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The Election is Over: Here are Four Possible Picks for Harris’ Seat

By Ned Heyman

If this year has shown us anything, it’s that control of the Senate is vital for accomplishing any of a President’s policy goals. Because of that, Kamala Harris’ soon to be empty Senate seat is crucial to any hopes of a majority.

In California, as in most states, Governor Gavin Newsom (D) will be responsible for appointing Harris’ successor. Whomever he chooses will serve the remainder of Harris’ term, set to expire in 2023. He or she may choose to run for election in their own right in the 2022 Senate elections.

Newsom has quite the difficult task ahead of him, and he’ll have a lot to consider in making his pick, for instance:

  • California has sent two women to the Senate since 1993. Newsom is likely in no hurry to break that streak.

  • Latinxs are the plurality in California, yet the state has never elected a latinx senator. Newsom will likely face a considerable amount of pressure from latinx groups to change that.

  • There’s a bit of a rivalry between Northern and Southern California. In the past few years, northerners have dominated most political positions. Newsom may want to appoint someone from the Los Angeles area to balance out that divide. However, he is from San Francisco, so this might not have too much of an impact.

  • Newsom likes setting history; as mayor of San Francisco, he made headlines for refusing to comply with the state’s same-sex marriage ban, and he just recently nominated the first gay, black man to the state Supreme Court. He’ll likely look to continue that history with his Senate pick.

  • Newsom will be up for reelection in 2022, the same year as the Senate seat. He’ll likely seek a second term as Governor, but he’s limited to just those two terms. If he wants to keep his political career going, he may have an eye on a Senate run in the future. It’s possible that he’ll appoint someone who won’t seek re-election to better his chances in a future election.

  • California’s other Senator, Dianne Feinstein (D), is 87 and has faced criticism from liberal groups for her perceived warmth with many in the Republican leadership. Newsom will certainly face pressure to balance her out with someone more liberal. There have been some calls from liberals for Joe Biden to appoint her to an ambassadorship or cabinet position, which would give Newsom a little more leeway in making his pick.

With all that in mind, let’s now look at who Newsom might pick. If past Senate appointments are anything to go by, Newsom has essentially two options: He can select a “caretaker,” someone like a retired politician who won’t seek re-election and will just hold the seat until it opens up in 2022. This is the low-risk, low reward option. Alternatively, Newsom could choose someone who could hold the seat for the next decade, cementing his legacy as Governor. Without further ado, here are some of the possible picks:

Former Governor Jerry Brown

Why he’s a good choice:

  • Brown has been in California politics since the 1970s; as the third longest serving governor in US history, he was both the oldest and sixth-youngest governor of the state. He retired after his fourth term in office in 2019, meaning he likely wouldn’t seek another Senate term if appointed.

  • His nearly 50 years in the public eye make his name recognition nearly unbeatable.

  • His “canoe theory” of government (paddle to the left, paddle to the right), means he’s popular with a huge amount of the electorate.

  • His handling of California’s budget crisis earned him praise from politicians all across the political spectrum.

  • In his two stints as Governor, he followed both Ronald Reagan and Arnold Schwarzenegger, California’s two movie star Governors. His leadership could be perfect for a post-Donald Trump Washington.

Why he isn’t:

  • In a rapidly diversifying state like California, Brown’s old white man-ness is certainly less of an asset than it would have been in years prior.

  • He might not accept—as mentioned above, Brown retired in 2019, so it is possible he wouldn’t want the job.

  • Gavin Newsom might not want to go with the “caretaker” option.

Former Senator Barbara Boxer

Why she’s a good choice:

  • Boxer served in the Senate in the seat now held by Kamala Harris from 1993 to 2017, before retiring. She would almost certainly not seek re-election in 2022.

  • She was the more liberal of California’s two senators, and was quite popular during her time in the Senate.

  • She would take the pressure to appoint a woman off of Newsom. If a man were to win in 2022, it wouldn’t be because of him.

Why she isn’t:

  • Like Jerry Brown, she might not want the job. Boxer served in congress starting in 1983. After retiring at 77, she could be perfectly happy letting someone else go back to Washington.

  • Towards the end of her Senate career, Boxer was accused of failing to disclose a million dollar home she owns by several right-wing media outlets. This story didn’t really hurt her electorally, but if it were to come up again, it could cause more trouble than Newsom or Boxer would like.

California Attorney General and former US Representative Xavier Becerra

Why he’s a good pick:

  • Becerra served in the US House for 24 years, representing Downtown Los Angeles. Becerra was elected chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, the fourth-highest position in the House Democratic Leadership. He has significant legislative experience and contacts from his time on the Hill.

  • Becerra is an up-and-comer in Democratic politics. His office has sued the Trump administration over 100 times and he made headlines for bringing felony charges against anti-abortion activists who secretly filmed Planned Parenthood staffers. In 2019, Becerra delivered the Spanish-language response to the State of the Union address.

  • If Newsom were to appoint Becerra to the Senate, he would be able to appoint Becerra’s successor as AG, giving him two appointments for the price of one, and the opportunity to pick someone close to him.

  • Attorney General is one of the most prominent positions in California Politics and is generally considered to be the primary stepping stone to other offices, like Senator and Governor. Becerra is one of the most well-known politicians in the state, which definitely gives him a leg up.

  • Becerra would be California’s first latino senator and would be the first senator from Southern California since 1992, both potential advantages for him.

Why he’s not:

  • In 2019, Becerra threatened to sue reporters who received a list of every police officer convicted of a crime in the past decade. This alone could doom his chances.

  • Becerra is almost certainly under consideration for Attorney General or Secretary of Homeland Security in Joe Biden’s cabinet. He could be more likely to take a spot in the Biden administration and leave the senate appointment to someone closer to Newsom.

  • Becerra would break California’s streak of women senators, which could be a point of contention.

California Secretary of State Alex Padilla

Why he’s a good pick

  • Padilla has made a name for himself for his staunch support of voting rights. He refused to send voter data to the Trump Administration when requested, led California’s expansion of mail-in balloting and was behind a law allowing third parties to turn in a ballot on someone else’s behalf.

  • He has the support of Latino Victory, a powerful interest group in state politics.

  • He’s a close ally of Governor Newsom. Padilla was one of the first politicians to endorse Newsom’s gubernatorial campaign, and they’ve stayed close since then. Newsom could use this pick to pay him back for his support.

  • Like Becerra, picking Padilla would give Newsom the opportunity to pick the new Secretary of State.

Why he’s not

  • Padilla is the most likely choice for the seat, so there’s not a lot that would disqualify him here. His main issue is he’s probably the least well known out of anyone on this list, but that shouldn’t stop him.

  • Otherwise, he would also break California’s streak of having two women senators, but don’t expect this to be a big enough hurdle to stop his appointment.

The Best of the Rest:

  • San Francisco Mayor London Breed

  • Long Beach Mayor Robert García

  • President Pro Tempore of the State Senate Toni Atkins

  • Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti

  • Lt. Governor Eleni Kounalakis

  • US Representative Karen Bass (CA-37)

  • US Representative Adam Schiff (CA-28)

  • State Controller Betty Yee

  • State Treasurer Fiona Ma

  • Former President Pro Tempore of the State Senate Kevin De León

  • Speaker of the Assembly Anthony Rendon

The election of Kamala Harris represents the re-emergence of California as a player in national politics. Whoever is selected as California’s next senator will have to follow her legacy in the Senate while trying to shape their own.

Ned Heyman is a freshman from Los Angeles, CA majoring in political science.

Note: The GW College Democrats News & Blog Committee’s mission is to highlight, empower, and facilitate the political expression of its members. As such, the views expressed in this article are based on the opinions of its author, and do not necessarily represent the views of the whole of GW College Democrats, its executive board, or its deputy director board.


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