California Democratic Sen. Alex Padilla on Tuesday became the first Latino ever sworn in to serve a full Senate term from the Golden State.
The state that’s host to a quarter of all U.S. Hispanics is also central to national Latino politics, but it has historically lagged in representation at the top statewide elected level.
“As we sit here today, Latinos make up approximately 40 percent of the population in the state of California. Still underrepresented at all levels of government, certainly in the statewide offices,” Padilla told The Hill.
“But you have a lot of tremendous young talent and leaders that are, I think, establishing themselves and laying foundations for public service careers.”
Though Padilla was sworn in Tuesday for his first full term, it was technically his third swearing in as senator.
He was first appointed by Gov. Gavin Newsom in 2021 to replace now-Vice President Kamala Harris in the Senate, then sworn in shortly after the 2022 midterms to finish off the last two months of that term after a special election, and on Tuesday to start his term as an elected senator.
“I’ll be eternally grateful for Governor Newsom, for giving me the initial opportunity when I was appointed. But it is extra gratifying to know that I’m now here for a full six year term because of the voters of California,” said Padilla.
That Hispanics would take so long to represent California in the Senate is an oddity – the state was one of the few in the 1848 Mexican Cession that had large settlements before becoming part of the United States.
The first Hispanic voting member of Congress in history was Romualdo Pacheco, a Californio – a descendant of the original Spanish settlers of the state – who was born when California was a Mexican territory.
Before going to Congress, Pacheco was lieutenant governor of California and then briefly governor after incumbent Newton Booth resigned to take a Senate seat in 1875.
From 1875 to 2021, no Latino held one of the top three statewide elected posts in California.
Padilla’s swearing in as an elected senator is also a boon to his neighborhood of Pacoima, in the San Fernando Valley of Los Angeles.
Like many Latino communities, Pacoima has historically been underserved and underrepresented. Padilla’s political rise has encouraged even those in the community who beat Padilla to Washington.
“I am so proud of my friend, Senator Alex Padilla, for becoming the first Latino Senator from California to be sworn into a full Senate term. Alex’s story and trajectory to the United States Senate is as inspiring as it is trailblazing. Even as he makes history, Alex has never forgotten his roots as the son of Mexican immigrants, his mother Lupe, who cleaned houses, and his father Santos, who flipped pancakes in Pacoima,” said Rep. Tony Cárdenas (D-Calif.), who grew up blocks away from Padilla.
The two lawmakers share a common political path – Padilla was Cárdenas’s first campaign manager in 1996 at the age of 22.
Still, the structural obstacles of growing up in an underserved community are present for Padilla, who was once discouraged from applying to MIT by a professor who “didn’t want [him] to be disappointed.”
“A lot of people have asked me if being elected to this is kind of a dream come true. And the sad truth is, ‘no.’ Because when I was growing up, I couldn’t, I didn’t think something like this was possible or even an option for somebody like me,” said Padilla.
Still, Padilla did attend MIT, and like many California Latinos was attracted to politics in 1994 after then-Gov. Pete Wilson (R) successfully passed the anti-immigrant Proposition 187.
Before the Senate, Padilla served in the Los Angeles City Council, the state Senate, and, critically, as Newsom’s secretary of State.
There, Padilla focused on voting rights and access to representation.
“I think that the two reforms that made the biggest impact were number one, automatic voter registration, you can’t deny the numbers. We made it simple but automatic for any eligible voter to be registered when they were in the process of applying for a driver’s license, renewing a driver’s license or state ID … It just made common sense.”
“Second, making it easier to have your ballot cast. You know, the universal vote by mail option with expanded in-person options, not just on election day, but in person early voting,” said Padilla.
Those changes, apart from enfranchising millions of Californians to vote, contributed to Padilla’s substantial win in 2022.
In November, Padilla received more than 6.6 million votes, more than any Senate candidate in state history except for Harris, who got 7.5 million votes in 2016, a year with a concurrent presidential election.
And those numbers are also focusing Padilla’s work in the Senate, where he’s worked on a national push to enfranchise more voters, sometimes butting heads with GOP-led states that seek more restrictions on registration and ballot-casting options.
“I think it’s a shame. And frankly, a dereliction of duty for the states that are consciously, intentionally making it harder for eligible voters to register to vote, to stay registered to vote, or to cast their ballot. That’s not the way our democracy is supposed to work,” said Padilla.