Latino Groups Urge California Governor Newsom to Appoint Latino to Replace Kamala Harris in Senate

There are more than 15 million Latinos in California alone, the state with the most Hispanics in the nation, who make up 40 percent of the state's population. Yet there has never been a Latino United States senator from California.

Latino groups in the state and across the country are trying to change that.

With the election of President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, her Senate seat will be vacated, which allows California Governor Gavin Newsom to appoint her successor. Organizations involved in a public effort to influence Newsom's decision told Newsweek it is time for a Latino to represent the state.

"Never in the 170-year history of California has there been a Latino or Latina representing the state in the U.S. Senate," said Arturo Vargas, the CEO of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials. "It's long past due to have a senator that is from the community but also has familiarity and intimate knowledge of it, as the next Congress and administration deals with policy issues like COVID and the economy that affect Latinos nationally and in California."

Some Democratic groups, like the California Latino Legislative Caucus, are simply stating their preference for a qualified Latino or Latina candidate, while others, like the Latino Victory Fund, are supporting specific people, like California Secretary of State Alex Padilla.

Other names that have been floated are California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, who has also been mentioned as a possibility for Biden's Cabinet, as well as state Senator Maria Elena Durazo, Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, Los Angeles City Councilman Kevin de León and Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia.

The Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights, based in Los Angeles, told Newsweek it's important to note where it stood in 2016 and where it stands now. Four years ago, Harris was facing Loretta Sanchez in a U.S. Senate race, and CHIRLA as well as influential Latino elected officials like Durazo were with Harris despite having another Latina in the race, because they felt Harris was the best choice for the community.

CHIRLA Executive Director Angelica Salas, a respected leader in the community, said it's "time to see a deep bench of Latinas and Latinos represent a community that makes up 40 percent of the state."

A recent CHIRLA analysis of deportations from 2008 to 2018 found that Latinos bore the brunt of immigration policies, with 94 percent of those who were detained and deported being Latino, she said.

"As the director of CHIRLA, I need somebody who is going to represent the hopes and dreams of our community but also be grounded in the pain and suffering of Latinos, because we have borne the brunt of enforcement," she added.

Beyond immigration, Latinos have been disproportionately affected by the coronavirus pandemic in the state, with 48 percent of deaths and 63 percent of infections coming from the Latino community.

Latino groups aren't the only ones gunning to get someone who represents their community and political interests into the seat. Newsom is facing pressure from Black groups who want to see an African American woman like Representative Karen Bass (D-Calif.) replace the first Black woman set to become vice president, and progressives have floated Ro Khanna, the national co-chair of Senator Bernie Sanders presidential campaign, as their preferred choice.

Democratic strategist Michael Trujillo, who is not backing a particular candidate, said that Padilla is the favorite to get the seat but that Bass would be a formidable opponent once the seat is open to be contested in 2022.

"I think it's still going to be Padilla," Trujillo said, citing the secretary of state's long, methodical work in the state for years and his position as a Newsom ally.

But Trujillo said it has been a mistake for Newsom to let the decision hang in the air for weeks and months.

"The fact that Gavin is letting all these third-party groups advocate for Bass or Ro Khanna—the more momentum these groups get, the more they're going to be upset or disappointed," he said. Newsom could have ended all of this jockeying during the summer, Trujillo said, when Harris was chosen to be Biden's running mate.

The Latino Victory Fund, a group that works to get Latino Democrats elected, did not waste time after Harris was picked, launching its Pick Padilla website a week after Harris spoke at the Democratic National Convention.

The group's view has been that whoever gets appointed is going to be on the ballot in two years, so backing Padilla is also a calculation as to who is most viable in 2022 and can actually win a statewide election, which Padilla did twice before, in 2014 and 2018.

The group views Padilla's background—the son of a housekeeper and a cook who went from MIT to the Los Angeles City Council and to secretary of state—as representative of his qualifications and evidence that he's the right person to assume the influential role.

"Latino Victory's whole, entire mission is to ensure representative government, because we are 18 percent of the population but only 1 percent of political power across the country," Nathalie Rayes, the group's president, told Newsweek.

"[Padilla's] a pretty remarkable leader, so we urge the governor to shatter glass ceilings for all communities and, for the first time in the history of California, send the first Mexican American from California to the U.S. Senate," Rayes said.

California Secretary of State Alex Padilla speaks during a news conference at Uber's headquarters in San Francisco on May 24, 2018. Padilla has been floated as a possible replacement for Kamala Harris, whose Senate seat needs to be filled after she becomes vice president. Justin Sullivan/Getty