California Gov. Gavin Newsom selected Alex Padilla, his state’s secretary of state, to fill the U.S. Senate seat vacated by Vice President-elect Kamala Harris. This comes after weeks of encouragement from Black leaders for Newsom to select a Black woman to fill Harris’ seat. Padilla’s appointment marked a milestone — he will be the first Latinx person to represent California in the U.S. Senate — but it also leaves the upper chamber with no Black women.
Padilla, the son of Mexican immigrants who worked as a cook and a house cleaner, was sworn in as California’s first Latinx secretary of state in 2015. The Congressional Hispanic Caucus backed Padilla as the pick for the Senate role.
“From those struggling to make ends meet to the small businesses fighting to keep their doors open to the health care workers looking for relief, please know that I am going to the Senate to fight for you,” Padilla said in a statement. “We will get through this pandemic together and rebuild our economy in a way that doesn’t leave working families behind.”
Harris was the second-ever Black woman to serve as a U.S. senator — Illinois former Sen. Carol Moseley Braun served from 1993 to 1999 and ran for Democratic presidential nominee in 2004.
In August, The 19th hosted Harris’ first sit-down interview since being announced as the Democratic candidate for vice president. Harris talked about being the lone Black woman in the U.S. Senate and the need to diversify Congress and support women running for office.
“There are 100 United States senators — this should not just be about California,” Harris told the 19th’s Editor at Large Errin Haines. “This is a national issue. … It is inexcusable that we would not have full representation in the United States Congress. This should not just be about any one state. We should be saying this across the nation because there are so many talented Black women and women of color, period, who are on that path and they should be encouraged.”
Harris congratulated Padilla on his appointment Tuesday.
She The People, a national network elevating progressive women of color in politics, was one of the organizations leading the charge for Newsom to select a Black woman to fill Harris’ vacancy. Its founder, Aimee Allison, said in a statement that Newsom’s decision chips away at decades of progress to ensure the U.S. Senate mirrors America.
“For the future of California, our country, women of color, and the communities closest to us, this should be a learning moment that we need to keep marching forward and not reverse progress,” Allison said. “Sen. Harris cannot be the only woman of color at the table … It’s not enough for her to break this glass ceiling — there needs to be a path for future generations of women of color to follow in her footsteps. We cannot afford to wait decades for the voices of Black women to be heard.”
California Democratic Rep. Barbara Lee was said to be among those considered to replace Harris. Currently in her 12th term in the U.S. House of Representatives, Lee is the highest-ranking Black woman in Congress as co-chair of the steering and policy committee. In a November interview with The 19th, Lee said she would be honored to serve in the Senate.
“So representation, it really does matter, because the lens by which you look at policies are lenses that others don’t have,” Lee said then. “And that’s because of who we are, our experiences and the pathways that we have had to walk and run to get to where we are. And so, you know, there’s a void when there are not the perspectives and the input and the leadership of Black women.”
Lee tweeted her congratulations to Padilla on Tuesday.
Also on the shortlist was California Democratic Rep. Karen Bass, who has served as chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus since 2019, after the 2018 midterm elections swept in the most diverse Congress in U.S. history, including a record 25 Black women. In a November interview with The 19th, Bass called for the need to diversify the Senate.
“I think that it will leave a vacuum to not have a Black woman there,” Bass said. “And there are members of the [California] Legislative Black Caucus and other Black leaders that are calling for that. The main problem we’re talking about here is diversifying the Senate, a body that really was only diverse at one time in history for a very short period of time.”
Bass also offered her congratulations to Padilla on Twitter.
Glynda Carr, president, CEO and co-founder of Higher Heights for America PAC, which also advocated for Lee and Bass to take Harris’ role, said this appointment is a reminder of the work ahead to fight for Black women’s representation.
“We made a major step forward with the election of Kamala Harris. This appointment is a giant step backwards,” Carr said. “ZERO…count it again. ZERO… Black women in U.S. Senate… the Black women in CA, and frankly across the country, deserve representation.
So today we double down and accelerate the work to expand the number of women and elect Black women to the U.S. Senate.”