SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — Joe Biden’s White House win has made Gov. Gavin Newsom a California kingmaker.
When the Democrat president-elect plucked a second California official for an administration post, he handed Newsom another opportunity to put his stamp on a generation of leadership in the nation’s biggest Democratic state. Now, Newsom is in position to appoint California’s next U.S. senator and attorney general, and maybe even more top posts depending on who gets each job.
“It’s certainly an opportunity for Gov. Newsom to leave a lasting mark on a couple of very influential offices,” said Brian Brokaw, a Democratic strategist and Newsom adviser. But, he added, “you have a chance to make two friends and you have a chance to disappoint who you don’t ultimately select.”
The day Biden chose Sen. Kamala Harris as his running mate, the phones of Newsom and his allies began ringing with people who wanted her job, and the pressure has only ramped up since. Biden added more intrigue Monday when he tapped California Attorney General Xavier Becerra as his health secretary, giving Newsom the power to choose the head of the largest state department of justice.
Newsom will appoint successors through 2022, when both terms end. Secretary of State Alex Padilla, who would be California’s first Latino senator, is among the top contenders, potentially leaving Newsom the chance to choose the state’s next top elections official as well. Few California governors have held such concentrated power.
In filling each post, Newsom will likely look for someone who represents California’s diversity, shares his governing philosophy and can win reelection in 2022, the same year Newsom will be up for a new term.
The power comes at a critical time for Newsom. Two years into his first term, he’s faced numerous challenges, some of his own making. Nine months into the coronavirus pandemic, California’s 40 million residents are growing impatient with state restrictions, Republicans are challenging Newsom’s authority, and his decision to attend a birthday party at an upscale restaurant while urging Californians to stay home damaged his credibility.
Making high-profile political appointments could temporarily shift the focus and allow Newsom to be celebrated for a bold choice, depending on who he picks. It could also bring headaches.
Jockeying among several ambitious California politicians and their allies is already underway, particularly among groups that want to see statewide officials who reflect the population’s diversity. The state is nearly 40% Latino, 15% Asian and 6% Black. The pressure campaign takes many forms: direct calls to the governor, chats with his political allies and advisers, and public campaigns. Some hopefuls have made their intentions known directly, while others have through their allies.
Mindy Romero, director of USC’s Center for Inclusive Democracy, sees it as an unenviable position.
“He knows that he is going to make a lot of people unhappy,” she said.
There has been immense pressure on how to fill Harris’ role in particular, as she is the only Black woman in the U.S. Senate. Newsom faces competing demands to appoint California’s first Latino senator or to replace Harris with a Black woman. Beyond Padilla, names under consideration for that job include U.S. Reps. Karen Bass and Barbara Lee, who are both Black, and Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia, who is Peruvian.
The open attorney general seat now gives him “a few more chess pieces” to satisfy competing interests, Romero said.
Less than 24 hours after Biden tapped Becerra, names are already circulating to be his replacement. They include Assemblyman Rob Bonta, Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg, U.S. Rep. Katie Porter, Contra Costa District Attorney Diana Becton and several others. State Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez is already running for secretary of state in 2022 and could be considered for that post should it open sooner.
State Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon said he hopes Newsom’s appointments will represent the state’s “progressive political values.” Having multiple posts open at once “helps to make some difficult decisions a little bit easier” for Newsom, he said.
Newsom, for his part, has said little about how he’s approaching the selection and hasn’t laid out a timeline for making his choice. Harris has not yet said when she will step down from her Senate seat ahead of the Jan. 20 inauguration, nor has Becerra said when he’ll leave his post.
On Monday, he called Becerra’s nomination as health secretary a “game changer” for California that will bring the “fresh air of progress” on health reform.
Associated Press writers Michael R. Blood in Los Angeles and Adam Beam in Sacramento contributed.