Gov. Gavin Newsom made a wise, if not terribly surprising, choice Tuesday in appointing Secretary of State Alex Padilla to serve the remaining two years of Vice President-elect Kamala Harris’ term in the U.S. Senate.
Political insiders had made Padilla the odds-on favorite from the moment in early November when it became clear that there would be a seat to fill, and not just because he has been an important ally to Newsom and would make history as the first Latino to represent California in the Senate. The 47-year-old checks all the other boxes in terms of experience, accomplishment, temperament, political acumen and national profile.
Given all that, it would have been shocking if Newsom had passed over Padilla for a more headline-grabbing name — and most of the other likely picks were considerably more headline-grabbing. If there is one thing that Padilla is not, it is flashy. He doesn't do rash or brash. He's not a firebrand or a media hound, but a cool, considered and thoughtful leader. Senatorial, you might say. Even as a twentysomething on the Los Angeles City Council, Padilla projected a maturity and steadiness beyond his years.
Maybe that's the engineer in him (Padilla graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with a mechanical engineering degree and worked briefly in aerospace before shifting to politics). Maybe this character trait was cultivated out of necessity when he was thrust unexpectedly onto the national stage shortly after becoming the youngest president of the City Council.
As luck would have it, Los Angeles Mayor James K. Hahn was out of town on Sept. 11, 2001, leaving Padilla as acting mayor. After the planes hit the twin towers in New York City, it fell to Padilla to calm a saddened and scared Los Angeles as speculation swirled about similar attacks striking the West Coast. It was a tough introduction to the spotlight, but the 28-year-old handled the moment with calm and grace, attributes that served him well during his rise to the California state Senate and then to the state's top elections office.
Padilla's selection won't make everyone happy. Newsom had been heavily lobbied to use this rare opportunity to appoint a woman, a Black elected official, a political progressive, a member of the LGBTQ community and maybe all of the above. Padilla is none of those things, but we have every reason to believe that he will nonetheless serve every Californian well in the Senate, using the same steady hand that has characterized his long political career.
As the state’s top elections official, Padilla has been a consistent advocate for modernizing elections and improving ballot access, as well as one of the chief antagonists of President Trump’s efforts to undermine trust in voting and mailed ballots. Padilla stood up to Trump's endless attacks on voting in general and California's elections in particular. The fact that California enjoyed a trouble-free election on Nov. 3 is due in large part to Padilla's work to improve and expand access to the voting process. In this era of diminished confidence in elections, a voice of experience with the cutting edge of election innovation and integrity in the Senate is invaluable.
And of course, it's a huge plus for Southern Californians that Padilla is a native Angeleno. There hasn't been a senator from Southern California since 1992. Since then, all of the state's senators — Barbara Boxer, Dianne Feinstein and Harris — have hailed from the San Francisco Bay Area. While there’s nothing to suggest that they haven’t fairly represented this region, having a senator with a deep, lived understanding of Southern California can’t help but shape legislation and policy that better serve the entire state.
Those roots might also give Padilla an asset that many other Democratic senators lack: common ground with senators from heavily working class red states. No one can credibly call Padilla a coastal elite. Like so many Californians, Padilla is the child of immigrants. He grew up in Pacoima, where his family still lives, a working-class neighborhood in the northeastern San Fernando Valley that is largely Latino.
How effective any Democrat can be in the Senate over the next two years depends to a large degree on the outcome of the two runoff elections in Georgia next month, which will determine whether Republicans or Democrats will hold the chamber's majority. But we have no doubt that no matter how the partisan divide splits, the choice of Padilla is a good one.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.