Just hours after Joe Biden announced Kamala Harris as his running mate, in her home state of California fierce speculation had already begun as to who might replace her in the Senate if she wins a spot in the White House.
“It seems early,” said Aimee Allison, who heads She the People, a national network seeking to elevate women of color to political leadership. “But behind the scenes, conversations are already happening. And I don’t think it’s too soon to think about what the community wants, and what the state wants in a leader.”
If the Biden-Harris team wins on 3 November, California’s governor, Gavin Newsom, will appoint someone to replace Harris in the Senate for the duration of her term, which ends in 2022. Asked on Wednesday if people have already started pitching themselves for the position, Newsom joked with a reporter: “You may be the only one who hasn’t – unless you just did.” Later, he added that his comment was only a “slight” exaggeration.
Everyone has their favorites, but Allison believes Newsom should not replace a woman with a man. “It’s just a bad look,” she said. “And after the protests inspired by George Floyd’s murder – to me it makes sense to have someone of color.”
Newsom might seek to appoint an ally in Washington, as whoever he chooses will have a huge advantage two years from now in the campaign to retain the seat, political analysts told the Guardian. But the appointee could also make history, just as Harris did when she became the second Black woman and the first south Asian American to serve in the Senate. California, a state where 39% of residents are Latino, has never been represented by a Latino senator. And with only 26 women currently in the Senate, local political consultants and activists say this could be an opportunity for Newsom to help elevate another woman.
“Kamala Harris has a very important and significant voice and perspective in the Senate, just because of who she is,” said Nathan Barankin, Harris’s former chief of staff and a long time California political strategist. “That’ll certainly weigh on the governor in evaluating his options.”
Here are a few of the top contenders.
Representative Ro Khanna
The 43-year-old Democrat has emerged as a progressive, populist voice despite representing California’s ultra-wealthy 17th district, where tech giants including Apple, Yahoo and Intel are headquartered. He served as national chair of Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign, and is co-leading California’s delegation to the Democratic national convention this month. Describing himself as “a pro-growth progressive”, Khanna is viewed as someone who can unite Sanders’ leftwing supporters and moderate Democrats.
Representative Barbara Lee
A progressive icon and memorably the sole Congress member to vote against authorization of use of force following the 9/11 attacks, Lee has long advocated for police reform and criminal justice reform. The 74-year-old Oakland representative has also introduced legislation to create a racial healing commission amid the nationwide reckoning on racism and police violence. Serving in her 12th term in Congress, Lee is deeply established on Capitol Hill.
Representative Adam Schiff
Schiff’s profile rose this year due to his leading role in the Trump impeachment hearings. Schiff has lots of support in California, and he’s a top fundraiser. But as the head of the House intelligence committee, Schiff may wield more power if he stays in Congress rather than shifting to the Senate. That he is a 60-year-old white man also makes him an unlikely choice to replace Harris, who broke barriers as the only the second African American woman and the first south Asian American to serve in the Senate.
Representative Karen Bass
The Los Angeles congresswoman emerged as a top contender in the veepstakes. In California, Bass has built a reputation as progressive and a pragmatist – a community organizer who fought police brutality and addiction in Los Angeles and a practical politician who helped dig the state out of a historic fiscal crisis in 2008. The chair of the Congressional Black Caucus is “someone who can heal our country – not just from the pandemic, but also from the racial divisions, the economic divisions”, the legendary labor organizer Dolores Huerta told the Guardian. Though her past comments on Fidel Castro raised concerns that she would alienate Cuban expats, 66-year-old Bass maintains strong support in her home state.
Secretary of state Alex Padilla
His efforts to increase voter turnout across the state, and his strong rebukes of Trump’s baseless attacks on mail-in voting, have earned Padilla national acclaim. A longtime friend and political supporter of Newsom, if appointed, Padilla, 47, would make history as the first Latino to represent the state in the Senate. Unlike all the congressional members who might be considered for the role, Padilla has already won a statewide election.
Attorney general Xavier Becerra
Becerra, who succeeded Harris as California attorney general, could also succeed her as senator. He has served 25 years in Congress as a representative from LA, and his national profile has grown as attorney general due to the state’s numerous lawsuits against the Trump administration, including its efforts to roll back environmental regulations, revoke the state’s ability to set its own car pollution standards, and rescind protections for undocumented immigrants. The son of immigrants from Mexico, Becerra, 62, would also make history as California’s first Latino senator. But as the state reckons with its racist policing system, his reluctance to shift investigations of police shootings to statewide agencies has come under criticism.
State senator Holly Mitchell
She’s not well known outside California, but as the first Black legislator to chair the state’s budget and fiscal review committee, Mitchell gained popularity in her state and respect in Sacramento for negotiating two state budgets. Having held state-level office, Mitchell is now running for a seat on the LA county board of supervisors – but progressive political groups have also floated her as a contender for US senator. Whoever Newsom appoints as senator, Mitchell told the Los Angeles Times she’d like to see a woman succeed Harris, because women tend to elevate issues such as childcare, affordable housing and workers’ rights.
State senator Maria Elena Durazo
Favored by progressives, Durazo made a lasting impact on Los Angeles politics as a labor leader, long before she was elected state senator in 2018. The 67-year-old is not well known nationally, or even within California – but her decades of activism on behalf of workers and immigrants, and her stint as the first woman to head the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor have earned her a strong base in LA and support from liberal political leaders statewide.
This is far from a definitive list – political strategists have also floated California’s lieutenant governor, Eleni Kounalakis, US congresswoman Katie Porter and the California controller, Betty Yee, as qualified candidates for the Senate. “The biggest problem that the governor will have is the embarrassment of riches,” Barankin said. “To choose between all these qualified candidates is going to be very difficult.”
This article was amended on Thursday 13 August to correct details about Barbara Lee’s vote against authorization of use of force following the 9/11 attacks.