California’s most intense campaign: The private pursuit of Harris’ Senate seat

By Carla Marinucci
10/27/2020 05:52 PM EDT Updated: 10/28/2020 10:16 AM EDT

OAKLAND — California political icon John Burton emailed Gov. Gavin Newsom soon after Sen. Kamala Harris vaulted to the party’s presidential ticket. The colorful former Democratic congressman and state legislative leader nodded toward what looms as the biggest appointment of Newsom’s career — replacing Harris for possibly decades in the Senate.

“And I do not want the job,” joked the 87-year-old Burton.

“Well, you’re the only one,” Newsom shot back.

A week before the election — and potentially weeks before the outcome is known — California Democrats are elbowing each other for the chance to sway Newsom on how to fill the state’s junior senator seat should Joe Biden and Harris (D-Calif.) head to the White House.

At least a dozen California Democrats are seriously in the mix, and their supporters, donors and staffers are jostling behind the scenes to make their case. In this deep-blue state, where no Republican has won statewide in 14 years, a Senate seat could be the closest it gets to a lifetime appointment.

When a Senate seat goes vacant in California, the governor can appoint a replacement without calling a special election, and Newsom’s pick would serve the remaining two years on Harris’ term before facing the voters with the huge advantage of incumbency. The governor does have the ability to name a caretaker and call a special election, but sources do not expect him to go that route.

“It’s California, a one-party state … and there’s no shortage of ambition here,’’ said Democratic strategist Brian Goldsmith. “There’s three dozen plausible potential senators — and there’s only one spot. These seats don’t come around often, and once filled, they can be filled for decades. So everybody’s trying to do their own version of smart campaigning.”

Based on POLITICO interviews with more than 20 state political insiders, the short list is still topped by California Secretary of State Alex Padilla, a longtime Newsom supporter who would be the first Latino U.S senator in California’s 170-year history. Latino residents now comprise a plurality with 39 percent of the state’s population.

Another son of Mexican immigrants is high atop the list: Attorney General Xavier Becerra, who isn’t as close to the governor but has an established presence in Washington after serving 12 terms in Congress.

Both have consistently been in the public eye, Becerra by filing dozens of lawsuits against the Trump administration and Padilla by defending the integrity of California’s elections system during the pandemic. Besides being experienced leaders who would make history, each would leave Newsom a second vacancy to fill upon leaving his own office.

Another top contender is Rep. Karen Bass, head of the Congressional Black Caucus who made Biden’s VP short list after elevating her national profile this year. She acknowledged to POLITICO that she’s being considered but noted multiple leadership opportunities could arise should Biden and Harris win.page1image36435264page1image36436608page1image36426240page1image36431424

Newsom hasn’t even begun to consider the possibilities and is focused on California’s wildfires and Covid-19 challenges, said communications director Nathan Click. Longtime Democratic strategist Garry South, who has advised former Gov. Gray Davis and Newsom, said the inside lobbying involves a delicate balance of chutzpah and diplomacy.

“A lot of this stuff if very subtle and behind the scenes … it’s all triple play and bank shots, trying to get someone to talk to someone to talk to someone,” South said. “The thing about this process is that everyone knows if they to go too public with their lobbying effort, it basically sinks your chances. A governor doesn’t want to be put in a position to look like he has succumbed to a public pressure campaign.”

The moves right now include a timely reminder, text or call to Newsom — but also to those close to key decision-makers or influencers in the governor’s life, including First Partner Jennifer Siebel Newsom, Chief of Staff Ann O’Leary, or even the governor’s sister, Hillary Newsom Callan.

The influential head of a major labor union reported getting calls to pass names onto the governor. Major party donors and leaders of special interest groups are also quietly being asked to make plays, sources said. And reporters who cover the Capitol are being reminded, via text and Twitter, of contenders Newsom should consider.

Democratic strategist Amelia Matier said her advice to any serious hopefuls would note the need for a “multi- level” strategy to break through the political clutter.

That includes fundraising — she said California’s next senator should be a rainmaker for both the state and national party. Also, “pushing for a positive media narrative, working hard to get their name out there in favorable videos and viral posts” can boost name ID, she noted.

Political handicappers say Newsom will almost certainly aim for a historic choice.

“Gavin Newsom likes to make history,” said Dan Schnur, a former adviser to Gov. Pete Wilson who is now a professor of politics and communication at the University of Southern California and UC Berkeley. “And the likelihood of him appointing a white male is about as likely as me starting a World Series for the Dodgers.”

African American leaders “make a good argument that Kamala is the only Black female senator,” and that the Black community deserves to hold her Senate spot because “they have worked hard to help Biden close the deal” in the election, Matier noted.

Democratic women’s groups are making the case “it has to be a woman … they make up the majority of the Democratic party nationwide, and we have so few seats in the Senate — and there’s so few places where they can get elected,’’ she said. “Women are like, “No, no, no, we’re keeping that seat.'”

Aimee Allison, who heads SheThePeople — a national group that aims to boost representation and political activism among women of color — said she’s made no secret that she feels “there’s no doubt it — it should be a woman of color.” She said that without question, the top choice should be “the most senior woman of color in Congress — Barbara Lee,” a progressive icon from Oakland.

In recent weeks, Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia’s profile — and chances — have risen. Popular with both the party’s grassroots and business supporters, Garcia’s statements after losing both parents to Covid-19 have earned him national attention, and backers point out he would check two historic boxes for California as a Latino and openly gay leader. But advocates say State Senate Pro Tem Toni Atkins, the state’s first lesbian Senate leader and Assembly speaker, would also be a groundbreaking pick.

Rick Zbur, executive director of Equality California, said his organization has made to clear that Newsom should seriously consider an LGBTQ candidate. “This is increasingly important position — and one that may serve in this role for 20 or 30 years.”

In a letter to Newsom last week, Zbur’s organization has put forward a slate of potential LGBTQ candidates. The list included Garcia and Atkins — in addition to some other names that haven’t been regularly thrown into the mix: state Sen. Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco), Insurance Commissioner Ricardo Lara and Rep. Mark Takano.

“I think one of the strengths of the LGBTQ candidates that we suggest it is that this would be a national priority for our candidate,’’ Zbur said.

Los Angeles City Councilman Kevin de León, the former Senate president pro tem, has had a tenuous relationship with Newsom. But he recently saw his stock surge as Democrats criticized Sen. Dianne Feinstein over her handling of the Supreme Court confirmation hearings for Amy Coney Barrett. That’s because de León bucked the establishment and challenged Feinstein in 2018 with support from progressives — who used the Supreme Court hearings as evidence that de León belongs in the Senate.

Backers of Rep. Adam Schiff have also been back-channeling their support of the House Intelligence chair, noting his popularity within the party, national media presence, and major profile as a key party surrogate on a wide range of issues.

And Rep. Katie Porter’s growing legions of supporters have hit reporters’ inboxes, noting that she has been a grassroots favorite and one of most successful fundraisers in the House freshman class.

Eleni Kounalakis, the state’s first woman lieutenant governor and a former ambassador to Hungary, is seen by many as a long shot — as a white woman who comes from a wealthy developer family. But Kounalakis can’t be counted out: she has a loyal following among many of the party’s women.

In California, where Asian-Americans now comprise 15 percent of the population, the community is clearly gaining more political clout. But that choice by Newsom wouldn’t be a first: two Asian-Americans have already served as U.S. senators — Harris, who is black and South Asian, and Republican S.I. Hayakawa, the former president of San Francisco State University who served from 1977 to 1983.

Still, two Asian American women holding statewide office are currently seen as potential Newsom picks: Controller Betty Yee, who has toyed publicly with a future run for governor, and Treasurer Fiona Ma.

Already, Ma has all but ruled out the Senate seat, telling POLITICO she believes her experience as the state’ s chief banker makes her especially suited for a gubernatorial run in 2026 after Newsom is termed out.

Bass acknowledged in an interview this week that her hat is in the ring for Harris’ job. But she is clearly leaving her options open.

“I think it’s important to look at possibilities,’’ she said. “For me, this is also the first time I’ve seen an administration come together in since Obama. So I’m definitely looking to see what’s there.”

She insisted she’s “laser-focused” on the first stop — the Nov. 3 election.

“But I will tell you,’’ Bass adds. “The last thing I would do right now is to call Governor Newsom. He has a lot on his plate.”

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