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Will an LGBTQ+ Californian Succeed Kamala Harris in the U.S. Senate?

Robert Garcia and Toni Atkins
Robert Garcia and Toni Atkins

Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia was said to be on the shortlist, while California Senate leader Toni Atkins was mentioned earlier

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UPDATE: California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced Tuesday morning that he is appointing Secretary of State Alex Padilla to fill the U.S. Senate vacancy left by Kamala Harris's ascension to vice president. Padilla will be the first Latinx U.S. senator from California, where the population is 40 percent Latinx. The move ends weeks of speculation about Harris's successor, with some calling for another Black woman to replace her (Harris was the only Black woman in the Senate) and others for a Latinx or LGBTQ+ person.

"Through his tenacity, integrity, smarts and grit, California is gaining a tested fighter in their corner who will be a fierce ally in D.C., lifting up our state's values and making sure we secure the critical resources to emerge stronger from this pandemic," Newsom said in a statement. "He will be a Senator for all Californians."

The Advocate's earlier story on potential successors to Harris is below.

As Kamala Harris shatters a glass ceiling in becoming the nation's vice president, she leaves a vacancy in the U.S. Senate -- and it might be filled by a member of the LGBTQ+ community.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom is tasked with naming someone to serve the last two years of Harris's term in the Senate; she was elected to a six-year term in 2016. When she leaves the Senate, there will be no Black women there; she will be the first woman, first Black person, and first person of South Asian descent to be vice president (she is of Jamaican and Indian heritage). Some activists say that's why Newsom should appoint another Black woman, while others say it's time for the diverse state to have its first Latinx or LGBTQ+ U.S. senator.

Newsom has not gone on record about who he's considering, but NBC News reported recently that his shortlist consists of two Black women and two Latinx men, one of whom is gay. The women are Barbara Lee and Karen Bass, both currently U.S. House members, and the men are California Secretary of State Alex Padilla and Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia, a gay man. Earlier, many more names were mentioned, including another member of the LGBTQ+ community, Toni Atkins, a lesbian who is president pro tempore of the California Senate. All are Democrats, as Newsom, a Dem himself, is expected to choose a member of his own party.

If Garcia is appointed, he would be the first out gay man to be a U.S. senator. The chamber currently has LGBTQ+ representation with Democrats Tammy Baldwin, a lesbian, from Wisconsin, and Kyrsten Sinema, a bisexual woman, from Arizona. At 43, he would also be one of the youngest members of the Senate. "Anyone would be happy to serve their country in this way, but I'm going to support whoever the governor selects," Garcia told The Advocate.

Garcia immigrated to the U.S. from Peru at age 5, and he grew up to be a college and university educator in California. He was elected mayor of Long Beach, a city of nearly half a million people near Los Angeles, in 2014, and was reelected in 2018 with nearly 80 percent of the vote. Before becoming mayor, he was on the Long Beach City Council. He was the first member of the LGBTQ+ community, first Latinx person, and the youngest person to be elected mayor of the city; he was 36 at the time of his first election.

His priorities as mayor have included supporting public education, fighting climate change, and championing the rights of workers, women, and LGBTQ+ people. Long Beach has a perfect score of 100 on the Human Rights Campaign's Municipal Equality Index. During Garcia's tenure the city has raised its minimum wage and passed initiatives for infrastructure repair, term limits, a cannabis tax, and more.

Garcia, like any high-profile politician, has his critics. Long Beach activist Franklin Sims launched a campaign this summer to recall the mayor, citing Garcia's response to protests over systemic racism and police violence, plus the fact that Garcia had accepted contributions from police unions. But Sims ended the effort in November, saying he'd faced intimidation; he also speculated that Garcia might leave for another office. Sims, meanwhile, is under investigation for possible violation of election laws.

The mayor also has many fans. "I think Robert Garcia would be amazing" as a U.S. senator, Dean Florez, a former California state senator, told NBC News. "If the governor is looking for somebody from the local government level, he would certainly be at the top of the list. He's a dynamic and engaging person."

Garcia was in the news this eventful year for a variety of reasons. He joined two other gay elected officials, Sam Park and Malcolm Kenyatta, state representatives in Georgia and Pennsylvania, respectively, to address the nation the first night of the Democratic National Convention. They were among 17 "rising stars" featured in the virtual keynote address, and the first out members of the LGBTQ+ community to speak in a keynote slot at a major party's national convention.

Additionally, 2020 was the year the COVID-19 pandemic changed everyone's life, and it affected Garcia more than most. His mother and stepfather, Gaby and Greg O'Donnell, both died of the virus. "There is no question that it has been hard," Garcia recently told NBC. "I also feel a strong sense of purpose to do the right thing [in leading Long Beach's pandemic response] and, through the work we're doing, save as many lives as possible."

The LGBTQ Victory Fund has suggested several out California officials as potential replacements for Harris, but it has spoken most strongly about Garcia and Atkins. Atkins is a former member of the San Diego City Council, was the first lesbian and only the third woman to serve as speaker of the California Assembly, and then became the first lesbian and first woman to lead the California Senate.

"Both Sen. Atkins and Mayor Garcia represent communities too often denied political power -- including women, immigrants and people of color -- furthering the impact their appointment would make," Victory Fund President and CEO Annise Parker said in a November statement. "Not just in California but across the country, the LGBTQ community would celebrate an LGBTQ leader taking the position and we will stand by them with resources and support to ensure they succeed. We hold immense pride in the leadership of our current LGBTQ U.S. senators and would be eager to rally behind an LGBTQ U.S. senator from the largest state in the nation."

Atkins provided this statement to The Advocate: "It says a lot about the quality and the diversity of California's elected officials that Governor Newsom has so many excellent candidates to choose from, including so many who would be firsts. It's a tough dilemma -- in a good way."

To be sure, all those on the shortlist and others whose names were floated earlier would bring various talents, political experience, and representation to the Senate. The NBC News article dubbed Garcia the least likely choice of the four on the shortlist, with Padilla being the leading Latinx candidate. Padilla is a close Newsom ally and is endorsed by the Latino Victory Fund.

"He's already been elected statewide," Florez told the network. "Padilla is a moderate. The people who do get elected statewide, I don't see them as far left of the party. California is always looking towards the critical center."

There are also those who feel strongly that Harris's successor should be a Black woman. "Black women are tired of getting publicly thanked and having nothing to show for it," Molly Watson of Let's Keep the Seat told NBC. "For us to lose this seat would be heartbreaking." Harris was only the second Black woman ever elected to the U.S. Senate, the first having been Carol Moseley Braun of Illinois, who served from 1993 to 1999.

People for the American Way President Ben Jealous and board member Dolores Huerta released statements Monday urging Newsom to choose either Bass or Lee. "Karen Bass and Barbara Lee are incredibly accomplished and distinguished progressive members of Congress, and either one would be a worthy successor to Vice President-elect Kamala Harris in the Senate," Jealous said. "Not only would they represent California well, they would provide a much-needed voice for Black women in the Senate after its only Black female member departs. We urge Governor Newsom to honor the work and Senate legacy of Kamala Harris by choosing one of these outstanding women to succeed her."

Huerta added, "As a Californian, I would be incredibly excited and proud to see either Barbara Lee or Karen Bass appointed to Kamala Harris's former Senate seat. It's critically important that Governor Newsom select a woman of color for this seat. And both of these wonderful women have outstanding records of fighting for important issues including health care, the battle against HIV/AIDS, and criminal justice reform. Governor Newsom should seize this opportunity to name one of them to the U.S. Senate."

Newsom has not announced a timetable for naming Harris's successor, although some observers are looking for it this week, but he's acknowledged the difficulties involved in the choice. "This is not something that I wish even on my worst enemy, because you create enemies in this process, you know, not just friends," he said in a news conference Election Day. "And it's a vexing decision. It's a challenging one."

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