Legislature, a process that will likely go smoothly given her relationships there. Weber was elected to the Assembly from San Diego in 2012 and has built a track record carrying education and police reform bills that cross influential labor unions. She worked with Newsom last year to pass a law that limits when police can use deadly force. A powerful public speaker, Weber often refers to her childhood in rural Arkansas and her father’s 6th grade education as inspiration for her work to advance civil rights.
“Expanding voting rights has been one of the causes of my career and will continue to motivate me as I assume my new constitutional duties,” Weber said in a statement announcing her nomination.
The appointments come as Newsom fends off a mounting effort to recall him from office, with many Californians angered by business closures he imposed to stem the spread of the coronavirus. If the recall qualifies for the ballot — a big if, since the campaign so far lacks the money necessary to pay signature gatherers — the secretary of state would oversee that election.
“I am sure there will be opponents to Gavin … trying to shape the perception that because the secretary of state was appointed by Newsom, it simply cannot be fair,” said political analyst Sherry Bebitch Jeffe.
“I can’t believe that the Republicans won’t take advantage of that move, and scream and yell.”
Should Weber, who is 72, decide to run for re-election in 2022, her candidacy could scramble electoral politics in the state. Two other Democratic assembly members were already gunning to replace Padilla: Lorena Gonzalez, a San Diego Assemblymember and one of organized labor’s staunchest allies in the Legislature, has already opened a campaign account to finance her run. Since then she has been endorsed by Democratic leadership in both the Assembly and the Senate. And Evan Low, a Silicon Valley Democrat with close ties to the tech industry, was also considering a run.
Padilla wasted no time in looking ahead to 2022, sending out his first fundraising pitch less than two hours after Newsom announced his appointment. The governor also blasted his email list with a request for donations to Padilla’s 2022 campaign.
It was the first sign of how Newsom’s picks could shape California politics years into the future.
CalMatters is a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters.