Kamala’s Replacement: My Take On Who Should Be the Next Senator

In January 2021, Governor Newsom has the grueling decision of selecting the replacement for Vice President-elect Kamala Harris’s former position as a US Senator for California. Here, I break down his short-list and offer my take on who I believe Governor Newsom should select.

Image Credit: Adam Schultz

A dreaded decision that Governor Newsom claimed he would not wish for his worst enemies- that is how he has described this selection process to fill VP-elect Harris’s Senate seat. Many have asked that the seat be filled by a woman, and more specifically, a Black woman. As currently the only Black woman in Senate, Newsom would essentially be confirming their lack of representation in governmental institutions. While his advisors have confirmed that “diversity” is being taken into consideration, this is not a guarantee that Newsom will in fact choose a Black woman, or even a woman for that matter, especially considering that he is facing insurmountable pressure to select the first Latino senator to represent California in 170 years. So, who is speculated to be on his list and who do I believe he should ultimately choose?

Option #1: Karen Bass. She has been re-elected to represent the 37th Congressional District five times, which encompasses much of the city of Los Angeles, and is home to a major film industry, world-class museums, and a diverse population of over 700,000 residents. Prior to being elected to the US Congress, she served in the California State Assembly for five years and was the speaker for two years. Bass is currently the Chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, where she also co-chairs the Foreign Affairs and National Security Task Force, and serves as a member of the Immigration Task Force and the Police Accountability Task Force. Beyond the CBC, she also currently serves in the Committee of Foreign Affairs, where she serves as a Chair of the Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights and International Organizations. In the 116th Congress, she has drafted three bills in this committee, with the most recent being “Supporting Respect for Human Rights and Encouraging Continued Continued Democratic Progress in Ethiopia, and for other purposes”. There does not seem to be a negative opinion of Bass by the public, and it seems like she is utilizing her platform and holds key experience in topics like national security that are crucial for the US Senate.

While being liked by Nancy Pelosi is gaining her credibility, this fact concerned me- is Karen Bass an establishment Democrat or is she willing to be more demanding to see change? Checking funding sources for political campaigns is often a great indicator to answer this question. When assessing her funding, there are some red flags. For one, her sixth largest contributor was Amazon.com: considering the 40% increase in profits they netted during this pandemic, without matching those increases with significant improvements for the treatment of workers, they are not supported by radical Democrats. The top contributors for her PAC, which contributed to 37.97% of her funding for re-election, included Google and Walt Disney. Large individual contributions, defined as $200+, contributed another 33% of her funding, and yet, small individual contributions only constituted 1.47% of her funding. Considering the diverse district Bass hails from, it is slightly concerning that she is not able to acquire much funding from that sector- then again, her consistent re-election has likely made voters feel safe in knowing that she will win. However, when comparing to candidates like Cori Bush, who had a majority of her campaign funded by small individual contribution, it raises the question of whether Karen Bass is a moderate Democrat or a progressive. If the small percentage of small individual donations is not a fluke, meaning it is not due to the comfort of her re-election campaign, then it will be risky to select her as a Senator; given the Democratic majority of California, voters will maintain incumbency candidates so long as they perform and are connected to their communities. Given that Feinstein’s disapproval has increased in California, selecting a more progressive voice is KEY to satisfy Democrat voters. Finally, the first of two other concerns are that she chose to vote “Present,” which is essentially an abstention, for the Strength in Diversity Act of 2019, which was passed to require the Department of Education to award grants to specified educational agencies, including early education to secondary schools, to promote diversity and reduce or eliminate racial or socioeconomic isolation. The last concern is that she chose not to complete the Political Courage Test facilitated by VoteSmart in 2020 despite multiple requests from the organization- this is a test which she has completed in the past.

Option #2: Barbara Lee. In 1990, Lee served as a California assemblywoman who was the first African American woman elected to the State Senate from Northern California, and who passed 67 resolutions that became law. She used her position to create “the California Commission on the Status of African American Males and the California Legislative Black Caucus,” and was seen as a strong ally to LGBT+ and women’s issues via her 1995 California Schools Hate Crime Reduction Act and the first California Violence Against Women Act.

Since 1998, Congresswoman Barbara Lee has served California’s 13th Congressional District (once was the 9th Congressional District), and has won 88–99% of the vote in the past five elections. Her district includes portions of Alameda and San Francisco counties, with the racial and ethnic breakdown being: 47.8% white, 21.1% Asian, 19.8% Black, and 20.7% Hispanic. Lee garnered national attention for being the only member of Congress to oppose the authorization for the use of military force after 9/11, and has been an outspoken critic of the Iraq War. Lee became chair of the Democratic Whip Task Force on Poverty and Opportunity in 2013, created the bipartisan and bicameral HIV/AIDS Caucus which she co-chairs, and formerly was the chair of the Congressional Black Caucus and the former co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.

Currently, Lee serves as the “only African American woman in Democratic leadership, serving as Co-Chair of the Policy and Steering Committee”. Along with this, she currently serves as the Chair of the Majority Leader’s Task Force on Poverty and Opportunity, Co-Chair of the Pro-Choice Caucus, and Co-Chair of the Cannabis Caucus. She is also a member of the Budget Committee and the Appropriations Committee, and serves on three subcommittees for Appropriations: Vice Chair, State and Foreign Operations; Labor, Health and Human Services, Education; and Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration. Her most recent co-sponsored bill which has been introduced but not voted on is “Condemning unwanted, unnecessary medical procedures on individuals without their full informed consent”.

There was no red flags in Lee’s funding sources- not surprisingly, employees affiliated with the University of California were her top source of funding. Wells Fargo was the third largest funder, but no other major corporation made up her significant funding contributions. Large individual contributions constituted 52.88% of her funding, and small individual contributions constituted 20.58% of her funding, with PAC Contributions contributing the other 26.50%.

Though I attempted to remain neutral, it is likely evident that I prefer Lee to Bass for the reasons that we witness a proactivity and a willingness to deviate from Democratic leadership, despite being a part of Democratic leadership herself. Maybe this is why Pelosi supports Bass over her, but for me, this go-getter nature of creating spaces for communities that are excluded from government institutions strikes a chord with me (especially since my research and career goals focus on exactly this). Some prefer Bass due to her expertise in working across party lines, so there are pros to selecting Bass.

Option #3: Alex Padilla. As someone who has been by Newsom’s side, whether as a key endorser or as a friend for the Governor, Padilla is in what we call “the inner circle” and that relationship is expected to influence Newsom towards choosing him; Dianne Feinstein has already declared her support for Padilla. His entry into politics was through the Los Angeles City Council, where he served as the youngest Council President, and the first Latino council president. In 2005, he served as the President of the League of California Cities, and fought to protect city budgets and promote their legislative interests in the State Capital. He previously served in the California State Senate from 2006 until 2014, and focused on environmental reforms and broadband access. There was nothing overly concerning in his funding information, though there were smaller contributions from PepsiCo, police unions and law enforcement organizations, and Google in a previous election cycle. It is important to note that Padilla had significant support from tribal nations, with it being one of his top 5 sector contributions.

Looking at his voting and endorsement record, he was a supporter of Measure J in Los Angeles, which successfully required that 10% of general funds are invested in social services and alternatives to incarceration. Yet, while Padilla voted in favor of many pieces of legislation, the bills which he co-sponsored or sponsored often did not move beyond being introduced. Though, it is true that his experience with election security as the current Secretary of State would be valuable in pushing campaign finance and election security reform farther. POLITICO believes that Padilla is the frontrunner, though this is likely due to his endorsement from Feinstein and his close friendship with Newsom. I would not choose him over Lee personally, due to her greater experience with national politics, something which Padilla lacks due to his extreme focus on state politics, and while it would be nice to elect the first Latino senator, losing women’s representation is not worth it for a candidate like Padilla.

There are some other names floating around: SF Mayor London Breed, Toni Atkins, attorney general Xavier Becerra who has sued the Trump administration numerous times on behalf of California, and even Eleni Kounalakis. Of these four, Becerra would be the most fit to serve: he has served TWELVE terms as a member of US Congress, and has some experience with California State Legislature as well; he was also the former Deputy Attorney General with the California Department of Justice. Personally, I prefer Becerra to Padilla if Newsom is striving to select a Latino senator, but Padilla’s connections probably give him the edge over Becerra, which is a shame due to Becerra’s extensive experience in Congress. If the choice was mine, I would push for Barbara Lee, so as to replace female representation with female representation and due to her extensive experience in serving our Black community and our California communities at large. If Newsom wishes to appoint a Latino senator, Attorney General Xavier Becerra is definitely preferred, but as mentioned numerous times, he would likely choose Secretary of State Alex Padilla instead.

Who do you think Governor Newsom should select? Do you agree with my analysis? Let me know!

Alisha Saxena is a senior at the University of California, San Diego majoring in Political Science-Public Law and minoring in African American Studies. She is currently interning with RepresentWomen, a group that seeks to develop solutions to promote gender parity in politics. She looks forward to continuing to write about politics, civic engagement, representation in government, and more!

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