Sen. Alex Padilla on Capitol Hill in March. 
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)
Election 2022

Alex Padilla makes history as first Latino elected to U.S. Senate from California

Democratic Sen. Alex Padilla made history again Tuesday night when he became the first Latino to be elected to represent California in the U.S. Senate.

The 49-year-old broke a barrier in 2021 when he was sworn in to fill Kamala Harris’ seat after she became vice president. His appointment by Gov. Gavin Newsom was celebrated as providing representation for the large and growing Latino population in the state. On Tuesday, voters chose Padilla to complete Harris’ term through Jan. 3 as well as for a full six-year term of his own. In both elections, he defeated GOP attorney Mark Meuser.

“We have a hell of a fight ahead of us, and I’m heading back to the Senate ready to help lead that fight,” Padilla said, adding that he would prioritize job creation, climate change, immigration reform, reproductive rights and the protection of Social Security and Medicare.

Padilla’s election is expected to be one of the few bright spots for his party in a midterm election where Democrats are expected to lose control of the House of Representatives — and possibly the Senate and key governorships in other parts of the country.

The party in control of the White House almost always loses congressional seats in the first midterm election during its term. President Biden is facing particularly strong headwinds because of his lackluster approval ratings, combined with voter discontent fueled by inflation.

But even in tough years for Democrats, California can be an outlier, with red waves stopping at the state’s border.

In 2010, when tea party-stoked Republicans picked up more than 60 House seats in races across the nation — the largest gain in more than half a century — California Democrats ran the table in statewide races and didn’t lose a single seat in the state’s congressional delegation.

Every statewide office here is almost certain to remain occupied by Democrats, as they have since 2011. But the party’s prospects in Congress are uncertain, and if Republicans win back the House, the results in several California races will shape the margin of power.

California, which has the largest congressional delegation of any state, has seen dizzying gyrations in recent elections. In 2018, Democrats flipped seven GOP seats. Two years later, Republicans won three Democratic districts and narrowly held on to one they seized in a special election earlier in the year.

While the state lost a congressional seat for the first time in its history after the 2020 census, Democrats remained optimistic about their prospects because many newly drawn congressional districts appeared to favor their party. GOP incumbent Reps. Mike Garcia of Santa Clarita, David Valadao of Hanford and Michelle Steel of Seal Beach were drawn into more competitive districts.

But as economic woes dominated the discourse, Democrats started to worry about their ability to flip those districts — and to protect some of their own incumbents, such as Reps. Katie Porter of Irvine and Mike Levin of San Juan Capistrano.

Races in five of the state’s districts were rated toss-ups by the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, and another six were deemed competitive. In several of those, Democrats have a substantial edge in voter registration; in some, Biden won by double digits in 2020.

Padilla’s easy victory was unsurprising because of Democrats’ 23-percentage-point edge over Republicans in California voter registration. He was so confident that he didn’t campaign for himself or air a single general election ad.

The weekend before the election, Padilla stumped for Porter and congressional hopefuls Jay Chen and Asif Mahmood in Orange County. He joined other statewide elected officials in Long Beach on Sunday to campaign for Proposition 1, the ballot measure that would codify abortion rights in the state Constitution.

Padilla was in the headlines recently as one of the first prominent elected officials to call for the resignation of three Latino Los Angeles City Council members last month after they were heard making racist comments on a recording with a labor leader.

The senator said he was “appalled” by the language on the recording. His call for the council members — including Nury Martinez, a high school classmate and longtime ally — to step down came as other state Democrats criticized the comments but stopped short of weighing in on the officials’ futures.

Other elected Democrats, including Biden, soon demanded their resignations. Martinez, who had been the council’s president, resigned, but Kevin de León and Gil Cedillo remain in office.

Padilla and his two siblings were raised in Pacoima by their immigrant parents, a short-order line cook and a housekeeper. He said their efforts to keep him focused on education, volunteer work at their Catholic church and baseball kept him busy and out of trouble in a neighborhood that he described as being beset by drug dealing and prostitution.

He graduated from MIT and returned home to work in engineering. But his career plans changed because of his outrage over Proposition 187, the successful 1994 ballot measure that sought to deny many taxpayer-funded services to immigrants in the country illegally.

Padilla was part of a generation of young Latinos in Los Angeles spurred into politics by the proposition, which was later largely struck down by the courts as unconstitutional. He began by working on local Democratic campaigns.

Padilla was elected at the age of 26 to the Los Angeles City Council in 1999 and became council president two years later. He was elected to the state Senate in 2006, where his legislative accomplishments include the state ban on disposable plastic grocery bags and the posting of calorie counts at chain restaurants.

After being sworn into the U.S. Senate in 2021, the first bill Padilla introduced proposed an expedited pathway to citizenship for pandemic essential workers who lack permanent legal status. He has also introduced or co-authored legislation to expand protections for more than 1 million acres of public land in California and to direct the Department of Defense to clean up contamination at military facilities.

Padilla’s voting record aligns with the priorities of the Biden administration, including support for the American Rescue Plan and the Inflation Reduction Act. He has been a consistent supporter of abortion access.

He has partnered with lawmakers across the aisle on legislation such as funding for health facilities for Native Americans and to improve energy infrastructure to gird for extreme weather events. Both were signed into law as part of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.


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