With Kamala Harris now the vice president-elect of the United States, many Californians wonder who Gov. Gavin Newsom will appoint as the state’s new junior U.S. senator.
An early favorite is Xavier Becerra, the state attorney general ironically first named to his current job by ex-Gov. Jerry Brown to replace Harris when she left her state office to join the Senate four years ago. Becerra in 2018 won election on his own and likely could serve another six years as the state’s top law enforcement officer if he likes.
But he is a congressional veteran, a 62-year-old who served 12 terms as a congressman from East Los Angeles before moving to Sacramento, eventually rising to rank No. 3 in the Democratic leadership of the House of Representatives. Becerra knows the ins and outs of Washington as well as anyone and could step seamlessly into the Senate.
Chances are he also would draw little opposition in running on his own in 2022, a marked contrast to California’s last appointed U.S. senator. When Republican Pete Wilson, elected governor in 1990, named the previously obscure Orange County state Sen. John Seymour to his former seat, Seymour lasted less than two years before Democrat Dianne Feinstein ousted him.
Becerra as attorney general also has been a huge thorn in President Trump’s side as Trump tried repeatedly over the last four years to turn back the environmental calendar, attempting to reverse dozens of rules set by California, Congress and via previous presidential executive orders. At each step, Becerra resisted with a lawsuit — more than 100 at last count.
At least 38 times, Becerra’s court filings thwarted Trump’s attempted moves. Trump has not completed his calendar of regression on clean air, clean water, automotive emissions, excusing crooked mail-based colleges like the failed Trump University, and much more.
Becerra also gives Newsom a three-fer: If he makes Becerra California’s first Latino senator, he also shores up Hispanic support and gets to appoint someone else as attorney general, guaranteeing a friendly cohort anytime he wants legal action. That person could then serve 10 years, so long as the individual isn’t sworn in until after 12:01 a.m. on Jan. 1.
That’s an advantage the other very strong Latino possibility for the appointment lacks. Alex Padilla, the highly visible secretary of state, led efforts to discredit Trump’s steady attacks on universal mail ballot elections like the one California held this year. Padilla, a major and vocal Newsom campaign backer as early as 2010, assured that virtually all votes were safe from everything but vandalism this year and teamed with Becerra in resisting Republican efforts to set up a separate set of ballot boxes.
A former Los Angeles city councilman, Padilla cannot hold the attorney general’s job because he’s not a lawyer. He would be well advised to prepare a war chest to campaign for Feinstein’s Senate seat when it’s next up for grabs in 2024. Feinstein will be 91 by then, and figures to retire, leaving her seat open and a logical landing place for Padilla or current Lt. Gov. Elena Kounalakis, who would also be delighted to accept a Senate nomination.
Newsom will also get pressure from varied interest groups to appoint other folks, including Oakland Congresswoman Barbara Lee, Culver City Congresswoman Karen Bass, Orange County Congresswoman Katie Porter, Pasadena Congressman Adam Schiff, Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf, Los Angeles County Supervisor Hilda Solis, Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, a co-chair of President-elect Joe Biden’s campaign. But no one else offers Newsom as much as Becerra. Several of the others may end up joining Padilla in a future race to replace Feinstein.
Whatever Newsom does, it will be what he figures is best for himself and his obvious presidential ambitions. With significant opposition likely from both Democrats and Republicans when he runs for reelection in 2022, Newsom must use any opportunity to shore himself up in the face of harsh criticism for how he’s managed things like the coronavirus shutdown, the Pacific Gas & Electric Co. bankruptcy and the bullet train project.
Email Thomas Elias at [email protected].