WASHINGTON — When Gov. Gavin Newsom selected Alex Padilla to fill the Senate seat being vacated by Vice President Kamala Harris in 2021, California Democrats were happy for him — but also for themselves.
They saw Padilla, a former high school baseball standout, as a star recruit for Democrats’ team for the Congressional Baseball Game, an annual Democrat versus Republican battle that benefits charity. But they were rebuffed.
“We couldn’t even coax him into playing in the Congressional Baseball Game because he has got his head down and is just working his tail off to get re-elected,” said San Rafael Rep. Jared Huffman, a former college athlete who plays in the annual game.
“I think pretty much the entire California delegation was lobbying me to play last year, but I just got here,” Padilla confirmed. “I’m a little busy.”
The game may be one of the lowest-stakes contests in Washington, but the episode speaks to how Padilla has approached his job since getting the nod from Newsom.
Padilla has virtually no serious competition headed into the June 7 primary, where he confusingly must run in two separate contests to retain his seat through January and win a new six-year term. But that hasn’t stopped him from working at a frenetic pace to be a difference-maker in the Senate and to clear the field of ambitious Democrats looking to take his job.
He’s facing a slew of little-known challengers for the seat, including Republican elections attorney and frequent statewide candidate Mark Meuser and a quixotic campaign by software executive Dan O’Dowd, whose primary campaign focus is criticizing Tesla’s self-driving technology.
In person, Padilla is a bit like a shark, a creature in need of constant motion to survive. One of the only times he sits still is during his junior senator task of presiding over the Senate. He sets aside his ever-present reading material to listen when a colleague addresses the Senate floor, usually to an empty chamber, giving the courtesy of undivided attention — and, Padilla says, sometimes strategizing responses — to senators regardless of party. Over the course of two days shadowing Padilla, he did nearly 10 interviews ,including with The Chronicle, four committee and caucus meetings, one presiding shift, three drop-by appearances at events across the Hill, one White House meeting and multiple series of votes on the floor. Those engagements were interspersed with staff meetings and phone calls.
Still, the realities of the current makeup of Washington are that there are few legislative victories for anyone — including the hard-working or well-liked. And Padilla in particular has placed himself at the center of two of the most contentious fights of the moment: immigration and voting rights.
Despite being a relatively fresh face to many Californians — a third of voters say they don’t know him well enough to have an opinion on his job performance, according to a March PPIC poll — Padilla, 49, is a longtime political operative in the state. Padilla has served on, and led, the Los Angeles City Council, in the state Senate and as secretary of state. A native of the San Fernando Valley, Padilla is the son of Mexican immigrants who worked as a short-order cook and housekeeper and was the first Latino to serve as secretary of state and as a California senator.
He often tells the story of how Rep. Tony Cardenas, D-Panorama City (Los Angeles County), recruited him to run Cardenas’ first Assembly campaign, and last year the two made history when each presided over their respective chambers, a first for two Latinos from California.
Those relationships helped him lock up his seat quickly, and get it in the first place. Newsom and Padilla’s friendship goes back to when each was working in local politics. Padilla said Newsom walked precincts for him for his 2006 state Senate run, when Newsom was mayor of San Francisco. “Nobody believes that,” Padilla said. “He came to the San Fernando Valley in 100-degree weather and knocked on doors in Granada Hills. So, yes, we’ve kind of been there for each other.”
Three months after getting to Washington, in April 2021, Padilla rolled out the endorsements of all but two of California’s Democrats in Congress and all of its statewide officials. A press release announcing those endorsements included statements from two members of Congress long thought to themselves be eyeing a Senate seat — Burbank Rep. Adam Schiff and Irvine Rep. Katie Porter. Padilla said he started reaching out to the delegation “immediately” upon arriving in Washington, asking for their support.
One notable holdout, Fremont Rep. Ro Khanna, who pondered his own run for Senate, endorsed Padilla in August, effectively clearing the field of any prominent challengers. Khanna told The Chronicle he spent that time making sure Padilla championed progressive causes like Medicare for All and a $15 federal minimum wage.
“I very much believe that whoever represented California had to be progressive,” Khanna said. “He said, ‘Well, I’m sponsoring these things,’ I just wanted to make sure. And he’s been true to his word.”
Padilla has also traversed the state. When he ran for secretary of state, he visited every California county. He’s continued that travel pace in the Senate, holding more than 70 in-person and virtual events statewide, according to his office, and held a 17-stop “listening tour” on infrastructure. He’s held 20 town halls, including 10 with other California lawmakers.
The senator speaks Spanish, no small advantage in a state where 40% of the population is Hispanic. That came in handy over two days spent dashing across the Capitol with him, during which he recorded Spanish-language videos about abortion outside the Supreme Court after a draft of an opinion erasing such rights leaked, did a Spanish-language TV interview and spoke in both languages to Senate cafeteria workers demonstrating for a better contract outside the Capitol. At the March confirmation hearing of incoming Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, he delivered some of his opening statement in Spanish, believed to be a first for such a hearing.
“We have a chunk of the population that prefers a language other than English,” Padilla said. “If I have the ability to, as I communicate it, do it in a way where more people feel part of the process or just of what’s going on, that can only be helpful in restoring confidence in government, confidence in whether it’s the Supreme Court, the confirmation process, Congress in general or just government in general.”
Padilla also nabbed key committee assignments that have allowed him to be central to the debates on his key issues, immigration policy and voting rights. He even became chair of the Judiciary immigration subcommittee despite being a freshman — he says by asking for the post.
But despite the jockeying, including being one of two Democratic members of a new “gang of four” bipartisan negotiation group on immigration reform, there are few successes. Padilla supports ending the filibuster that requires 60 votes to advance legislation and advocated for using procedural tactics to pass immigration reform with only 50 votes, but Democrats don’t have the support of all 50 of their delegation for either of those ideas.
Padilla worked with Texas Sen. John Cornyn, a Republican, on measures to modernize the electric grid, legislation that became a $5 billion investment in improving power lines as part of the bipartisan infrastructure bill that could help bury lines in California. He also helped get $250 million in earmarks for more than 130 projects across the state in the federal budget this year.
“He’s been a great partner to work with on a number of occasions,” Cornyn said of Padilla. “We’re probably at opposite ends of the political spectrum, but I think it’s our responsibility to try to find common ground where we can. And I’ve found Sen. Padilla to be very professional and very pragmatic about trying to find that common ground.”
Cornyn is also among the group of four lawmakers meeting on immigration. He said Padilla brings “personal passion” to the issue but recognizes the need for compromise. But the odds of success for the group, like the gangs of various sizes who have tried before them, remain small. Neither party can ever accept the trade-offs it would take to get the other to vote for a compromise.
New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez, who has been a mentor to Padilla as one of the few Latino Democrats in the Senate, praised “his thoughtfulness, his intellect and his ability to have grasped our legislative process here in a very successful way.” But Menendez isn’t predicting much success either.
“I am not overly optimistic,” Menendez said. “But he’s going at it, and I give him credit for doing so. Maybe we need some, you know, fresh eyes and fresh thinking on the issue.”
Though Padilla doesn’t have many detractors, they do exist.
Unlike the Democrats in the House who say Padilla has been more engaged than any California senator in a number of years, Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Vista (San Diego County), said he has reached out to Padilla’s office for a meeting and not heard back. Issa credited California Sen. Dianne Feinstein with working for the “whole state,” but said her counterparts — former Sens. Barbara Boxer and Kamala Harris and now Padilla — haven’t.
“I can only say that he has not reached out to meet with any of the Republicans in the House,” Issa said. “So he certainly isn’t trying to do bipartisan legislation. I’m a little disappointed. He should know better.”
Padilla’s office, however, cited his work with Republican Reps. Doug LaMalfa of Richvale (Butte County) and Tom McClintock of Elk Grove (Sacramento County) on wildfire recovery. LaMalfa co-sponsored Padilla’s electric grid bill.
LaMalfa said in a statement provided by his office that he’s known Padilla since they served in the state Senate “and have always been cordial.” Despite “quite different world views,” LaMalfa said they have a job “to find common ground” on issues like water and forest management.
Padilla has called out Republican colleagues for what he said was unfair treatment of judicial nominees of color, which they responded was “grossly inaccurate.” But many Republicans in the Senate told The Chronicle they consider Padilla a great colleague.
Padilla is perhaps best known among his colleagues as a devoted family man. He said the most challenging part of his job is the time difference between Washington and Los Angeles, which makes calls to his sons difficult. He flies home every weekend.
“On occasion I’ll remind the staff, if I don’t feel like I’m maximizing every day that ‘I’m here, then I have a more important place to be,” Padilla said. “I’m not here to twiddle my thumbs, I’m not here to just keep the seat warm. I’m here to make a difference. Because if I’m not making a difference, then I should be home with my family.”
His roommate in Washington, Cardenas, whose wife set Padilla up with his future spouse, Angela, said Padilla often makes breakfast and coffee to go around. “I know this sounds like a cliche, but he is so giving, he is just so willing to give of himself and be there for others,” Cardenas said.
Perhaps no one will be more pleased than Cardenas if Padilla retains his seat and decides to join the congressional baseball team this fall to replace Democrats’ star pitcher, Cedric Richmond, who left Congress to join the Biden administration. Cardenas said he talked up Padilla’s pitching skills to his colleagues only to fail to recruit him. “I’m going to be the happiest person alive if I get him,” he said. “I won’t be teased by my colleagues as much.”
Padilla said he “won’t consider it until at least June 8.”