Over the next few months, Gavin Newsom will single-handedly remake the face of the California Democratic Party – a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that also presents major political peril as Newsom looks to a second term and a possible future presidential bid.
The situation is this: Newsom needs to currently fill a) the Senate seat that will be vacated by Vice President-elect Kamala Harris come January 20, 2021, and b) the California attorney general job, being left by Xavier Becerra, who is President-elect Joe Biden’s pick to be the next head of the Department of Health and Human Services.
Which is a lot!
After all, Harris is only the third senator California has had since 1992. And the attorney general job in California has proven to be a very strong launching pad for ambitious politicians. Consider the last three people to hold the AG job in California: Becerra, Kamala Harris and Jerry Brown, who went from the AG’s office to serve two terms as the state’s governor.
In picking replacements for Harris and Becerra, then, Newsom isn’t just filling slots. He’s handpicking the people who not only may replace him as governor one day, but who might also might wind up on national tickets for the Democratic Party down the line. (California’s size, its strongly Democratic leanings and the number of wealthy party donors who live in the state make any statewide Democrat a potentially appealing national candidate.)
But wait, there’s more!
California Secretary of State Alex Padilla is seen as the clear front-runner to be Newsom’s choice for the Harris Senate seat. Padilla, who would be the first Hispanic senator from California, is a longtime ally of Newsom and won the endorsement of California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein last week.
If, as expected, Newsom appoints Padilla to the Senate, then the governor will also be tasked with appointing a replacement for Padilla’s old job as secretary of state. While that gig is less high-profile than either the US Senate or attorney general of California, it’s still a statewide position in California. And, therefore, extremely valuable to any ambitious Democrat. (Fun fact: Jerry Brown – yes the same Jerry Brown – was California secretary of state in the early 1970s!)
In short order, then, Newsom may well personally select 33% of the statewide official holders in the largest and most political powerful Democratic state in the country. (California has eight statewide elected offices plus its two senators. And Newsom is one of the former.)
That’s a stunning amount of power in his hands.
Of course, as Uncle Ben in the “Spiderman” series always knew: With great power comes great responsibility. Meaning that Newsom, who – make no mistake – will run for president one day in the not-too-distant future, has to navigate an absolute minefield of Democratic interest groups as he makes these picks.
For example: Rep. Karen Bass, the chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus and someone who is being considered as a replacement for Harris, told a Los Angeles TV station recently that “there should be an African American woman in the Congress,” adding: “When Senator Harris is sworn in as the vice president, there will be one African American Democrat, one African American Republican, no African American women.”
Liberals want Newsom to pick a liberal like Rep. Katie Porter. Hispanic groups want a Hispanic, with Padilla the most prominent name mentioned. Women’s groups want Harris’ replacement to be a female. And once Newsom picks a Senate replacement – assuming he does that first – then the pressures and supplications will only ramp up for the other statewide office opening created.
Newsom, for his part, seems to be less than thrilled at the need to choose between a variety of interest groups who he has relied on for support as governor and who he would undoubtedly need as he seeks a second term in 2022 and perhaps a presidential bid after that.
“This is not something that I wish even on my worst enemy, because you create enemies in this process,” Newsom said on November 3 – speaking specifically about the possibility of replacing Harris. (Little did he know!) “And it’s a vexing decision. It’s a challenging one.”
He has offered no timeline for deciding on Harris’ replacement, which, presumably will be the first domino to fall in this process. And since Election Day, Newsom has resisted even discussing the vacancy (or vacancies). “That determination has not yet been made” was all Newsom would tell the New York Times late last month about the Harris vacancy.
Now, whoever Newsom appoints will have to run for reelection (Harris’ seat and the other statewide offices will be up for reelection in 2022), but an appointment places his choices in the roles for a substantial amount of time and gives them a strong shot at holding the seats for years to come.
Newsom can avoid answering questions, but it doesn’t change the reality before him: The personnel decisions he makes in the coming weeks will not only reshape the future of the California Democratic Party but also could have a real impact on his own long-term political prospects – in and out of the state – as well.