Padilla has ‘big Chuck Taylors to fill’ in replacing Harris
When terrorists flew passenger jets into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, Los Angeles Mayor James Hahn (D) found himself stuck in Washington, where he had been attending meetings.
At the height of the terrorist threat to the nation, its second-largest city was in the hands of its acting mayor, 28-year-old Alex Padilla, the youngest-ever president of the Los Angeles City Council.
“He kept the city calm, cool and collected,” said Rep. Tony Cárdenas (D-Calif.), a longtime ally and friend. “In both Spanish and English.”
Two decades later, Padilla is living through another moment of crisis, one in which more than 52,000 of his new constituents have died from and millions more have been infected with a potentially deadly virus. Padilla, tapped to fill the remaining two years of Vice President Harris’s term in the Senate, said he feels the pressure once again.
“It’s a tremendous opportunity and a tremendous responsibility at a critical time,” Padilla said in a recent interview. “We need to be aggressive and we need to act with urgency.”
Just weeks into his new job, Padilla, 47, has already sat through an impeachment trial and a marathon vote-a-rama.
“What I’ve been hearing on a daily basis is, ‘it’s not always like this.’ There’s so much about this moment in time that is unprecedented, from the COVID-19 pandemic, we’re still reeling from the insurrection of Jan. 6, there’s a reason there’s a military presence and the barriers and fencing around the Capitol, and the impeachment trial,” he said. Of the trial, he added: “It was very sobering. You could hear a pin drop most of the time.”
He is about to experience his first major legislative fight over immigration, after winning a post as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Border Security and Immigration — the first Latino to hold the job.
“It’s a recognition not just that the time is right, but that the time is ripe, r-i-p-e, for achieving immigration reform. It’s long overdue,” he said. “Immigration reform and a pathway to citizenship for the millions that have earned it is good for the nation and good for our economy.”
Through it all, he has relied on new colleagues and old allies — including the woman whose seat he now holds.
“It feels a little surreal being just a text message away from the Vice President of the United States, but she has been very generous and helpful in my transition. It’s not lost on me that I have big Chuck Taylors to fill,” Padilla said.
In back-of-chamber conversations and chance encounters in the halls, Padilla has formed some early bonds with senators who have been around a lot longer than he has. He joked with Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) about completing a Full Grassley back home — Grassley’s Iowa has more counties, but Padilla’s California has more miles between those counties.
And he has chatted with Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) — two of the three former secretaries of state, along with Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), who now serve in the Senate — about the chamber’s history and traditions.
“I’m really happy to see the level of welcoming and how can I help you and looking forward to working with you that I’ve gotten from colleagues on both sides of the aisle,” Padilla said.
In interviews, former colleagues in Los Angeles where he served eight years on the city council and in Sacramento, where he served in the state Senate for eight years before winning the secretary’s job in 2014, described a hard-working son of immigrants who brings the mind of an MIT-trained mechanical engineer to government.
“He’s a very uncommon elected official. He doesn’t seem to try to draw a lot of attention to himself. He just does the work,” said Anthony Rendon, the speaker of the California Assembly. “When you’re talking about Alex, you’re talking about someone who’s succeeded because he’s smart and he works hard.”
Rendon called Padilla “scrupulously fair.” When Rendon faced the threat of a recall election in his Los Angeles-based district, Padilla did not offer reassurance or sugar-coating.
“I remember Alex calling me up and talking to me like a secretary of state, not like a friend,” Rendon said. “He was doing his job.”
Republicans have criticized Padilla’s handling of a voter education and outreach contract the secretary of state’s office entered into last year with SKDKnickerbocker, a prominent Democratic consulting firm led by Anita Dunn, who is on leave to serve as a senior adviser in the Biden White House. The state last month approved payment of the outstanding balance of the $35 million contract.
“The [Democrats] are currently trying to clean up his mess, by retroactively approving language to pay the contract,” Hector Barajas, a Republican strategist in California, said in an email. A conservative group of taxpayer advocates sued, and three Republicans in Congress asked the U.S. Election Assistance Commission to investigate.
The secretary of state’s office defended the contract as a nonpartisan effort to educate voters about the 2020 election.
Padilla began his political career fresh out of college, when Cárdenas asked him to manage a campaign for state assembly in their San Fernando Valley neighborhood.
“I didn’t know what I was doing, I’d never run for office in my life. He’d never run a campaign. But I hired him to be my campaign manager because he had heart and he was willing to learn and grow,” Cárdenas said in an interview. When Cárdenas won, he had to keep lending out his young staffer. “I kept getting asked if he could go run other people’s campaigns.”
Padilla emerged as an early favorite in the underground race to succeed Harris, after President Biden picked her as his running mate. He is close with the one person who had a vote, California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D), and the political arm of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus — led by Cárdenas — mounted a loud public pressure campaign to urge Newsom to install California’s first Latino senator.
“It was a campaign, per se. A little different than usual, but it was a campaign that was easy for us,” Cárdenas said.
Still, when Newsom called Padilla on Zoom to formally offer him the job, the weight of the moment hit Padilla as he choked up. He recalled his parents, both immigrants from Mexico.
“When the call came, when the Zoom came and the offer was made, I couldn’t help but immediately think back on my life journey, which began with remembering all the struggles and sacrifices of my parents coming to the United States in pursuit of the American dream,” Padilla said.
As he navigates the halls of his new office, Padilla has little chance to get comfortable. He will keep his wife and three sons — ages 13, 7 and 6 — at home in Los Angeles, commuting back and forth as he seeks election to a full term in 2022.
But Cárdenas said he will pressure his friend, who pitched in high school, to stick around Washington long enough to join a Democratic ball club that just lost its ace pitcher, former Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-La.), to a job in Biden’s White House.
“Not only do we need him in Washington, we need him to win that big game every year,” Cárdenas said.