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Caption: Alex Padilla’s selection to the Senate is historic, and it’s a milestone in Latinx representation in California. But is it really progressive? Photo:Kirby Lee / AP file
Alex Padilla’s selection to the Senate is historic, and it’s a milestone in Latinx representation in California. But is it really progressive? Photo: Kirby Lee / AP file

Alex Padilla to assume California Senate seat, representing a state that is 40% Latino

The dilemma: Now there aren’t any Black women in the Senate.

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Vice President-elect Kamala Harris resigned from her Senate seat on Jan. 18, the Monday ahead of Inauguration day on Wednesday, the 20th. 

“I would like to thank the people of California for the honor of serving them in the U.S. Senate over the past four years,” Harris wrote in her resignation letter, addressed to Gov. Gavin Newsom. 

It ushers-in a historic moment, where Secretary of State Alex Padilla will become the first Latino senator from California, where roughly 40% of residents are Hispanic or Latino. The announcement was made in December 2020, after intense lobbying from various Latino organizations and others urging for history to be made, and that Padilla is the choice for the vacant senate seat. 

With more than 15 million Latinos, California boasts the largest Latino population in the country. Once Padilla is officially sworn-in, the state will have a leading representative of its ethnic majority. 

Though Latino public officials have risen to various positions of power in California over the past decades, its two U.S. Senate Seats and the Governor’s office had evaded the demographic before Padilla’s selection. 

Padilla garnered support from the Latino Victory fund after it launched the “Pick Padilla" campaign in August 2020, and organizations like Bold Democrats and the Latino Community Foundation. 

Padilla is the former Los Angeles City Council president and California state senator. He has been one of Newsom’s closest allies for over a decade, including during Newsom’s unsuccessful gubernatorial run in 2010.

Padilla is not the most progressive candidate that could be chosen from California’s political ranks by any means, but advocates for his selection describe him as the highest-ranking Latino in California from a legislative perspective. 

Historically, only nine Hispanic or Latino Americans have served in the U.S. Senate — four of which are serving now, including Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, the first Latina ever elected to the Senate. 

Padilla recently told Politico on what it feels like to represent millions of California Latinos, and having big shoes to fill, following Harris’s departure to the Vice Presidency. 

“As much as this historic milestone is worthy of celebration, it really is an opportunity [...] to help people and improve lives. That will matter down the road. So yes, it’s about responsibility — living up to that and the expectations,” he said.

He later bid farewell to Harris on his Twitter. 

Padilla's replacement will make history as well.
 
Gov. Newsom selected California Assemblymember Shirley Weber to be the new Secretary of State. She becomes the first-ever Black Secretary of State in California's history. 
Padilla gave his congratulations to Weber in December.
 
"As @AsmShirleyWeber steps into the role of Secretary of State, I know she'll bring experience and a commitment to protecting voting rights and expanding access to the ballot. Congratulations, Dr. Weber. Thank you for continuing the work to make California a beacon for democracy," he wrote on Twitter.
 
The Senate’s Dilemma

Padilla’s selection has multiple immediate and long-term effects, both at the national and state level.

He is assuming Harris’s seat for the remainder of her term, which was scheduled to end in 2022.

As the first woman ever elected vice president and the first of Black and South Asian descent, she is making historic moves, but her Senate departure leaves the U.S. Senate roster without a single Black woman. 

It highlights a glaring gap in diversity in the Senate. Harris was just the second Black woman senator, 17 years after Democrat Carol Moseley Braun from Illinois.

Harris was just one of three Black Senators in Congress. As she departs, Sen-elect Raphael Warnock’s appointment (D-GA) has yet to be confirmed. Once it is, the Black representation will remain the same, but without a single Black woman. 

It hearkens to what could have been in California. 

There was no shortage of BIPOC candidates for Gov. Newsom to choose from. 

In the end, he chose Padilla, both a longtime ally, and a candidate backed by several lobbying groups.

But now Black women are now also left without adequate representation in California, and Black Californias now don’t have a representative in the Senate or Governor positions. 

This, after a perceived “snubbing” of Rep. Karen Bass, was high up on the speculation list for Newsom’s selection, as well as for  Biden’s VP pick or possible cabinet position.

Yes, Harris’s ascension to the vice-presidency shatters just one of the long-standing barriers women have faced in politics, as she becomes the highest-elected woman the nation has ever had. 

It’s monumental, but to measure the standards of progress on a single person fails to address the inequities that remain. 

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