Biden appointments give Newsom chance to reshape California politics
President-elect Joe Biden has tapped several California officials for key roles in his administration, handing Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) the opportunity to reshape the state’s political hierarchy with his choices for their replacements.
But heavy is the head that wears the Golden State crown, and allies and observers say no possible choice from the first-term governor will please everyone.
Newsom will have the opportunity to appoint someone to fill Vice President-elect Kamala Harris’s seat in the U.S. Senate, and he will get to pick the state’s next attorney general if the incumbent, Xavier Becerra (D), is confirmed as Biden’s pick to lead the Department of Health and Human Services. Newsom may even get a third vacancy to fill if, as many expect, he chooses Secretary of State Alex Padilla (D) to replace Harris.
In a state where Democrats hold all levers of government, the appointments could reshuffle the political order and define Newsom’s legacy.
“He’s going to establish the power structure of California for the next 20-30 years,” said Fabian Nunez, a former speaker of the California State Assembly.
But Newsom, who is said to harbor ambitions of his own beyond Sacramento, faces pitfalls and obstacles with the choices. He is already under pressure from activists and advocacy groups over whom to appoint to Harris’s seat. More than 200 community leaders and California residents signed a letter from Women’s Foundation California urging Newsom to replace Harris with a Black woman, citing the lack of women of color in the Senate.
The California Legislative Black Caucus and Black Lives Matter have also urged Newsom to pick a Black woman, with Reps. Karen Bass (D-Calif.) and Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) among the names mentioned.
Progressives have pushed Newsom to tap Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) for the seat, while other lawmakers have urged the governor to appoint a Latino or someone from the LGBT community.
“Whether it’s regional tension or different constituencies or identities, someone’s got to lose,” said state Sen. Henry Stern (D), a Newsom ally. “It’s a very competitive space in California.”
Stern and others close to Newsom expect him to choose Padilla, who would become the first person of Latin descent to represent California in the Senate. Padilla and Newsom are close — they share a consulting team — and Padilla has support from Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D), for whom he used to work.
“I think the safe choice is Padilla because Padilla and [Newsom] share a strong bond and there’s strong loyalty between the two, and they’ve been very supportive of one another,” said Nunez, now a partner at Mercury Public Affairs. “It just makes sense to me.”
Others pointed to state Senate President Toni Atkins (D) as a potential dark horse contender. Atkins would be the first member of the LGBT community to represent California in the Senate, as well as the first person from San Diego since Pete Wilson resigned in 1991 to become governor.
Should Padilla fill Harris’s open seat, Newsom would then be able to appoint a new secretary of state in addition to replacing Becerra as attorney general, opportunities to satisfy some of the constituencies he will inevitably disappoint with his Senate choice.
Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, an emerging star on the left, has already said she would run for Padilla’s job when he faces term limits in 2022.
“There is a way to sort of rebalance things. If you’re making both the Senate appointment and the AG appointment, there’s a way to satisfy constituencies,” Stern said.
The rush of appointments might not be Newsom’s final opportunity to shape the future of state politics. A story in The New Yorker published Wednesday raised new questions over whether Feinstein would finish her current term, which ends in 2025, when she would be 91 years old.
“I’m certain [Newsom and Feinstein] are going to coordinate. They’re very close,” said one California Democrat who requested anonymity to speak candidly. The Democrat suggested Newsom may even try to appoint himself to replace Feinstein, citing the his desire to one day hold higher office.
Whoever Newsom chooses to appoint, he will be launching or amplifying the trajectory of multiple political careers.
The role of California attorney general has traditionally been a stepping stone to higher office. Since the turn of the 20th Century, three people who have held the office — Pat Brown, George Deukmejian and Jerry Brown — have gone on to win the governorship, and another, Earl Warren, served as chief justice of the Supreme Court. Harris will be the first former attorney general of the state to serve as vice president.
“There are a considerable number of possibilities for filling constitutional offices that no governor in the history of the state has had,” said Zev Yaroslavsky, director of the Los Angeles Initiative at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs.
“So, I would say that Gov. Newsom’s fingerprints or imprint will be on state politics… and national politics to some degree,” he continued. “It’s an unprecedented opportunity and responsibility that has fallen in the governor’s lap.”
Newsom, beginning his third year in office, is in the midst of the most turbulent stretch of his tenure. Several key advisers, including chief of staff Ann O’Leary, legislative affairs director Anthony Williams and multiple top communications staffers, have headed for the exits in recent days, and Newsom has been forced to implement new lockdowns amid a surge in coronavirus cases has stretched the state’s hospitals to the brink.
Newsom came under fire last month when he was photographed mask-less at a dinner for a lobbyist friend at one of the nation’s most expensive restaurants.
“There’s going to have to be more focus on managing the politics around not just the legislature, but the pandemic in general. He’s got to start getting some wins here,” Stern said. “He’s going to be solid and weather this storm, but this has been a rough couple of months.”
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