San Francisco Chronicle: We spent the day with California Sen. Alex Padilla in the wake of the leaked abortion ruling. Here’s how it unfolded

By Tal Kopan

It was 10:42 a.m. and Sen. Alex Padilla was already on his fourth interview of the morning about Roe v. Wade.

The California Democrat was squeezing in this one, with a reporter from USA Today, as he had a minute of downtime before heading into the Senate chamber to preside for an hour, a task that falls to junior members of the Senate majority like him.

“Congress should act now,” Padilla told the reporter as he once more delivered his talking points that the nation’s lawmakers should codify a right to abortion in federal law. “I do think things changed last night,” he said, referring to the stunning revelation late Monday night by Politico that a leaked draft of a Supreme Court opinion overturns the 50-year-old decision establishing that a woman has a right to terminate her pregnancy.

He told the reporter that the stakes of November’s midterm and state-level elections were suddenly dramatically higher.

As Padilla moved from engagement to engagement in the Senate at a rapid clip, abortion politics were front and center at every turn — and it was clear that Democrats saw the news as a possible tide-turning event, politically.

Padilla was in demand and ubiquitous, as he has been virtually since he arrived in Washington in January 2021 as the replacement for Kamala Harris when she became vice president. An hour before the USA Today interview, his morning started with a phone interview with Vox in the office he inherited from Harris in the Hart Senate Office Building, followed by a TV interview on MSNBC two buildings over, where he joked with the cameraman as if they were old friends.

In between the interviews, Padilla was working the issue in non-public ways. He held a call with Jodi Hicks, CEO of Planned Parenthood of California, to “check in” and offer his support in whatever way necessary. He particularly noted security issues for abortion providers like Planned Parenthood. Though only Padilla’s side of the conversation was audible, it was clear the two were close. “I mean, I’m pissed, but otherwise, yes,” Padilla said at one point in response to Hicks.

After they hung up, a staffer informed him that Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine had put out a statement on the leaked opinion in which she said that if the leaked draft was accurate, “it would be completely inconsistent” with what the conservative nominees she had supported for the court had said.

“Well, that’s one vote,” Padilla replied.

Flanked by staff, Padilla then walked across the street to the Supreme Court building, where protesters had gathered en masse to voice their views on both sides of the abortion debate. Finding the crowd noisily dominated by a group chanting “Hey hey, ho ho, Roe v. Wade has got to go,” Padilla and his team peeled away. But they didn’t leave before a handful of other media had spotted him, walking with him toward the Capitol for his third interview, with reporters from Politico and Fox News. Once inside the Capitol, the USA Today reporter took her turn.

Just before calling his three children back in California on their way into school, which Padilla fit in before his shift presiding over the Senate, the 49-year-old former California secretary of state sat down briefly with The Chronicle, taking a moment to think about the significance of the day.

“I think it’s a tremendous example of there is no typical day in this job,” Padilla said. “We’re constantly trying to anticipate, but responding as necessary.”

Padilla first heard the news about the leaked Supreme Court opinion draft the night before, seated at a private bipartisan dinner on a separate issue with Senate colleagues. He said the push alert flashed across the phone of Delaware Democratic Sen. Chris Coons, and, shortly thereafter, colleagues started exiting the dinner. He said for him, there was an emotional gravity to the situation.

He said while Democrats knew the court dismantling Roe was a possibility, seeing in stark relief that it was likely happening changed the terrain, including possibly motivating some colleagues who were previously against codifying abortion rights into federal law to change their minds.

“I think it’s palpable,” Padilla said. “Prior to last night, was it a concern? Absolutely. But now it’s real. Right, it’s gone from being a possibility to being imminent. So for the couple Democrats that might not be there yet, you know, maybe they are now.”

His hour presiding over the Senate, listening to colleagues give speeches to an empty chamber on topics like energy sources and nominations, was the one part of his day not dominated by the news.

Shortly thereafter, Padilla joined his Democratic colleagues in descending the Capitol steps to speak on the ruling’s impact. They brushed past Texas Republican Sen. John Cornyn, who was downplaying the significance of the ruling and his state’s own law banning abortion before many women even know they’re pregnant to a scrum of reporters.

As they stood on the steps, the lawmakers spoke about their fears of an erosion of rights beyond abortion, including the right to gay marriage and birth control.

The Democrats then went inside for their closed-door weekly lunch, where the topic continued to dominate conversation.

The sentiment inside was “very sober, and a combination of, ‘What can we do now?’ whether it’s a vote or multiple votes to let the public know where every member of the Senate stands on this fundamental issue, and the dangers this precedent would set,” Padilla said.

Outside the Democrats’ lunch room, Republicans had their weekly news conference. When Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell was asked if he feels personally responsible for taking away abortion rights for millions of Americans, McConnell responded that the “story today” was actually the leak from the Supreme Court itself, about which he called for an investigation. Padilla later called Republicans’ response a “a very weak effort to deflect what’s really going on here.”

As Padilla took meetings in his office during a break in his stops around the Capitol, on TVs across the rooms, MSNBC played live scenes from outside the court, where police had established barricades shutting down the road to traffic and physically separating the two sides.

The day ended with one last interview, in front of a raucous crowd of abortion rights supporters filling the street in front of the Supreme Court. He also recorded a video in English and Spanish for his social media and local press.

“When we go to vote in November, this is what’s at stake,” Padilla said, as crowd noise roared behind him. “If Republicans take the majority, then undoing Roe v. Wade is just a sign of things to come.”

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