When former President Barack Obama won the 2008 election, the jockeying to claim his vacant Illinois senate seat was so fierce it ended up with then-Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich behind bars for corruption.
Now, the possible election of Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., as vice president has set off a fierce competition in California to replace her, with liberal leaders already fighting and pressuring Gov. Gavin Newsom for what could be a once-in-a-lifetime appointment.
Joe Biden tapped Harris this week to join him on the Democratic presidential ticket. Should they win in November, it would fall to the Democratic governor to appoint Harris’ replacement for a term that runs through January 2023. Newsom said Wednesday aspiring candidates are already needling him about the potential vacancy.
The competition has already been fierce among California’s liberal leaders.
For Newsom, the list of choices is long and the political risks many. Theoretically, Newsom could even select himself.
“It’s an earthquake kind of appointment,” said longtime Democratic National Committee member Bob Mulholland.
In making a selection, Newsom would face considerations from gender to geography to demographics.
There would be pressure to select a woman, especially a Black woman, to replace Harris, who is the first Black woman to run on a major party’s presidential ticket. She’s one of just two Black women who have ever served in the Senate, and the daughter of immigrants from Jamaica and India.
Rep. Karen Bass, who was on Biden’s vice presidential short list and heads the Congressional Black Caucus, would likely get consideration, along with Rep. Barbara Lee, another Black member of Congress with progressive credentials.
Rep. Katie Porter of Orange County has established a national reputation in her short time in Washington and is a prolific fundraiser. Then there is Lt. Gov. Eleni Kounalakis, who served as ambassador to Hungary under President Barack Obama.
In diverse California, others would advocate for a Hispanic person, giving the governor an opportunity to appoint the first Latino senator in a state with more Hispanic people than white.
Newsom is likely to look at possibilities across the spectrum but there’s another option. The governor — to avoid potentially offending different factions within the party — could choose a caretaker from among party elders to hold the seat until the 2022 election — someone with a profile like former Gov. Jerry Brown. Under that scenario, the appointee would step aside after a new senator is elected.
“It’s an old joke in politics: Every time you make an appointment, you make 20 enemies and one ingrate,” said Claremont McKenna College political scientist Jack Pitney.
One name rising is early speculation is Newsom’s longtime friend, Secretary of State Alex Padilla. He’s Hispanic and has proven his electability statewide. He’s 47 and has emerged as a nationally recognized voice on voting security. Being based in Southern California could also be a plus for Padilla in balancing statewide political power, since Newsom, U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Harris all have San Francisco-area roots.
There are other prominent Hispanic politicians likely to be considered, including Attorney General Xavier Becerra, the face of the state’s Trump resistance, and Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia, the city’s first openly gay mayor who recently lost his mother and stepfather to COVID-19.
Former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, a one-time Newsom rival for governor who considered running for Senate in 2015, also has a national profile, though his past friction with Newsom wouldn’t bolster his chances.
Several mayors would be possible picks, including San Francisco Mayor London Breed, who in Black and has ties to Harris, and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, who flirted with a presidential run and has Mexican-Jewish-Italian roots.
With the nation struggling with racial tensions, it’s appears unlikely the governor would turn to someone like himself, a middle-aged white man, said Thad Kousser, a political science professor at the University of California, San Diego.
For that same reason, Rep. Adam Schiff, who made a national name during the Trump impeachment hearings, probably wouldn’t get the nod, either, Kousser said.
There’s a “huge number of qualified, history-making candidates” for the governor to consider, Kousser added. “This pick can’t be someone who fits the same demographic profile as Gov. Newsom.”
The appointment would inevitably make an imprint on Newsom’s legacy and could shape state politics for decades to come. In strongly Democratic California, the appointee could hold the seat for a generation. Feinstein — at 87 the oldest member of the Senate — has been in office since 1992.
On Wednesday, Newsom declined to offer his thoughts when asked about a potential replacement for Harris, saying he is focused on the coronavirus outbreak, restarting the economy and getting students back to school.
But when a reporter asked whether any would-be candidates have begun lobbying him, Newsom quipped: “Well you may be the only one that hasn’t, unless you just did. And that is only a slight exaggeration.”
The Associated Press contributed to this article