Kamala Harris was only the second Black woman elected to the U.S. Senate in American history, and, until she is inaugurated into her new job as Vice President next month, she is the sole Black woman currently sitting in that chamber. When her ascension opened a space for Gavin Newsom to fill, some called on him to select another Black woman who would maintain that toe-hold of representation, launching a social media campaign to #KeepTheSeat. Today, it was revealed that Newsom had instead selected current California Secretary of State Alex Padilla.
“We continue to say that we win with Black women and that Black women have been the backbone of our democracy, but still too often when it comes to putting a Black woman in a seat of power, we are an afterthought,” says Stefanie Brown James, cofounder and executive director of the Collective PAC, an organization that supports Black political candidates, wrote in a statement. “What does it say about our democracy to leave the most powerful legislative body in this nation absent of a Black woman’s voice?”
While Padilla’s selection is historic in its own way–he will be the first Latino Senator from California, a state where around 40 percent of the population identifies as Latino or Hispanic–it still sat poorly with some.
“Governor Newsom’s appointment of Secretary Alex Padilla to fill Kamala Harris’s vacant U.S. Senate seat is just more of the fair-weather friend relationship Democratic Party leaders have with Black people–and specifically Black women–where photo ops and hashtags are the extent of their support,” writer, political strategist, and California Democratic Party delegate Jasmyne Cannick says.
Cannick insists that, for her and her fellow activists, “This is not about being anti-Latinx,” but rather about ensuring diverse representation, and ideally having advocates who will oppose “anti-Black laws and policies.”
There are currently four U.S. Senators who identify as Latino or Latina–Bob Menedez (D-N.J.), Marco Rubio (R-FL), Ted Cruz (R-TX), and Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV)–plus incoming Senator-Elect Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.). Other than Harris, Cory Booker of New Jersey and Tim Scott of South Carolina are the only Black members of the body.
For some activists, Padilla’s gender has raised concerns as well. Harris is now one of just 25 female Senators, and California voters have elected only women for Senate seats since 1992.
“Women make up more than half of the people and the voters in this country and our government should represent us. The appointment to replace Kamala Harris must reflect the population, people and values of California and our nation,” Amanda Brown Lierman, executive director of women’s leadership organization Supermajority wrote in a statement released earlier this month. “This appointment must further the progress we have made for women in the Senate, not take us backwards.”
Names of several Black, female leaders in California under consideration for the appointment to the seat had been floating around. Among them, representatives Barbara Lee and Karen Bass, appeared to be emerging as top contenders.
Cannick notes that voters will have a say in the matter soon, regardless of today’s announcement.
“It’s an appointment to fulfill the rest of Harris’s term. Hopefully, we’ll see a Black woman emerge as a challenger in 2022,” she says. “None of these positions are lifelong appointments. They only become that when voters get complacent and allow it.”
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