LA Daily News: With Dianne Feinstein’s death, Alex Padilla becomes California’s senior senator overnight
By Ryan Carter
Nearly three years ago, Alex Padilla walked down the aisle in the U.S. Senate chamber, on his way to be sworn in — using his mom’s Bible — as California’s first Latino member of that body.
During the trip down the aisle that day, he had company — a vigorous Sen. Dianne Feinstein.
Even with the gravity of his own already storied political rise from the Pacoima home of immigrant parents, Padilla, 47 at the time, was every bit the “junior” senator from California. Standing a few feet behind him during his swearing in was a blue-suited Feinstein — a towering figure of the Senate and the revered trailblazer from California. He raised his right hand and took the oath of office.
But on Friday, Sept. 29, Padilla suddenly found himself, under unenviable circumstances, as California’s new senior senator. His mentor had died the previous day, at 90 years old — ending a three-decade Senate career.
Padilla stood in the now-familiar Senate chamber on Friday, his mood contrasting starkly with how he felt three years ago. His voice broke and he tried holding back tears while eulogizing his mentor, Feinstein, who died the night before.
He echoed her career, from her time as mayor in San Francisco to the moments after his own inauguration, when she commandeered the cellphone from him as he was Facetiming his wife and children — to tell them how proud she was of Padilla and that she would treat them to lunch next time they were in Washington, D.C.
“That was Dianne Feinstein,” he said.
While likely far from his mind, Padilla has still found himself — overnight — taking another step in a rapid ascension that has taken him from a Pacoima kid who watched his father carve out a living as a dishwasher and short-order cook in the San Fernando Valley and whose mom cleaned houses in Sherman Oaks to a senior senator.
Such rapid ascension is not unusual, of course — and not unexpected in the Senate. The average age of that body’s members, after all, was 65.3 years old as of the beginning of the year, and older national leaders — including the president of the United States — face calls to step down because of their age.
Feinstein herself faced those same calls in recent months, as images of her in a wheelchair after an illness made the rounds on social media and television networks. She was beset with questions about her ability to serve.
Against that backdrop, as the now senior senator, the 50-year-old Padilla is now at the helm of California’s congressional contingent, primed to forge ahead on policy during one of the most polarized moments in the nation’s history — and during an uncertain moment for the state’s delegation: A new junior senator will have to be appointed to Feinstein’s seat.
Since Gov. Gavin Newsom appointed him to his seat in 2020 and two years later, voters gave him a full six-year term. During that time, Padilla has dutifully played the part of the junior senator in Feinstein’s shadow, even as he’s forged ahead on some of his key issues, such as immigration, the environment and education.
But don’t expect a huge change in his own leadership style now that Feinstein is gone. At least according to those who know or have observed him.
“You’re not going to see the fangs come out or see Padilla come out like he didn’t before,” said Jaime Regalado, professor emeritus of political science at Cal State Los Angeles. “We’re not going to see that. It’s not Padilla.”
L.A. County Supervisor Hilda Solis agreed.
“I think the best word to describe him is that he’s measured,” said Solis, who on Friday was among many leaders paying tribute to Feinstein for “shattering glass ceilings.”
Indeed, Padilla has forged a career with that measured approach, from his earliest days as president of the L.A. City Council, when he could bring together disparate coalitions in a fractious Los Angeles. In that way, he’s similar to Feinstein, who was known for bipartisanship.
It’s an approach that Solis said will serve Padilla well as he moves up a notch on the leadership ladder.
“People are going to call on him to do more,” she said. “It’s expected. You are one of the most important players on the national scene. I’m sure he’s gong to be called on in more ways than he ever thought.”
It’s an open question, though, whether he’ll be bolder on policy, observers said. But what Padilla will need to be, as the senior senator, is a mentor, especially if Newsom appoints a “caretaker” to hold the seat until next year, when an election will determine who will serve a full term.
If that caretaker is inexperienced as a lawmaker — someone like an Oprah Winfrey, who has been rumored to be among potential appointees, though the television icon reportedly said she’s not considering it — Padilla will need to guide that nascent colleague through the ropes.
“A lot will depend on how experienced that person is,” said Jack Pitney, professor of politics at Claremont McKenna College.
As it stands, who that person will be is very much a question of the moment.
Three high-profile Democrats are vying for the seat in 2024 — after Feinstein announced earlier this year that she would not seek a new term. Adam Schiff, D-Burbank, Katie Porter, D-Irvine, and Barbara Lee, D-Oakland, all want it, and in a super politically blue state one of them is likely to win it.
But after picking a Latino in Padilla three years ago, Newsom had pledged to appoint a Black woman to the seat should it open up. That has many wondering if he’ll appoint Lee, which would give her some incumbency advantages going into election year.
Experts agreed we will likely know soon from Newsom who will be the new junior senator to Padilla.
What we do know after Friday is that Padilla is likely to forge ahead on many of the policy issues that were dear to Feinstein — with a similar penchant for working across the aisle.
Solis, for her part, said Padilla and Feinstein have some common ground when it comes to the ability to make connections on both sides of the political spectrum.
Perhaps that’s not too surprising, given Padilla’s reverence on Friday for Feinstein’s role in kickstarting his political career.
“Dianne gave me one of my first jobs in politics, in her L.A. office, at a time when I was looking to make a difference for my community and my state,” he said. “It’s in part thanks to her groundbreaking career that a Latino son of immigrants could one day not just work for her but alongside her to keep up the fight for the American dream.
“May she rest in peace,” he added as he ended a tearful, 10-minute tribute on the Senate floor, before going into other pressing business of the day, including budget negotiations and the Senate’s attempt to keep the government from shutting down. “And may her legacy inspire us all.”
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