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California's Open Senate Seat Prompted Guessing Game; Newsom Picks Alex Padilla

The U.S. Capitol Building in Washington D.C. awaits a new California Senator.

UPDATED Dec. 22, 1:30 p.m. Governor Gavin Newsom selected California Secretary of State Alex Padilla to fill Vice President-elect Kamala Harris’ Senate seat on December 22, 2020, after the following story aired. It’s a historic choice as Padilla will be the first Latino senator to represent California.

Now that Senator Kamala Harris is about to become vice president, California has an open Senate seat. Guessing who Governor Gavin Newsom will pick as her replacement has become a popular game for political watchers throughout the state. 

Senate seats don’t come up often in the state. Vice President-elect Harris was voted into the Senate when Barbara Boxer chose not to run in 2016. Boxer held the seat for 24 years. California’s other senator, Dianne Feinstein, has held her seat for 28 years.

Credit UC Santa Cruz
Dr. Daniel Wirls is a professor of politics at UC Santa.

UC Santa Cruz Professor of Politics Daniel Wirls considers himself a student of the Senate. He says in the largest state in the nation, there is an overabundance of qualified politicians and the jockeying for the governor’s attention is more a game of chess than checkers.

KAZU's Doug McKnight spoke with Dr. Wirls about the selection process, what kinds of candidates might be chosen and what the selection might mean for Governor Newsom.

Dr. Daniel Wirls (DW): Newsom himself said, well, I'd really rather not do this because it's sort of like you're damned if you do, damned if you don't.

Vice President-elect Kamala Harris leaves behind an unfilled Senate seat.

I think given who Kamala Harris is, and the historic choice she represents as vice president, the odds are greater than 50 percent that it will be a woman and either Latino or African-American.

Doug McKnight (DM): Some have suggested that Newsom will pick someone who holds a statewide office like secretary of state or attorney general. That would give him an opportunity for a second appointment.

(DW): Sure, I think that's always a possibility. I think to me, that sounds like it's a little bit around the margins in the sense that, you know, he has his current cabinet and other people that I'm pretty sure he gets along with. And so, I think that could be a very marginal consideration. Although there are, you know, some people on the list who fit that bill because of their general qualifications. Like Alex Padilla, secretary of state, and other people [who] might be even sensible choices. But I don't think that's a primary consideration.

(DM):  I know you’ve studied the Senate for a long time, do things need to change? Not a lot gets done there.

(DW): I would argue so, and this has nothing to do with partisanship. You know, the filibuster, which is the rule in the Senate that requires 60 votes to end debate, not on a final vote, but to end debate on a particular issue if anyone wants to keep talking, [has] long outlived its usefulness. I don't care which party benefits from it, I think it has to go.

I'd like them to do it as a body, meaning it doesn't have to be a partisan thing. The costs of the filibuster outweigh any benefits. And those costs are what you just said. The Senate often gets so little done and that can be from a conservative direction or a liberal direction.

(DM): I'm looking for a thread of hope here. Do you see any time in the near future that we can become more bipartisan and the Senate begin to negotiate bills and actually get something done?

(DW):  You're right to express some skepticism right now. After all, we do have a president, a current sitting president, who is failing to concede what by historical standards is a very clearly decided election. So, given the fact that many of his Republican co-partisans are at least tacitly supporting him, that resistance does not bode well for President-elect Biden.

I tend to look towards institutional solutions. I wish there were a more bipartisan approach. Like I mentioned, the filibuster, but also things like the Electoral College. Republicans are more disadvantaged in a popular vote, advantaged by the Electoral College, but they should think past that. After all, they got a record turnout in this election too. Both parties should fight it out on a nationwide basis. I think that wouldn't necessarily be more bipartisan, but it would force both parties to go after every possible voter. And that would help.

California Governor Gavin Newsom has until January 20th to pick someone to fill the open Senate seat. Whoever is selected will have to run again in two years.

Doug joined KAZU in 2004 as Development Director overseeing fundraising and grants. He was promoted to General Manager in 2009 and is currently retired and working part time in membership fundraising and news reporting at KAZU.