Ideally, when democracy runs smoothly, the people vote for their representation in the government and citizens have a say in who their leaders are. The power to choose those who govern lies in the hands of the common people.
So why, in a country where representative democracy is so deeply ingrained into its culture and the founding of its government, is Gov. Gavin Newsom alone in choosing who will replace Kamala Harris in the Senate?
Why is the governor of California the sole person voting for a representative who will make laws and act on the behalf of 40 million people for the next two years?
America’s eyes are fixed on Newsom as he moves to pick a politician who may sit in the Senate for decades, while voters sit back and watch, unable to express their opinions on the matter.
The decision simply shouldn’t be Newsom’s to make.
A senator’s job is to write and vote on legislation for the benefit of the people in their state, not for the benefit of the governor. When Newsom appoints a senator, it creates a conflict of interest, because whomever he chooses is more likely to be politically advantageous for him than to be good for Californians.
Newsom’s choice promises to influence everything from his public image to his prospects in politics. Oh, and laws that will directly shape the lives of every single American citizen.
But why should he care about that? Newsom has to protect his own reputation more than ever as his reelection looms in 2022. After a term marred by the worsening COVID-19 pandemic and the hypocrisy surrounding his well-publicized dinner party to celebrate a lobbyist’s birthday at the absurdly expensive French Laundry restaurant, Newsom needs something he can use to restore the people’s faith in him.
His choice for the soon-to-be-empty Senate seat will certainly be made with reelection in mind. What better way to distract us than to make a splash with a new senator?
For instance, one of the top contenders, California Secretary of State Alex Padilla, owes much of his standing to how Newsom himself would gain from appointing him. Not only would Newsom be making headlines and history by making Padilla California’s first Latino senator, he would also be in a prime position to ask for a favor, considering Padilla’s crucial endorsement of Newsom’s governor campaign in 2018.
Most importantly, it would help Newsom gain the support of Latinos, who comprise nearly 40 percent of California’s population, assisting his chances of winning a second term. While diverse representation is nice and all, just because someone is the same race as you doesn’t mean they represent your beliefs.
After all, the effects of whomever Newsom chooses might persist for years, given that Senators such as Dianne Feinstein, California’s senior senator, can serve upwards to 30 years. Even though in theory it is up to voters to decide if Harris’s replacement is reelected, more often than not incumbents have an advantage because of the name recognition and their ability to build inside connections. It’s not a choice that should be made without input from voters.
The governor is also much easier for lobbyists to influence, as shown when one Jason Kinney convinced Newsom to break COVID regulations to attend his much-publicized birthday bash. Various lobbying groups are urging Newsom to choose their preferred candidates. A group of about 150 of California’s biggest female donors and San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown have launched a campaign to pressure Newsom to choose a woman of color to replace Harris, according to Politico.
Furthermore, Newsom also might exclude otherwise potential candidates that are likely to run against him for governor in 2022, because giving them recognition or letting them have ‘senator’ on their job resume would benefit their campaigns. Regardless of how qualified they may be to represent Californians, Newsom still has to take care of his own interests first.
And after Joe Biden nominated California Attorney General Xavier Becerra to become Secretary of the Department of Health and Human services, Newsom has an unprecedented opportunity to do just that. Attorney generals often move on to higher positions. Kamala Harris used to be one before she became a senator and now vice president-elect. Whoever Newsom picks for attorney general position might return the favor when they become more influential. And if Newsom decides on Padilla for the senate, he will have yet another chance to pick a high ranking government official, the Secretary of State.
Between Harris, Becerra and Padilla, Newsom will be single-handedly overhauling California’s Democratic Party. If he plays his cards wisely, Newsom could determine who controls California politics in the future – and it could very well be his friends and lackeys.
That amount of power should never belong to one politician under normal circumstances. But even if Newsom wanted to give the people a say on the issue, his options aren’t too favorable.
As governor, the 17th Amendment allows him to order for a special election to fill senate vacancies, but special elections can cost tens of millions of dollars to conduct, money needed especially for dealing with the coronavirus pandemic. It would also take time, time where Californians would be left with one less representative in the Senate.
Assuming Newsom doesn’t want to exploit his powers for his own benefit, he needs to choose someone who isn’t going to run for a second term so there is a level playing field in the 2022 election. He should choose someone like Barbara Boxer, who retired from the senate in 2017 and has no political ambitions because she’s old enough (80) to run for another six-year term.
Boxer was actually Harris’s predecessor, and retired after being a senator for 24 years. She has valuable experience and knowledge of how the Senate functions and has cemented herself as a strong liberal voice in Congress. As an added plus, she is also a woman, allowing Newsom to pick someone other than a white man for the job.
By choosing someone to hold the position for two years, Newsom would be choosing the wiser option, giving voters the fair choice in 2022 they deserve.