The appointment of Secretary of State Alex Padilla as California’s first Latino Senator on Tuesday marked an historic moment for a state in which Latinos make up more than 40% of the population.
For some, however, the news came with the disappointing reality that no Black woman will serve now in the upper chamber of Congress.
“We already incredibly hurt and disappointed in the governor’s decision,” said Taisha Brown, chair of the California Democratic Party Black Caucus. “Through a stroke of a pen, his actions have denied a Black female representation in the United States Senate.”
Since the moment it was clear that Kamala Harris could leave the Senate, Democrats across the country were knocking down Gov. Gavin Newsom’s door with suggestions of who should fill the seat. Support was strong for the governor to name the state’s first Latino senator, but many lawmakers and advocacy groups were rallying Newsom to pick a Black woman, specifically, U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee or Rep. Karen Bass.
Currently, 25 women serve in the 100-member U.S. Senate, including four women of color. Harris, the only Black woman in the chamber, is only the second Black woman Senator in U.S. history. The first was Illinois Sen. Carol Moseley Braun in 1993.
It’s disappointing, Brown said, to see such an opportunity fall through just months after Black women played such a huge role in delivering Joe Biden and Harris to the White House.
“Too often, Black women are overlooked, but so often, they are the backbone of the Democratic Party,” Brown added. “We do all the sweat, equity and work for candidates, and we’re never rewarded.”
Lee congratulated Padilla on Tuesday, saying he has a track record as a skilled legislator and is a steadfast advocate for justice. Earlier this month, Lee said she would respect the decision of the governor, but that Harris’ departure leaves a void that needs to be filled.
“There are perspectives and experiences which black women bring to our public policy, to our legislative agenda,” Lee said, speaking on CNN. “I believe that that void that is going to be left by Kamala Harris needs to be filled, because it is a void that will be necessary to move our country forward and to solve the country’s problems.”
Bass, also speaking on CNN earlier this month, said much of the same.
“Kamala Harris was the second African American woman (senator) in U.S. history , and certainly there is going to be a void if she is not replaced with an African American woman,” Bass said.
Following the appointment on Tuesday, Bass gave no indication that she was disappointed in Newsom’s pick.
“Today, our state gains yet another champion following a distinguished line of individuals who have shattered glass ceilings and hurdled obstacles in their way,” Bass said in a statement. “After then-Senator Harris’s historic election in 2016 as the first woman of color to represent California, we now have another historic barrier shattered as Alex will be the first Latino to serve California in the United States Senate.”
Some were less complimentary.
“Today’s decision, unfortunately, leaves us with one less woman and now not a single Black woman in the United States Senate, chipping away at decades of progress that have been made to ensure our United States Senate looks like the America it represents,” said Aimee Allison, Founder of She the People, a national group that works to amplify women of color in politics.
“Once Sen. Harris is sworn into her new role, the nation’s upper chamber will be without a true advocate who can uniquely speak to the needs and issues that are most important to women of color across this country,” Allison said in a statement. “It begs the question: How long will we have to wait to increase the diversity of women of color in the Senate?”
Higher Heights, another organization dedicated to growing Black women’s political leadership, said failing to put another woman in the Senate was a clear setback.
“While Padilla’s appointment is certainly an important step forward for California’s Latino community, it is a significant step back for women across the state and nation and an even further step back for Black women,” the organization said in a statement. “With this appointment, Governor Newsom had the opportunity to select from a slate of extremely qualified women to fill this seat. Instead, he failed to appoint any of the qualified women candidates to the role.”
Newsom’s decision was complicated by the fact that Bass and Lee are serving while Democrats hold only a slim majority in the House. Political experts said even if Newsom had picked a candidate from a solidly-blue district, it would still leave the House without a Democrat for several months at a time when Speaker Nancy Pelosi can’t afford to lose any votes.
Nonetheless, many state and local lawmakers over the past few months joined in on the #keeptheseat movement, including members of the California Legislative Black Caucus and several Los Angeles County Supervisors.
Massachusetts Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley also urged Newsom to appoint a Black woman, saying “we cannot go backwards.”
“CA’s own Kamala Harris shattered the glass ceiling of U.S. VP, and though we hoped a Black female voice would stay in the Senate, we recognize the important milestone of naming Alex Padilla as the first-ever Latino to the position,” tweeted California Assemblywoman Sydney Kamlager, D-Los Angeles.
Moving forward, Newsom must acknowledge that those who wanted to see a Black woman take the seat had legitimate concerns, said Manuel Pastor, director of the Equity Research Center at the University of Southern California.
“It’s very tough, because we’re in a kind of zero-sum situation with just one seat,” he said.
Padilla must show Californians that he is invested in helping Black communities, Pastor said.
“He’s going to have to, early on, tackle and look like he’s leading on criminal justice issues, which is of course what Kamala Harris was leading on,” he said. “I know he’s been concerned with health issues over the years. He might want to pick up on Black maternal health, which is a really serious question that affects Black women.”
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