LOS ANGELES — A Latino group openly pressured Gov. Gavin Newsom Thursday to select a Hispanic replacement if U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris’ seat becomes vacant, saying it was time for a historic pick that would reflect the growing influence of Latinos in the nation’s most populous state.
The letter to Newsom from the Latino Community Foundation marks a new public phase to the emerging competition for the seat, which would open up if Joe Biden and Harris, his pick for vice president, win in November. Should a vacancy occur, Newsom has the authority to name a successor for a term that runs through January 2023 and could even pick himself.
California has never elected a Latino US senator, though Hispanics make up nearly 40% of the population, outnumbering all other groups.
“Our voice remains missing from the highest levels of our government,” the foundation wrote in the letter, released Thursday but dated Wednesday and signed by hundreds of supporters. “It is up to states like California to do their part to ensure that we are building more diverse and inclusive institutions reflective of our society.”
Newsom said last week that would-be contenders are already needling him about what could be a once-in-a-lifetime appointment. In strongly Democratic California, the appointee could hold the seat for generation. Sen. Dianne Feinstein — at 87 the oldest member of the Senate — has been in office since 1992.
The choice, should it come, would be politically tricky for the Democratic governor, with considerations that could range from gender, geography and demographics to personal relationships.
There would be pressure to select a woman, especially a Black woman, to replace Harris, who is the first Black woman to run on a major party’s presidential ticket. She’s one of just two Black women who have ever served in the Senate and the daughter of immigrants from Jamaica and India.
A long list of possible contenders includes Rep. Karen Bass, who was on Biden’s vice presidential shortlist and heads the Congressional Black Caucus, Rep. Katie Porter of Orange County and Newsom’s longtime friend, Secretary of State Alex Padilla, who is Hispanic and has proven his electability statewide.
The potential opening has set off a guessing game about who might end up with politically powerful post. To avoid the political risks that come with the appointment, Newsom could also choose a caretaker to hold the seat until the 2022 election. Under that scenario, the appointee would step aside after a new senator is elected.
Under another possible scenario, Newsom could even pick himself, which would open his job for Lt. Gov. Eleni Kounalakis, elevating her to become California’s first female governor.