SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) — Thrust into the spotlight by the momentous election of a woman as vice president of the United States, first-term Governor Gavin Newsom suddenly holds a dominating grasp over the future of California politics.
Three Democrats — all women — have represented California in the U.S. Senate since 1993, making the seats arguably the most coveted and hardest to attain in the state of 40 million. With the imminent promotion of Vice President-elect Kamala Harris in January, Newsom is the first California governor with the opportunity to appoint a senator in nearly 30 years, and the “cattle call” of candidates is already emerging.
While Newsom maintains he’s more focused on fighting Covid-19 than replacing Harris, the potentially historic implications of the decision are overshadowing the attempt at political correctness.
Newsom has a prime opportunity to appoint someone from various underrepresented communities: As diverse as California’s population is, the state’s 170-year history is filled with almost exclusively white senators.
With the departure of the state’s first Black senator, the white governor may select a Black Californian to complete Harris’ term. Or Newsom could acknowledge the glaring lack of representation from the state’s largest racial group and appoint California’s first Latino senator. He could also send a trailblazing LGBT Californian to the Senate.
The selection will certainly be a Democrat considering Newsom’s progressive leanings, not to mention the Republican Party’s dwindling presence in the Golden State where it hasn’t won a statewide election since 2006. It’s also highly possible Newsom’s choice will be able to hold the seat for decades, as current Senator Dianne Feinstein has and Barbara Boxer — Harris’ predecessor — did until her retirement.
With two months until the inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden, experts and predict Newsom will comb California’s deep bench of current Democratic elected officials for the state’s next U.S. senator and forgo a special election.
Despite the breadth of options at his disposal, from Secretary of State Alex Padilla to U.S. Representative Karen Bass, it’s far from a clear-cut choice for Newsom.
“A lot of people would like to see another African American or Asian American candidate, while others want to see a historic change with a Latino or LGBT senator,” said Christian Grose, who teaches public policy and political science at the University of Southern California. “It makes Newsom’s choice hard when he thinks about the different identity characteristics in play.”
Just prior to the election, Grose and USC researchers asked registered voters about the potential filling of California’s junior Senate seat and found they want a “fresh and new voice.”
Nearly half of respondents in the poll conducted by the USC Schwarzenegger Institute said they preferred someone with no experience in Congress or the Legislature and 77% want a senator who will “chart their own course and distinguish themselves” from Feinstein, who’s held her seat since 1992.
When asked their preference among seven potential candidates, the 1,100 voters didn’t produce a clear favorite. San Francisco Bay Area congresswoman Barbara Lee received the most support (11%) followed by Ro Khanna, another member of Congress from the Bay Area (8%), Padilla (8%), Bass (7%), Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia (6%), state Senate President Toni Atkins (3%) and Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf (2%). After being provided short biographies and asked whether they would support or oppose each person, Garcia garnered the most support with 57%, followed closely by Bass (53%), Padilla (53%) and Lee (51%).
The poll also gives insight into whether Californians want Newsom to make a splash with the appointment.
While just over half responded that Newsom making a “historic first” didn’t matter, 31% of those who said it did matter want a Latino and 24% are hoping for a LGBT senator.