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Alex Padilla, California Secretary Of State, To Replace Harris In U.S. Senate

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

In California, Governor Gavin Newsom tapped Secretary of State Alex Padilla today to fill out the U.S. Senate term of Vice President-elect Kamala Harris. Padilla oversaw the state's November election, an election with record turnout, and he will be the first Latino to represent California in the U.S. Senate. Scott Shafer of member station KQED in San Francisco joins us.

Hey there, Scott.

SCOTT SHAFER, BYLINE: Hey, Mary Louise.

KELLY: Tell us a little bit more about Padilla and the significance of his selection.

SHAFER: Sure. Well, you know, California is about 40% Latino, so picking Alex Padilla as the first Latino to represent the state in the Senate is emotionally powerful as well as historic. And about his background - he's 47 years old. His parents were both born in Mexico, although they met in Los Angeles, where Padilla grew up. His immigrant parents were working-class. His dad worked as a cook. His mom cleaned houses.

Padilla went to MIT, and he graduated with a degree in engineering, actually, but his passion was politics. He worked as an assistant to Senator Dianne Feinstein for a time at the age of 25. And then at age 26, he was elected to the LA City Council and quickly rose to become president of the council. And then in 2006, he was elected to the state Senate, served eight years and then won statewide office to the position he holds now, secretary of state, where he oversees elections.

KELLY: And I guess you got to speak to him today. Is that right? What'd he have to say?

SHAFER: I did, yeah. Well, you know, Padilla, of course, is very proud. And he's clearly thinking of his family right now. Governor Newsom, in fact, released a tape from a Zoom conversation they had earlier today. And Padilla alluded to the significance of all this to him.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ALEX PADILLA: I can't tell you how many pancakes my dad flipped or eggs he scrambled trying to provide for us through the many, many years of my mom cleaning houses, doing the same thing. So I try so hard to make sure that our democracy is as inclusive in California as we built.

SHAFER: And, of course, you can't see it on the radio, but he's very emotional there...

KELLY: Yeah.

SHAFER: ...Pausing a couple times to wipe away tears.

KELLY: You can hear it.

SHAFER: And he told me that - you can, yeah. And he told me years ago that his parents voted for the very first time when he was on the ballot running for the LA City Council. And his story, you know, it's a familiar one here in California. Many Latino politicians got involved in politics in the 1990s as a reaction to the anti-immigrant ballot measures at the time.

KELLY: It was not clear it was going to go this way though because there was a lot of pressure - right? - on Governor Newsom to fill Kamala Harris' seat with another African American woman. We'll note that she is currently the only Black woman in the U.S. Senate and, of course, about to leave the Senate.

SHAFER: Exactly. There was a lot of pressure, and it began even before the Biden-Harris ticket won the election. The African American community wanted Newsom to choose another Black woman. They preferred someone like Oakland Congresswoman Barbara Lee or Congresswoman Karen Bass from Los Angeles. One consideration - you know, Democrats have a very narrow majority in the House, especially with Biden already choosing several House members for his Cabinet, and that made Nancy Pelosi a little bit uneasy. So he's got a lot of pressure on him now to name a Latino - or he did have that pressure. And, you know, he made history.

KELLY: And real quick - it sounds like Governor Newsom has filled one opening, created another. He has to now name a new secretary of state.

SHAFER: Yeah, that's right. And don't forget; California Attorney General Xavier Becerra has also been picked to be Biden's Health and Human Services secretary. And if the Senate confirms him, Newsom will have two more appointments to make - secretary of state and the state's attorney general - plenty of people and groups already lobbying for those jobs.

KELLY: Lots of Californians headed to Washington - that is KQED's Scott Shafer in San Francisco.

Thank you, Scott.

SHAFER: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF JUSTICE'S "VALENTINE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.