Newsom’s Choice

Any biographer of California Gov. Gavin Newsom is sure to focus on Newsom’s unanticipated power to appoint a host of figures to the state’s most important elected positions. That biographer will surely also note that this has repeatedly plunged Newsom into the middle of the state’s racial and ethnic rivalries.

In 2020, with the accession of Sen. Kamala Harris (a Black woman) to the vice presidency, Newsom appointed the state’s secretary of state, Alex Padilla (a Latino), to the Senate, to which Padilla was subsequently elected. He then appointed veteran State Assembly member Shirley Weber (also a Black woman) to be Padilla’s successor as secretary of state, a post to which she was also subsequently elected. The following year, when state Attorney General Xavier Becerra (a Latino) joined the Biden administration as secretary of health and human services, Newsom appointed longtime Assembly member Rob Bonta (of Filipino descent) to take Becerra’s place as AG, to which Bonta later also won election.

Newsom’s appointment of Padilla to succeed Harris marked the first time a Latino had represented California in the U.S. Senate. It rankled some in the African American community, however, as Harris had been the only Black woman in the Senate. As a way of placating his critics, Newsom then pledged that if the other Senate seat (Dianne Feinstein’s) were to come open on his watch, he’d be sure to appoint a Black woman as Feinstein’s successor.

More from Harold Meyerson

Newsom needed no help understanding that as California governor in the early 21st century, he was inescapably in the crosshairs of long-standing rivalries over racial representation. Politically, over the past half-century, the state, not to mention Newsom’s own Democratic Party, has gone from white-majority/Black-minority to one where whites and Latinos share demographic majority status, with the rapidly growing Asian American community constituting the third-largest racial group, and Blacks, once the minority anchor of the state’s Democratic Party, now coming in a distant fourth.

The state’s current racial breakdown is 40 percent Latino, 35 percent white, 17 percent Asian/Pacific Islander, and 6 percent Black. That bears scant resemblance to the California of 40 years ago. In 1980, according to the federal census, California was 67 percent non-Hispanic white, 19 percent Latino, and 8 percent Black. The Census Bureau didn’t even ask about Asian Americans then.

When it came to political representation, though, California Blacks made the most of their numbers from the ’60s through the ’90s. Because they still largely resided in the distinct areas of major cities to which they’d been confined by residential segregation decades earlier, they constituted the majorities in some contiguous inner-city Los Angeles congressional and legislative districts, and were also a sizable, though not majority, community in the East Bay areas around Oakland. They’d long elected distinguished progressive legislators in those districts, beginning, in Los Angeles, with Gus Hawkins, who was first elected on socialist Upton Sinclair’s “End Poverty in California” Democratic Party slate to the legislature in 1934 and who went on to a notable congressional career from 1962 to 1991. (He was succeeded by Maxine Waters.) In 1970, African American Ron Dellums, running on a left-wing anti-war platform, ousted white incumbent Rep. Jeffery Cohelan in the Democratic primary to represent the East Bay in Congress, in a race that turned much more on ideology than it did on race. Dellums went on to represent that district in Congress through 1998. During that time, Dellums was also a member of the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee and then DSA—for much of his tenure, the only avowed socialist in Congress. (He was succeeded by his former chief of staff, Barbara Lee.)

Many Latino activists are frustrated at what they see as their underrepresentation in public office, particularly at the highest levels of government.

Please note that in that 1980 census, California was home to more than twice as many Latinos as Blacks, but Latinos held far fewer elective offices, partly because they were not at the time as clustered residentially as Blacks, and in general had lower levels of political activism than the Black community had developed in its centuries-long battle for equal rights. For a time, Black and white liberal alliances dominated the state’s Democratic Party (in the Bay Area, Black and white left alliances). In 1973, a coalition of Black and Jewish voters elected Tom Bradley as mayor of Los Angeles (a post he held for 20 years)—the first Black person to govern a major American city in which Blacks did not constitute a majority of the population. In 1981, the Democratic majority in the State Assembly elected Willie Brown, a Black member from San Francisco, to be Speaker, a post he held for 14 years. Brown later went on to be San Francisco’s mayor, though in San Francisco, as in L.A., Blacks constituted a small share of the population.

But as the state’s Latino population began to balloon beginning with the migration from war-torn Central America in the ’80s and NAFTA-impoverished rural Mexico in the ’90s, Latinos did begin to win legislative offices, and, as a matter of economic necessity, to move into working-class and poorer neighborhoods, some of which in Los Angeles were both historically and currently Black. The decennial drawing of district lines in L.A. has sometimes been marked by a Black-Latino modus vivendi—and sometimes not.

In the 1990s, there were regular contests over whether the superintendent of the L.A. Unified School District (a post that no one held for very long) should be Black or Latino. Last year’s release of a recording in which some Latino elected officials spoke disgustingly about Blacks occurred in the context of a discussion of how Latinos held just three of L.A.’s 15 city council seats—the same number that Blacks held—even though the city’s Latino residents outnumbered the city’s Black residents by a 6-to-1 ratio. Maxine Waters continues to represent those parts of Los Angeles that were once the heart of L.A.’s Black community, but today, her district is heavily Latino. No one has sought to dislodge Waters, who ably represents her working-class constituents across all racial lines. But when she does decide to step down, no redrawing of lines can create a majority-Black district on a terrain that’s been represented by Blacks since 1934.

Hence Newsom’s conundrum, as a numerically ascendant part of his political universe and a numerically shrinking part have come into conflict. Many Latino activists are frustrated at what they see as their underrepresentation in public office, particularly at the highest levels of government, while many Blacks fear that Latino advances may come at their (Blacks’) expense, a fear exacerbated by the fact that Black advances have come disproportionately from the power of their (and their allies’) political mobilizations.

That’s what informed Newsom’s decision to appoint Padilla to succeed Harris in the Senate, and to appoint Laphonza Butler to succeed Feinstein. To appoint Barbara Lee, he rightly concluded, would have been seen as intervening in the upcoming choice voters will make next year when they select their new senator.

Just as the big-city Eastern machine bosses of yore sometimes sought to create election slates with a requisite balance of Irish, Italian, Jewish, and Black candidates, so Newsom has found himself enmeshed in kindred calculations over the series of appointments he’s had to make. All politics may or may not be local, but in America, at the level of representation, for better and worse, they’re almost always ethnic.

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