Alex Padilla sworn in as California's first Latino U.S. senator

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Sarah D. Wire
·3 min read
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Secretario de Estado de California, Alex Padilla.
Alex Padilla of California was sworn in as California's first Latino U.S. senator by Vice President Kamala Harris, whom he replaced. (Sam Hodgson / San Diego Union-Tribune)

With his mother's Bible in hand and his political mentor at his side, Alex Padilla on Wednesday became the first Latino to represent California in the U.S. Senate.

The COVID-19 pandemic and security concerns following the Jan. 6 siege of the Capitol kept Padilla's wife, Angela, and three sons from attending.

"It breaks my heart to not have my family at my side when I raise my right hand. It's a big moment," Padilla said in an interview beforehand. "It was tricky enough trying to think through how do we travel as a family cross-country during the COVID-19 pandemic and stay healthy. But with the events of the 6th and the security measures being put in place, it just made sense for the family to stay back."

Along with newly elected Georgia Sens. Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock, Padilla, 47, was sworn in by the woman he replaced, Vice President Kamala Harris, who was the second Black woman and first South Asian to serve in the Senate, hours after she was sworn in. The three Democrats bring their party the slimmest of majorities, a 50-50 tie counting independents who caucus with the Democrats, with Harris serving as tiebreaker.

"It's meant to be. I've been telling folks I have big Chuck Taylors to fill," Padilla said, giving a nod to Harris' favorite footwear.

He was joined in the chamber by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Rep. Tony Cárdenas (D-Los Angeles), both of whom he worked for as a young man. A smattering of House members gathered in the Senate chamber to watch the proceedings, including Rep. John Garamendi (D-Walnut Grove).

Padilla, a Pacoima Democrat and MIT graduate who once developed software for satellites but later rose through local and state political office to become California secretary of state, was tapped in late December to complete Harris' term, which ends in 2022.

Rep. Salud Carbajal (D-Santa Barbara), who has known Padilla since they were both starting out as young staffers to California politicians, said it is extraordinary to see his friend become the first Latino to represent his home state in the Senate.

"He brings that unique perspective and experience of the Latino community to the United States Senate," Carbajal said. "He's going to be great. He is smart and compassionate and a people person. He's somebody who's going to build relationships and be a statesman."

Harris entered to perform the swearing-in, her first official act as vice president, to a round of applause. As she read aloud that Padilla was appointed to fill the remainder of her term, he sneaked her a thumbs-up.

After completing the oath, Padilla and Ossoff bumped fists. Harris bumped elbows with Warnock. Padilla bowed slightly to the woman he replaced, hands clasped to his chest, and she mimed the motion back.

Feinstein clasped Padilla's arm and directed him to sign the oath book all senators sign upon joining the Senate.

“I can’t wait to start working with Sen. Padilla on the issues close to us both, from COVID-19 relief and immigration reform to climate change and economic recovery,” Feinstein said in a statement.

Padilla said election security, immigration, criminal justice reform and climate change will be his top priorities in the Senate.

"We're long overdue for comprehensive immigration reform, which should include a pathway to citizenship for the 11 million-plus undocumented in the country. No state has more at stake in getting immigration reform done than the state of California," Padilla said.

But first his attention is on "COVID, COVID, COVID" and addressing its disproportionate effects on public health and the economy in communities of color. Los Angeles County is among the areas hit hardest.

"This is very real, very personal to me," he said.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.