San Francisco Chronicle: California’s Alex Padilla brings rare Senate perspective — an immigrant family’s struggle for dignity

By Joe Garofoli

Sen. Alex Padilla began to choke up. He was talking about his father, Santos Padilla, an immigrant from Mexico.

The California Democrat was recalling the time he brought his father with him when he was seeking the endorsement of a labor organization during his first run for office. The elder Padilla wasn’t there to provide moral support — he was living evidence that the young politician came from a place where the fight for dignity wasn’t an abstract concept.

It was a moment of insight into how Padilla, the first Latino to represent California in the Senate, will bring a different life experience to Washington than most politicians — one that represents the many immigrants whose stories aren’t told enough in the nation’s capital.

“So many of these issues,” Padilla said, “are personal to me.”

Santos Padilla worked as a line cook for years in a unionized restaurant. But when his son was in high school, the restaurant shifted to using nonunion labor and the elder Padilla lost his health benefits. When Alex Padilla was in college, his father had his pay reduced. Soon, after 35 years on the job, he was laid off.

“And I remember the look in his eye, coming home, knowing that he couldn’t provide for his family the way he wanted. That dignity was taken from him,” said Padilla, 47, his voice catching during an interview on The Chronicle’s “It’s All Political” podcast. “I took him to that interview so that the labor leaders in that room knew that I knew what that dignity meant, of a good union job and a good union contract.”

Not only did Padilla win the endorsement, he won that 1999 race for a Los Angeles City Council seat. Two years later, at age 28, he became the youngest person and the first Latino to be chosen by his peers to be council president.

Election to the state Senate and then as secretary of state followed. Last month, midway through Padilla’s second term, Gov. Gavin Newsom appointed him to fill the remaining two years of Vice President Kamala Harris’ Senate term.

Video caught tears welling in Padilla’s eyes on a Zoom call when Newsom mentioned his parents while asking him to take Harris’ place. Just like tears welled when Padilla was first sworn into office on the L.A. City Council. By his side were his father and mother, Lupe Padilla, who also immigrated from Mexico and cleaned people’s houses for a living. She died two years ago; his father lived to see his son become a U.S. senator.

Those public displays of emotion are rare for Padilla. Many describe him as stoic, someone whose voice rarely wavers and whose oratory won’t long be remembered. Those who know him say his methodical delivery is the product of his training in engineering, a field that prizes verifiable fact and precision and where flamboyance is of little value. He earned his degree from MIT and worked briefly writing software for an aerospace company after graduating.

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