Alex Padilla will replace Kamala Harris in the US Senate

Mr Alex Padilla, 47, will be the first Latino senator from California.
Mr Alex Padilla, 47, will be the first Latino senator from California.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

SACRAMENTO, CALIFORNIA (NYTIMES) - Mr Alex Padilla, California's secretary of state, has been appointed to fill the Senate seat held by Vice-President-elect Kamala Harris, Governor Gavin Newsom announced Tuesday (Dec 22), capping months of intense political jockeying among Democratic factions in the state.

The son of Mexican-born immigrants who settled in Los Angeles' San Fernando Valley, Mr Padilla, 47, will be the first Latino senator from California, where Latinos are about 40 per cent of the population.

"I am honoured and humbled by the trust placed in me by Governor Newsom, and I intend to work each and every day to honour that trust and deliver for all Californians," Mr Padilla said in a statement.

In an interview, Mr Padilla said he was overwhelmed with emotion Monday evening when the governor offered him the position on a Zoom call.

"There is a lot of work to get to, of course, but I couldn't help but think of my parents, who came here from Mexico in pursuit of the American dream," he said. "All I ever heard as a child was work hard, study hard, and all I ever wanted to do was honour their sacrifices."

Mr Padilla, an ally of the governor throughout his political career, has held public office since 1999, when he was elected at 26 to the Los Angeles City Council; he went on to serve two terms in the state Senate and then two terms as secretary of state, heading the office that runs California's elections.

"Through his tenacity, integrity, smarts and grit, California is gaining a tested fighter in their corner who will be a fierce ally in DC, lifting up our state's values and making sure we secure the critical resources to emerge stronger from this pandemic," Mr Newsom said. "He will be a senator for all Californians."

The decision followed months of deliberation by Mr Newsom and lobbying by California's myriad political factions for a position whose occupant will need not only the experience to work effectively in Washington but also the money and political base to hold the seat in 2022, when Ms Harris' term ends.

California progressives had pushed Mr Newsom to appoint Representative Barbara Lee or another like-minded Democrat. Mr Newsom was also under pressure to appoint a Black woman to take the place of Ms Harris, the only Black woman in the Senate. Representative Karen Bass and Ms Lee were at the top of that list.

As weeks passed after the presidential election, the back-channel advocacy that had gone on since Ms Harris was chosen as the running mate of President-elect Joe Biden broke into the open with public endorsements, full-page newspaper ads and open letters.

The Congressional Hispanic Caucus strongly backed Mr Padilla. The LGBTQ community and Equality California lobbied for Mr Robert Garcia, the mayor of Long Beach. Black Women United, a co-founder of Black Lives Matter and a range of Black elected officials pushed for Ms Bass or Ms Lee.

On Twitter, Ms Lee congratulated Mr Padilla as "a skilled legislator and a steadfast advocate for justice," Ms Bass cheered "another historic barrier shattered" and Mr Garcia promised his "100 per cent support in his 2022 reelection."

Ms Nathalie Rayes, president and chief executive of the Latino Victory Fund, which had campaigned for Mr Padilla, called the appointment "a long-overdue milestone for the Latino community" and a "bold step toward having a Senate that looks like the communities it serves."

She added, "His appointment will not only increase Latino representation in the Senate, but it will also open the door for future generations of Latino leaders."

Leading California Republicans were less impressed. "One of the worst election officials in the nation will go to DC, unelected!!!" tweeted Ms Harmeet Dhillon, a conservative civil rights lawyer and member of the Republican National Committee.

California's senior senator, Ms Dianne Feinstein, had endorsed Mr Padilla, who had worked in her field office early in his career and on Tuesday she called the appointment "an excellent choice."

In the run-up to his appointment, some interest groups had called for Ms Feinstein herself to step down, so that the governor could pick two senators - a call that gained traction after a New Yorker article this month suggested that Ms Feinstein, 87, was experiencing cognitive decline.

The elevation of Mr Padilla leaves Mr Newsom with a vacancy in the secretary of state's office, a potential consolation prize for at least one disappointed contender. He will also have to appoint a new attorney-general if the Senate confirms Mr Xavier Becerra's nomination as Mr Biden's secretary of health and human services.

The attorney-general post, in particular, has in recent years served as a springboard for higher office; besides Mr Becerra, recent attorneys general include Ms Harris and California's previous governor Jerry Brown.

Mr Alex Vassar, a legislative historian at the California State Library, said the last California governor to fill three statewide offices was Earl Warren, who in December 1952 and January 1953 appointed a new senator, a state controller and a member of the state Board of Equalization. Pat Brown also made three appointments in 1964 and 1965, Mr Vassar said, but one was simply to speed up an incoming senator's arrival.

In sending Mr Padilla to the Senate, Mr Newsom chose a Democrat from his own generation who stood by the governor and shored up his Latino support in several critical races. He also chose an experienced candidate who has twice been elected statewide and whose work since 2014 has considerably expanded the ease of voting in California and the size of the electorate.