Who would get Kamala Harris’ U.S. Senate seat? The answer could be in Southern California

With the Associated Press and other major media projecting Joe Biden and running mate Kamala Harris as winners of the White House, two glaring questions — just theoretical mere months ago — are now framing Southern California politics: Who would take Harris’ seat in the U.S. Senate? And who could end up with posts in a Biden administration?

Tough tasks lay ahead — and complex choices. “This will be one of the most important, most difficult and yes most costly transitions in modern American history,” Chris Korge, the Democratic National Committee’s finance chair, warned donors in a recent letter obtained by The Associated Press. “There is so much work to do.”

“There’s a lot of different dominoes that could come into play,” said Marcia Godwin, professor of Public Administration at the University of La Verne, an expert in the political appointments process.

That process will begin in Sacramento, where Gov. Gavin Newsom will be tasked with appointing someone to fill Harris’ post for the remaining two years in the U.S. Senate. A clear frontrunner for the post has not yet emerged and Newsom has not publicly tipped his cards.  But myriad names — including a half-dozen familiar politicos from Southern California — already have the pundits buzzing.

Sen. Kamala Harris joined Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia for a town hall on issues facing Californians at the Long Beach Convention Center.Long Beach April 6, 2018. Photo by Brittany Murray, Press Telegram/SCNG

“The fact that we’ve not had a Latinx U.S. senator looms large,” Godwin said, noting that such a choice could make a bold statement about the state’s diversity.

Observers also think Newsom may be ready to go outside of the Bay Area talent for his pick, tapping the state’s geographical diversity.

Harris and Sen. Dianne Feinstein have deep roots in Northern California. But this year, contenders figure to include players from Los Angeles and Orange counties, where for years a pool of local leaders with contacts in D.C. and fundraising prowess have emerged.

Six names loom large locally:

  • Alex Padilla, the state’s secretary of state;
  • Xavier Becerra, the state’s attorney general;
  • Hilda Solis, Los Angeles County supervisor;
  • Karen Bass, congresswoman from L.A.;
  • Katie Porter, congresswoman from Orange County;
  • and Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia.

All have spent recent days in the political spotlight. All have deep connections in the region — from Padilla’s roots in the San Fernando Valley to Bass’s connection in places like Venice and Fairfax.

Garcia is a popular leader in his adopted hometown and would be a breakthrough pick — he’s young, a Latinx immigrant and openly gay.

Padilla and Becerra are regarded as thoughtful and focused, coming into public from different disciplines — Padilla’s an engineer, Becerra an attorney.

Bass, regarded as a consensus builder, made the short list of candidates considered as Biden’s running mate.

Solis has experience in Washington, having served as Secretary of Labor in President Barack Obama’s administration.

Orange County’s Porter, a freshman congresswoman who rode 2018’s blue wave into office, is a rising star who has clicked off a series of legislative successes.

Some expect Newsom will insist on making his pick a history-making blockbuster. Many are counting on a diverse choice.

“There’s an expectation, I think, for that particular role to be filled with a person of color, no matter what,” said Mark Gonzalez, Los Angeles County Democratic Party chairman.

Rep. Karen Bass, D-Calif., speaks during a House Judiciary Committee markup of the Justice in Policing Act of 2020 on Capitol Hill in Washington. (Kevin Dietsch/Pool via AP, File)

Voters appear to be thinking along similar lines. The USC Schwarzenegger Institute found in a poll released this week that 76% of California voters want a senator with “a fresh and new voice in politics,” with legislative experience, but able to distinguish themselves from longtime politicians such as Feinstein.

For months, many have speculated that Newsom might be on the cusp of a “historic first” appointment. But according to the poll, 52% say that that didn’t matter, though 31% wanted Newsom to pick the state’s first Latino U.S. senator and 24% want Newsom to choose the state’s first LGBT senator.

The USC survey assessed seven likely frontrunners using a couple of different methods:

  • In head-to-head comparisons, pitting the seven individuals against each other in one-on-one matchups, Barbara Lee, D-Oakland, got the highest marks. Others considered included Padilla, Bass and Garcia, as well as Rep. Ro Khanna from San Francisco, State Sen. Toni Atkins from San Diego and Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf.
Rep. Katie Porter pushes the CDC to cover coronavirus testing for uninsured Americans. (Video screen grab from @RepKatiePorter via Twitter)
  • People polled were also asked whether they could support each of the officials individually, without the head-to-head factor. Long Beach’s Garcia polled at the top, followed by Bass and Padilla.

Some may find themselves off Newsom’s list — but not because of perceived flaws or failures. They simply may be seen as too valuable to the party where they are currently serving, Godwin said.

For example, many Democrats say Orange County’s Porter is badly needed in the House, representing a newly blue region that has a fight on its hands to keep from returning red.

However, Porter could be poised for other posts, Godwin said. If Becerra were, say, to become a senator — Porter might be a contender for attorney general, she said.

Other names are floating in California’s political zeitgeist are possible cabinet frontrunners, including Burbank Rep. Adam Schiff and L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti.

If one or both were called to join a Biden team, new scrambles to replace them could break out.

Would L.A. City Councilman Kevin de Leon run for mayor, among others, if Garcetti were called to D.C.? Garcetti, a co-chair of Biden’s campaign, once considered the White House himself. But amid a homeless crisis in the city that drew President Donald Trump’s ire, he held back.

Does Schiff — fresh off winning another term as an L.A. congressman — put off such a move to set his sights on a run to follow Feinstein as senator?

As the man who led the impeachment case against President Trump, Schiff is a hero among Democrats, and he’s among the party’s most prolific fundraisers. But he could be a polarizing force, as someone who’s none too popular with Trump boosters.

Bass is seen as a potential housing and urban development secretary. And Solis has already had a cabinet role, so she’d have a shorter learning curve.

Godwin noted that the roster of potential administration posts extends to the Inland Empire, where representatives like Pete Aguilar, D-Redlands, Mark Allan Takano, D-Riverside, and Rep. Raul Ruiz, D-Hemet, hold varying levels of expertise and ability to work across the political aisle.

“It would be nice if one of them top positions from California was someone with real roots from the greater Los Angeles area was a local resident,” said Rep. Brad Sherman, D-Sherman Oaks.

But he noted that Californians can’t be too greedy.

“It’ll be very hard to get on the phone to yell at Biden (if he fails to choose cabinet members from California) … He’ll just send us a picture of the vice president-elect,” Sherman said.

Former Vice President Joe Biden and Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti arrive for a press conference at the United Firefighters of Los Angeles Friday, January 10, 2020. The United Firefighters have a announced their support for Biden. (Photo by David Crane, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

“For first time since Ronald Reagan, we are sending a Californian to the White House,” said Supervisor Janice Hahn on Saturday morning, echoing the sentiments of many in the Golden State. “As our state’s junior senator, Vice President-Elect Kamala Harris understands the challenges we face—whether it is the housing crisis and homelessness, or the need to expand access to mental healthcare. She is in our corner and I cannot wait to work with her and President Biden on behalf of LA County.”

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