Latinos on Tuesday lauded the selection of California Secretary of State Alex Padilla, a son of working-class immigrants, to fill the Senate seat being vacated by Kamala Harris.
Padilla, 47, who is Mexican American, will serve as the first Latino senator in the 170-year history of California — a state that was once part of Mexico. Local national and Latino groups had been pushing for a Hispanic to be named to Harris' seat.
"This historic appointment represents a new milestone in the generational struggle for Latino inclusion in the American Dream," Rep. Joaquín Castro, D-Texas, chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, said in a statement.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom broke the news to Padilla in a video call, leading into it by discussing his parents, and then telling Padilla to imagine what his mom, who died two years ago, would be thinking if she knew he was asking Padilla to be the next senator from California.
"Are you serious?" Padilla responded, emotion quickly taking over his face and voice. "I'm honored, man, and I'm humbled because of them. I can't tell you how many pancakes my dad flipped or eggs he scrambled trying to provide for us; the many, many years, and my mom cleaning houses."
"My mom was completely selfless and always found ways to serve and help others even when, sometimes especially when, times were tough for our family. Because of her example, my sister, my brother, and I are all public servants," he said on Facebook in 2018 the morning after his mother died.
Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO), said nobody can look to Padilla’s accomplishments, resume and background and not consider him one of the most prepared individuals to serve in the U.S. Senate.
"It's a historic moment for the state, the nation and the Latino community," said Vargas, who has known Padilla for decades.
Rep. Tony Cárdenas, D-Calif., called Padilla one of his dearest and closest friends of 25 years and expressed pride in his appointment. The two grew up two blocks away from each other "in a neighborhood where we were told we would not amount to anything."
Cárdenas said Padilla has been an advocate for working families. "Alex has never forgotten his roots and has been an effective leader throughout his career," Cárdenas said in a statement.
"An Angeleno through and through"
The choice of Padilla goes beyond his individual credentials for the national and state Latino lawmakers and Latino organizations who had been rallying for Newsom to choose a Latino to fill Harris' seat in a state that is home to 15 million Hispanics.
One in 3 California residents are Hispanic — the largest Latino population in the country, as the Latino Victory Fund pointed out in their "Pick Padilla" campaign.
The caucus held news conferences around the state to push for Newsom to appoint a Latino to the seat.
In Padilla, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology-educated engineer, Latino colleagues see a Democrat with a long history in the state.
“Secretary Padilla is an Angeleno through and through — from his role on the Los Angeles City Council as a member and later as president, to his work in the California state Senate, and finally as our secretary of state, Alex has shown that he is a fierce advocate for Californians," Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard, D-Calif., said in a statement.
"Alex is a role model to so many Latino youth in our state," she said, "and I know that his appointment as our senator will show every Latino child that anything is possible in our nation."
After coming to the United States, Padilla's father worked as a cook and his mother cleaned houses, which he mentioned in a 2018 tweet responding to criticisms of immigrants by then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Padilla holds a mechanical engineering degree from MIT but found it difficult to find work when he returned to California with his degree.
Padilla told the "Grist" for a February article on Latinos and environmentalism that his father used to drive their family truck through the neighborhood searching for cans, cardboard and newspapers to recycle to bring in more money, while his mother brought home hand-me-downs from a family whose home she cleaned for Padilla and his siblings.
Padilla said his parents are the reason he's worked to make government more inclusive.
An MIT engineer—and a political awakening
Padilla told NBC News last year that he turned to politics as a young college graduate in response to a California ballot initiative, Proposition 187, that sought to deny health care, education and other benefits to immigrants.
For many, including Padilla, it served as a political awakening and also as a turning point in making California Democratic.
"Alex Padilla emerged from the ashes of the Prop 187 anti-immigrant debate," said political analyst and Democratic pollster Stephen Nuño-Perez, who said Padilla has long made voter enfranchisement his mission. "California shattered the record in voter turnout this year in large part because of Padilla's leadership."
State Sen. María Elena Durazo, chair of California's Latino Legislative Caucus, said in a statement that since Padilla became secretary of state in 2015, "voter participation across the state, especially in marginalized communities, has consistently been on the rise, resulting in California's highest voter turnout in nearly 70 years this past election."
Padilla will be entering the U.S. Senate as California grapples with a deadly surge in coronavirus cases that have disproportionately hit Latino and Black communities.
Vargas said having California's first Latino in the Senate is crucial — and comes at the right time.
"People talk about the light at the end of the tunnel in the pandemic," Vargas said. "This light is shining because of these kinds of developments."