When California Secretary of State Alex Padilla got the shock of his life on a video call Tuesday with his old friend California Gov. Gavin Newsom, he stayed in character.
As a California-based Mexican American journalist who has covered elected officials for 30 years, here’s my executive summary of how Latinos approach politics: We’re passive, deferential, and respectful. We fall in line, and we don’t challenge authority. We don’t protest, demand, pressure or threaten. We accept what we’re given by the powers-that-be with humility and gratitude, head lowered and hat in hand. We don’t strut, act entitled or complain—even though, as anyone can see, we have a lot to complain about.
Written off by Republicans and taken for granted by Democrats, we are loyal to a fault to politicians and parties even when we’re betrayed. We don’t scream and yell. But, every once in a great while—when things actually go our way, and the person who should get the job actually gets the job—we have been known to cry a little. That’s how Latinos roll. We tear up when talking about the things that make us feel small: our families, our country, and our God.
And that’s what Padilla did, choking up during that video call this week when the 47-year-old thought about how his late mother, who died two years ago, would have reacted to the news of the day. You see, Newsom had called his old friend, and fellow Democrat, to offer him a new job.
As governor, Newsom got to pick the successor to Sen. Kamala Harris, who has been promoted to vice president by the American people.
“Can you imagine what your mom would be thinking now as I ask you if you want to be the next senator from the great state of California?” Newsom asked with a knowing smile.
“You serious?” Padilla responded.
“This is the official… This is the ask, brother,” Newsom said.
“I’m honored, man. And I’m humbled,” Padilla said as his voice cracked.
The Mexican American grew up near Los Angeles before graduating from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with an engineering degree.
But it’s been in politics where Padilla has made his mark. He’s been in the game since 1995, when he served as an assistant to the person he’ll now serve alongside: California Sen. Dianne Feinstein. In the quarter century that followed, Padilla has been president of the Los Angeles City Council, president of the California League of Cities, California state senator, and, most recently, California secretary of state.
It’s a solid pick, and Newsom needed just that. Over the last several weeks, the governor was subjected to a lot of arm-twisting by a lot of different people, all of them demanding that he choose someone from their group. It was like the Kentucky Derby of identity politics.
The LGBTQ community applied pressure, insisting that Long Beach’s openly gay mayor, Robert Garcia, should be hoisted—ready or not—several rungs up the political ladder to take a seat in the Senate.
There was also a great deal of pressure from African American leaders and others arguing that the only Black woman in the U.S. Senate could only be replaced by another Black woman.
All I can say, is that I’m glad the white men who used to hold that seat—and the other California seat as well, before 1992—didn’t hold to that line of reasoning.
The two Democratic names you heard bandied about most often were that of Rep. Karen Bass, of Los Angeles, and Rep. Barbara Lee, of Oakland. But neither woman has been elected statewide, while Padilla has. This should make it easier for Democrats to hold that seat when it’s on the ballot again in 2022.
Meanwhile, others pushing for a Black woman to claim the seat tried to make an asset out of the fact that Black Americans make up less than 7 percent of the population of California, arguing that made it incumbent upon Newsom to use his pick to give the community a boost. They argued that Newsom should be the first governor in U.S. history to put the United States as a whole ahead of the interests of his own state because when Harris heads to the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue to serve as VP, there will be no Black women in the U.S. Senate.
I feel you, folks. There are also, at present, no Latinos in the Senate from California. In fact, there has never—never, not in the 170-year history of the state—been a Latino representing California in the U.S. Senate, even though the state’s population is now 40 percent Latino.
That’s outrageous. Talk about taxation without representation. In the American South, during the 1970s and 1980s, Black leaders argued that it was unfair—a decade or more after the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965—for Black Americans to be shut out of the political process when they represented nearly half of the population in states like Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia. That was the morally correct argument back then in the South, and it’s the morally correct argument now in the Southwest.
Destiny has catapulted Alex Padilla, the low-key and soft-spoken son of Mexican immigrants Santos and Lupe Padilla, into the history books.
There, in the chapter on “firsts,” he’ll join not just Black Americans, but the Germans, Irish, Italians, Jews, and others.
Latinos didn’t invent identity politics. We’re just trying to gather up a team so we can play the game, like everyone else. It’s the American way.