Politico

Let the next California parlor game begin: Who would replace Harris?


OAKLAND — So what would happen to California’s junior U.S. Senate seat now that Kamala Harris has been chosen as Joe Biden’s VP running mate?

If the Biden-Harris ticket wins on Nov. 3, Gov. Gavin Newsom would select Harris’ replacement — a right afforded by the U.S. Constitution.

In that instance, the Democratic governor would first have to consider an appointment who is “Black or Latinx, especially given the colliding tectonic plates of racial injustice, Covid and its long lasting health implications, and the economic collapse,” said Karen Skelton, a Clinton administration deputy White House political director and the founder of a Sacramento public advocacy firm.

But with Harris as one of four women of color in the overwhelmingly white and male U.S. Senate, Newsom may also be lobbied to consider the delicate balancing act of ethnic, gender, demographic and geographic considerations in the nation’s most populous state. Newsom sources have said that the governor wouldn’t even begin to consider a replacement until early 2021.

The jostling would be justified: In California’s solidly blue universe, the once-muscular GOP has been reduced to third party status — giving the post of Democratic U.S. senator what may be the ultimate job security. As the state has gone increasingly Democratic, two senators have held their seats for decades. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, 87, and Barbara Boxer, 79, who retired in 2017, were both elected in the “Year of the Woman” in 1992.

What follows below is a breakdown of the top contenders buzzed about in California political circles, as first laid out a month ago by POLITICO. Since that time, Rep. Karen Bass has seen her stock rise immensely and, at one point, was seen as a favorite to become Biden’s VP pick.

Bass is right up there among top contenders with Secretary of State Alex Padilla and Attorney General Xavier Becerra, each of whom could become California’s first Latino U.S. senator in a state where Latinos comprise 40 percent of the population.

Choosing Padilla or Becerra would give the Democratic governor two bites at the appointment apple: He would also be able to choose their replacements with legislative confirmation.

THE CONTENDERS:

Secretary of State Alex Padilla: A longtime friend and early endorser of Newsom, widely liked in his party, Padilla, 47, may be a sure bet — and the ultimate history-making choice. California’s Secretary of State has been a high-profile Democratic voice, and a regular on cable TV, on key issues including vote-by-mail and the importance of the U.S. Census.

“He checks all the boxes,’’ said Claremont McKenna College political scientist Jack Pitney, author of “Un-American: The Fake Patriotism of Donald Trump.” “He has won statewide choice, he’s relatively young. He’s from Southern California. And we’ve never had a Latino U.S. senator.”

— Attorney General Xavier Becerra: Becerra, 62, has been the frontline of the “State of Resistance’’ opposition to Trump’s administration, having filed more than five dozen lawsuits to challenge the president on everything from sanctuary cities to water rights. “DC savvy, son of Mexican immigrants … ready on Day One, husband of a doctor — and one of House leaders on the Affordable Care Act,” and Los Angeles-based, Skelton said. But despite being Latino, being the top cop in California in a year when law enforcement abuses are in the spotlight could shave his chances.

— Rep. Karen Bass: High on Biden’s VP list, a longtime supporter and insider with Speaker Nancy Pelosi — who would almost certainly weigh in — Bass, 66, has already made history. The LA-area lawmaker was the first female African American Assembly speaker in California and the country.

Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a fellow with the University of Southern California’s Sol Price School of Public Policy, said Bass earned kudos working across the aisle with GOP Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to tackle a massive state budget deficit in some of California’s most challenging recession years. The first physician’s assistant to be elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, Bass comes with experience that could aid in the Covid-19 pandemic. And for the last two years, “she’s done a hell of a job heading the Congressional Black Caucus,’’ dealing with criminal and police justice issues, Bebitch Jeffe said. “She has the cred.”

— Lt. Governor Eleni Tsakopoulos Kounalakis: Before becoming California’s first female lieutenant governor, Kounalakis, 54, was appointed by President Barack Obama to be ambassador to Hungary, the first Greek-American woman to hold such a diplomatic post. Kounalakis has deep experience in trade and immigration issues — as former chair of the California International Trade and Investment Advisory Council and as a fellow at the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research. The daughter of wealthy Sacramento-based developer Angelo Tsakopoulos, Kounalakis — herself former president of the AKT Development firm — has already expressed interest in moving up the political ladder and running for governor at the end of Newsom’s potential two terms in 2026.

— San Francisco Mayor London Breed: Mentored by Harris, Breed at 45 has already become one of America’s star female African American mayors. She’s got a riveting life story, growing up in San Francisco’s public housing, and she’s gotten kudos for tough handling of Covid-19 in her city, one of the first major cities to shut down. Representing a new generation of Democratic leaders, “she’s tough and … she’s definitely a pro-business Democrat right who’s right in line with Gavin thinking,” said San Francisco Democratic strategist Jim Stearns, who is currently advising state Senate candidate Jackie Fielder.

— Rep. Barbara Lee: An icon to the progressive community for her 2001 lone vote against authorization of use of force in the Iraq War, Lee, 73, remains beloved among the Democratic grassroots for her feisty activism on issues that include police and criminal justice reform, AIDS research and cannabis legalization. So much so that California Democrats just chose the Oakland Democrat, Rep. Ro Khanna of Silicon valley and Los Angeles Supervisor Hilda Solis to lead the party delegation to the August nominating convention — a role that would be traditionally held by Newsom.

— Rep. Adam Schiff: Popular in the California party and a top fundraiser — with a campaign war chest of $9 million — Schiff has been a party rock star to Democratic activists since his marquee performance in the Trump impeachment hearings which brought him to America’s living rooms. But as a white male, it is likely not his year, Pitney said. Schiff, who enjoys a safe Democratic seat in Los Angeles, may be inclined to “stay in the House where he holds the powerful and high-profile House Intelligence Committee chair post — “as opposed to becoming a very junior senator,’’ Pitney predicted.

— State Sen. Holly Mitchell: Currently running for a seat on the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, Mitchell, 55, was once described by former state Senate colleague Mark Leno as “the moral compass and social conscience of the entire Senate, if not the Legislature.”’ Democratic strategist Steve Maviglio said that as the first African American to chair the state’s Budget and Fiscal Review Committee, overseeing two state budgets, Mitchell has been a popular and outspoken legislator — “and Newsom likes working with her.”

— Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti: Garcetti’s bio — and his role as chief executive of the nation’s second largest city — has always earned him a spot on California’s political watch list: He’s part Italian, part Mexican (and Spanish speaking), as well as the first Jewish mayor of LA, and an accomplished jazz pianist. But Garcetti, 49, is also the chief executive of a city dogged by both the epidemic of homelessness and a mounting Covid-19 toll.

— Los Angeles County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl: Still beloved by many for her recurring role as the nerdy Zelda in the classic “Many Loves of Dobie Gillis” TV show, Kuehl gained a place in the history books by becoming the first openly gay elected official in the California State legislature in 1994. She’s “whip smart, has the LA base, and is close to Gavin Newsom,” Skelton said.

— Rep. Ro Khanna: He may not be a household name to many California Democrats, but to party grassroots activists, it’s another story. Chosen by California Democrats to co-lead the party’s delegation, along with Lee and Solis, to the national convention this summer, Khanna’s district encompasses some of the world’s most prominent tech firms — Facebook, Tesla, Google among them — as well as a rapidly growing Indian and South Asian community. After serving as national chair of Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign, “I don’t have any doubt that Bernie and the progressive base would be behind Ro if he decided to run statewide,’’ said Norman Solomon, national director of RootsAction.org, a national progressive group with 200,000 active supporters in California. “He has a unique and deep bond with Bernie activists across California and nationwide.”

— Dolores Huerta: The co-founder of the United Farm Workers with the legendary late Cesar Chavez is a labor and civil rights icon in her own right in California, where her endorsements and advocacy still carry huge clout. The Latina legend is 90, “but she’s got more energy than most people at 60,” said one top insider close to Newsom. Either Huerta or Willie Brown could fill the seat until the next election.

— Willie Brown: The former San Francisco Mayor and “Ayatollah of the Assembly” at 86 walks as many as 10 miles a day in his city and continues to outpace many of his younger political counterparts. Newsom owes his political career to Brown, who first appointed him to the city’s Traffic and Parking Commission in 1996. “Smartest living political force in California,” Skelton said. “Why the hell not?”

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