[guest post by JVW]
With what now looks to be a near ironclad certainty that Joe Biden and Kamala Harris will be the next President and Vice-President of the United States, California is left with an open Senate seat to fill for the next two years. Given that the Golden State votes overwhelmingly Democrat, and given that there is no shortage of ambitious politicians who are dying for a shot at climbing the ladder (this is only the second Senate seat opening here since 1992), one might be forgiven for believing this will be a pretty straightforward decision for Governor Gavin Newsom to make. One would be wrong. Democrat politics, though dominant in our avocado republic, are beset by wide divisions along the lines of race/ethnicity, ideology, and geography. It’s a minefield in which our governor, who harbors serious ambitions of his own, will have to tread lightly.
I’m going to immediately dismiss the idea that Governor Newsom will appoint himself to the Senate seat (which of course means that it is bound to happen). He’s a first-term governor who, as I just mentioned, has his eyes set on higher office, and abandoning this post right now two years into his administration with the state’s finances in great disarray and all sorts of unresolved issues hovering over us like a Sword of Damocles would look craven and cowardly, and almost surely come back to haunt him in a future election. So let’s rule that option out from the get-go. Here are the variables with which the governor must contend:
Ever since Pete Wilson of San Diego resigned his Senate seat to assume the governor’s office and summarily appointed Anaheim’s John Seymour to replace him, every single elected U.S. Senator from the Golden State has come from the Bay Area. Seymour lost his election campaign in 1992 to Dianne Feinstein of San Francisco, and in the same election her neighbor Barbara Boxer of Marin County replaced the retiring Alan Cranston from the San Francisco Peninsula. When Sen. Boxer retired, she was of course replaced by Kamala Harris of Berkeley and San Francisco, though it’s notable that upon winning her election Ms. Harris chose to relocate with her husband to the Brentwood neighborhood of Los Angeles, perhaps with a nod towards ingratiating herself with her southern constituents who comprise close to two-thirds of the state’s population. With both Governor Newsom and his predecessor hailing from the Bay Area, I am certain that Southern California Democrats are going to lobby hard for one of their own to be appointed to the seat.
Although California is far, far less evenly divided than the rest of the nation would appear to be, Tuesday’s election should give Golden State progressives pause if they had assumed that hyper-wokeness and democratic socialism is what our state’s voters are demanding. The epic failure of Prop 16, which would have had the effect of immediately reimplementing affirmative action in university admissions and allowing it once again in state contracting, is a wake-up call to the brigades of the woke. At the same time, our Democrat-dominated state also appears to have voted against an law previously passed by the legislature to end cash bail for those convicted of crimes and shot down yet another attempt to expand rent control throughout the state. There’s even a fair chance that the attempt by California progressives to institute a massive tax increase by refiguring property tax assessments on businesses will eventually fail, though the early lead for the “No” side might very well be reversed by the time all the ballots are, ahem, “counted.”
So the setbacks to the progressive agenda combined with the potential that California Republicans might hold on to a closely-contested House seat as well as pick-up two seats by ousting Democrat incumbents should be a sign to Governor Newsom that our lurch leftward may have reached its limits. It’s kind of hard to forecast what will be going on two years from now, but given that the off-year elections are usually fraught with peril for the incumbent President’s party, would the governor be prudent in eschewing appointing a left-wing firebrand and instead making a safer, more business-friendly moderate choice with an eye set towards November two years from now?
Race and Ethnicity
This may perhaps be the deadliest minefield of all for our privileged heterosexual white male governor to negotiate. Kamala Harris was of course the first black Senator elected from California, and she was also the second Asian-American (after Republican S. I. Hayakawa of San Francisco, who served from 1977-83), and the third woman (after Feinstein and Boxer). Given that Sen. Harris’s first term will be truncated, an argument can be made that an African-American ought to be appointed to the seat to at the very least finish out her term, especially given their loyalty to the party throughout the years.
But hang on: Latinos are the fastest-growing racial/ethnic group in the state, they now represent nearly four times the voting share that blacks represent, and they have not yet ever had one of their own as a Senator for the Golden State. They too have been a reliable voting bloc for the Democrat Party, so there’s a very strong argument to be made that they are due. Asians remain a small percentage of the overall electorate (5%), barely half of what blacks represent, and they are far less committed to Democrats than blacks or Latinos are, so sorry about that Ted Lieu, this ain’t gonna be your year.
Now that the parameters are in place, let’s take an alphabetical look at some of the names that might be under consideration. If I am missing anyone please mention them in the comments and we can discuss their relative merits.
Pros: Latino from San Bernardino County. Has a pretty decent representation of traditional Democrat positions on the issues. Was a small-town (Redlands) mayor and has cooperated with Republicans as a member of Congress.
Cons: Probably not progressive enough for the state party as a whole. Quiet and unassuming, likely hasn’t done enough self-promotion to attract Newsom’s notice. Had you heard of him before this blog post?
Odds: 20 to 1. Would likely be a decent, if boring, choice.
Pros: Latina from Los Angeles. Daughter of Mexican immigrants. Young. Has law degree from USC and is therefore dialed-in to the powerful Trojan alumni. Would be quite appealing to feminists and progressives.
Cons: Is only finishing her second term as a Congresswoman. Hasn’t yet made a name for herself statewide, let alone on the national stage. Could be considered too inexperienced for the role.
Odds: 10 to 1. She would be an attractive choice if Newsom is convinced she is up to the task.
Pros: Black woman from Los Angeles. More an old-time neighborhood pol than an ideologue. Might be one of the stronger bets to hold the seat in 2022.
Cons: Underwhelming intellect, not a gifted orator, seen by committed progressives as being too pro-status quo.
Odds: 4 to 1. Has to be considered the betting favorite early on, considering she also allegedly made Joe Biden’s Vice-Presidential shortlist.
Pros: Latino from Los Angeles. Does the party’s dirty work and is likely owed quite a few favors. Has already won statewide election, so knows what it takes to succeed.
Cons: Not much more than a fixer, devoid of any ethics whatsoever. There doesn’t seem to be much to him other than a rancid career in politics.
Odds: 25 to 1. Becerra is lucky that his questionable past has thus far escaped serious scrutiny. That might not be the case if he were to be appointed.
Pros: Latino from Los Angeles. Popular with the “go soft on juvenile crime” crowd. Generally pro-business and thus acceptable to moderates.
Cons: Distrusted by progressive true-believers. Would likely draw a leftist challenger which could disrupt party harmony.
Odds: 25 to 1. It’s hard to see what advantage Newsom could gain by appointing Cárdenas.
Kevin De León
Pros: Latino from Los Angeles. Committed leftist popular with staunch progressives.
Cons: Enough of an ideologue that he might make rich progressives uncomfortable and thus be vulnerable to losing the seat in 2022. Even a vigorous primary challenge could weaken the candidates for the general election.
Odds: 12 to 1. The potential reelection problem has to give Newsom pause, especially since the governor will be on the same ballot as the party’s Senate nominee.
Pros: Partly Latino (Mexican on his father’s side, Russian Jew on his mom’s) from Los Angeles. Graduated from Columbia then was a Rhodes Scholar at Cambridge, making him admired by the intelligentsia.
Cons: Los Angeles is a mess, and has been so for most of his mayoralty. Would not do much to help the perception that the Democrats have become a party of elitists. Progressives would see him as too tied-in with moneyed interests.
Odds: 8 to 1. Fairly decent, though in an election Garcetti would have to answer for all the problems that continue to beset the City of Angels.
Pros: Latino from Los Angeles. MIT graduate (disclosure: Padilla was a student in a summer program for which I was a tutor, though I didn’t directly tutor him and don’t really recall him all that well). Has already run and won office statewide (twice). Long considered an up-and-comer, and supposedly close buddies with Newsom.
Cons: Has overseen his fair share of controversy during his tenure as Secretary of State, and is unfortunately developing the reputation for being a old-time party hack.
Odds: 12 to 1. A whole hell of a lot worse than they were eighteen months ago.
Pros: Latina from Orange County. Staunch progressive (far more than her sister Loretta with whom she served in Congress) with the full check-list of Democrat beliefs and priorities.
Cons: Not as well-known as her sister. No substantive legislative accomplishments in her 18 years in Congress despite a great deal of grandstanding. Not telegenic or particularly interesting.
Odds: 10 to 1. She sure checks all of the boxes, but she’s far from the best choice among women or even Latinas for that matter. Still, she may be the safest choice.
Pros: Latina from eastern Los Angeles-western San Bernadino. Immigrant from Guatemala. Strong with organized labor as a former union organizer herself. Spent 30 months as mayor of Pomona.
Cons: Not much of a record as a three-term Congresswoman. Like her colleague and neighbor Congressman Cárdenas, probably not enough of a self-promoter to attract attention.
Odds: 25 to 1. Being a woman definitely helps, though she’s probably too much of an enigma to take a chance on.
Pros: Latino from San Diego County. Rags-to-riches story. A relative moderate with ties to agriculture, would be a huge departure from the Boxer-Feinstein-Harris trioka.
Cons: Again, not very well-known and not much of an attention grabber. Might not be acceptable to progressives.
Odds: 25 to 1. Too much of a wild-card.
Pros: Latino from Los Angeles. Newsom could make himself look magnanimous by appointing a formal rival to the seat. Has a progressive past, but transformed himself in a pragmatist in his gubernatorial run two years ago.
Cons: Uninspiring tenure as mayor. Alienated many allies when he tacked to the center against Newsom. Not particularly thought of as bright, and noted for a short attention span.
Odds: 99 to 1. He turns 68 in January and his ship has probably sailed. Except– (see below).
The Caretaker Option
Governor Newsom might be smart to do what his fellow Dem governor Deval Patrick did when John Kerry resigned his Senate seat to become the Secretary of State. Rather than choose among a bunch of ambitious Massachusetts Democrats, thereby giving one of them the upper-hand as an incumbent office-holder to win a primary election for a full term, Patrick appointed one of his loyal staffers to keep the seat warm while Democrats who were interested in pursuing a full term could begin jockeying for the pole position. Newsom could follow in Patrick’s footsteps by appointing his pretty lieutennant governor, Eleni Kounalakis, but she is young and it wouldn’t make sense for her to accept a caretaker appointment. Perhaps Governor Hair-gel could coax Ms. Harris’s predecessor, Barbara Boxer, out of retirement to spend a couple more years aggravating everyone in the nation’s capital. Maybe Jerry Brown would like a crack at an office he unsuccessfully sought in 1982 when he lost to Pete Wilson. As mentioned above, appointing Villaraigosa would mend fences and grant the old slickster one final hurrah before heading out to pasture. Newsom could even be mischievous and appoint almost-86-year-old Willie Brown to the seat for a tender reunion with the old rapscallion’s paramour, the new President of the United States Senate. But given that this appointment is a great opportunity for Newsom to pocket a favor or earn some credit with a valuable interest group he’ll need two years from now, I don’t seem him going this route unless this develops into a complete political quagmire. I would give it 20 to 1 odds against him appointing a caretaker.
This is a lot for the governor to mull over, and I sure hope somebody sends him this blog post so that he can collect and organize his thoughts. It will be interesting to see in which direction he goes, but regardless of Newsom’s decision I sure hope the GOP can come up with a strong candidate two years from now.