California's 1st Latino US senator brings cheers, anger

LOS ANGELES (AP) - California receives its first Latin American Senator. For Governor Gavin Newsom, it's a political gamble.
The Democratic governor on Tuesday appointed Secretary of State Alex Padilla, the son of Mexican immigrants, to fill the US Senate seat, which will be vacated by the elected Vice President Kamala Harris. If Padilla goes to Washington, the former lawmaker will become California's first Latino senator since the state was founded 170 years ago.
In choosing a personal friend and Democratic colleague, Newsom kept an eye on history and pragmatism - he turned to someone he could trust as a year of uncertainty lies ahead, including a possible recall election while the pandemic rages unabated.
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Newsom also turned down requests from a number of prominent black leaders to replace Harris, the only black woman in the Senate, with another African American woman, such as US Representatives Karen Bass or Barbara Lee.
About six hours after Padilla's announcement, the Newsom office said he would nominate black MP Shirley Weber to fill Padilla's seat once he enters the Senate. If confirmed, she would be the first black woman to hold office, giving Newsom two clues to the story chosen in one day.
However, given the timing, the election appeared to be at least in part intended to stifle criticism after Newsom passed other black women over to Harris' post.
In handing black women over to the Senate seat, "many people believe the governor will pay a political price," said Kerman Maddox, a Democratic adviser and fundraiser who is black, in an email. "It is a terribly insensitive decision" with the nation amid a reckoning of racial injustice.
"If Governor Newsom believes our disappointment in replacing Kamala Harris is being mitigated by the appointment of an African American woman Secretary of State, he clearly does not know that constituency," Maddox added. "When I heard the news of the foreign minister's appointment, my fury went from disappointment to downright anger."
San Francisco Mayor London Breed, who is black, described the Senate's decision as "a real blow to the African American community".
The hectic day of political maneuvers only underscored the risks involved.
Meek, soft-spoken Padilla will begin his shortened term with the prospect of a tough re-election campaign in 2022, when he's likely to see challengers from his own party in the heavily democratic state. Padilla's current job has also been watched by other potential candidates who could challenge Weber if approved by lawmakers. In addition to a possible recall, Newsom is expected to seek a second term in 2022.
Padilla quickly formed a political committee to raise money and posted a campaign-style ad introducing himself as the new senator.
It frames him as the quintessential American dream, the son of immigrant parents - a short-term chef who never went to high school and a housekeeper - who graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with an engineering degree. He became something of a political prodigy and became President of the Los Angeles City Council at age 28, the youngest ever before being elected to the legislature and then to the secretary of state.
Newsom called him a "tested fighter" who would be a wild ally of the state in Washington. Harris tweeted congratulations to Padilla, calling him a "dear friend" who would be a champion for California.
There were common themes that linked the most visible candidates for the soon-to-be vacant seat: blue-chip résumés and racially diverse backgrounds that would stand out in a chamber with predominantly older, white men.
But Padilla had an advantage that no one else would bring. He is a close friend and political confidante of the governor - Padilla led Newsom's 2009 campaign for the governor, and was an early supporter when he ran again in 2018.
With Padilla, Newsom gets a political soulmate and a loyalist. A short video capturing the moment Newsom offered Padilla the post revealed their intimate, almost fraternal relationship: that's what Newsom once called him "brother".
In an interview, Padilla said he believed their personal relationship was "absolutely" a factor in his selection and described them as "good partners".
He said he has known Newsom since his days on the Los Angeles Council when the governor was mayor of San Francisco. Then they worked together when he was in the legislature and Newsom was lieutenant governor, and more recently in their current roles.
Due to the timing he couldn't predict, with the arrival of the Biden administration, Padilla will become part of an ascending class of Latinos heading to Washington. This includes California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, who was selected as Minister of Health by the President-elect.
Latinos, the state's largest demographic group, accounting for roughly 40% of the state's 40 million population, praised the election even though it strained relationships with blacks.
"I think it's a historic moment for the Latino community," said Padilla.
Padilla goes to Washington with a political profile much like Harris, the senator he will replace.
As the state's chief elections officer, Padilla earned a national reputation for electoral reform and presided over a period of record voter enrollment and participation. Under his observation, the state met 22 million registered voters.
During his tenure in the Senate, he was known for his commitment to environmental, health and safety issues, including the leakage of single-use plastic bags and requiring restaurants to put nutritional information on their menus.
Padilla lives in Los Angeles with his wife and three sons, ages 5, 7, and 13.
Padilla was widely criticized by Republicans for awarding a $ 35 million voter education contract to SKDKnickerbocker, a company with ties to Joe Biden's campaign, prior to the November election. Payment was withheld by the state controller.
In 2022, "we are confident that voters will turn down a career liberal Los Angeles politician," Fred Whitaker, leader of the Orange County Republican Party, said in a statement.
Associate press writers Kathleen Ronayne in Sacramento and Janie Har in San Francisco contributed.
In this article
Election Center 2020
Gavin Newsom
Alex Padilla
Kamala Harris

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