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Democrats of All Stripes Clamor Over Who Should Replace Harris in US Senate

California Governor Gavin Newsom will appoint Vice President-elect Kamala Harris' successor to the U.S. Senate. Who he will select among the very large tent of California Democrats is anyone's guess.

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.

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Grose says there’s no doubt Newsom is keenly aware of the underlying implications for the various groups and noted his penchant for making timely, savvy decisions. 

In 2004, as the new mayor of San Francisco, Newsom issued wedding licenses to same-sex couples, stunning Californians on both sides of the political aisle. The decision came during a nationwide debate on whether to legalize gay marriage and helped lay the foundation for Newsom’s rise in the state Democratic party.

If Newsom decides to go a similar route — last month he appointed the first openly gay man in Martin Jenkins to the California Supreme Court — both Garcia and Atkins would be prime LGBT candidates.

Other names not included in the poll but pinned by analysts as potential picks include Attorney General Xavier Becerra, San Francisco Mayor London Breed and Southern California congresswoman Katie Porter.

Newsom stands to make more political hay with the right pick, but the situation remains thorny, Grose added.

“It’s a real reward he can give to somebody,” said Grose. “But I do think it’s risky because he’s going to have to pick one person; that means a bunch of other allies won’t get it.”

There are other factors in play for Newsom, such as electability.

Jim Newton, author and professor at UCLA’s Luskin School of Public Affairs, says Newsom must decide whether he wants a placeholder to fill out the last two years of Harris’ term or someone better fit to defend the seat going forward. He speculated that Padilla may be at the top of Newsom’s fledgling list, noting the two have an existing relationship and both currently hold state office. 

“It’s a big, coveted, popular job,” Newton said. “I think it would be attractive for him to put a Latino in that seat.”

Along with Padilla, Newton says other possibilities include Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and LA-area congressman Adam Schiff.

If the governor desires experience and prefers someone who probably wouldn’t seek re-election in 2022, Newton says former Governor Jerry Brown would be a great fit.

“[Newsom’s] known Brown since he was a kid and he would obviously be popular,” Newton said of the possibility of Newsom appointing his predecessor. “He would be the only person I’d put on the list of likely contenders if what Newsom is looking for is someone to fill out this term.”

Newton, who recently completed a biography titled “Jerry Brown and the Creation of Modern California,” acknowledged the scenario is improbable and that he hadn’t talked about it with Brown.

Speculation has been swirling since Biden tapped Harris as his running mate last August, but thus far Newsom has been careful not to name names. That doesn’t mean the ongoing lobbying sweepstakes hasn’t been intense, however. 

“People just happen to show up certain places. They want to babysit your kids, they offer to get groceries, get coffee," Newsom joked with reporters recently.

The last California governor to appoint a senator was Pete Wilson, who replaced himself with John Seymour in 1991. Seymour proceeded to lose his seat to Feinstein, who is now second longest-serving senator in state history. 

Even with pressure mounting in wake of Biden’s election, Newsom claimed this week that he’s in no rush to announce Harris’ replacement. Newsom said he’s working through a “cattle call” of considerations to figure out the right profile for the pick and hinted he will consult the vice president-elect herself on the critical, potentially historic appointment.

“I want to make sure it’s inclusive, I want to make sure that we are considerate of peoples’ points of view and we are in the middle of that as we speak,” Newsom told reporters. 

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