SACRAMENTO, Calif. – Should California get its first Latino U.S. senator or should the 100-member chamber maintain one Black woman’s voice?
That's a weight on California Gov. Gavin Newsom's shoulders as he considers his pick to serve out the rest of Vice President-elect Kamala Harris' Senate term through 2022. That the choice is left to one governor has some observers frustrated with the persistent lack of racial diversity in the Senate and what they view as both parties' failure to do much about it.
“It’s a false choice and it’s not good for democracy, and it masks the historical exclusion of both communities in the Senate," said Sonja Diaz, founding director of the Latino Policy and Politics Initiative at UCLA.
Without Harris, the only Black woman in the Senate, the chamber has:
— two Black senators, Democrat Cory Booker of New Jersey and Republican Tim Scott of South Carolina.
— two women of Asian heritage, Democrats Mazie Hirono of Hawaii and Tammy Duckworth of Illinois.
— four people of Hispanic heritage, Republicans Marco Rubio of Florida and Ted Cruz of Texas and Democrats Bob Menendez of New Jersey and Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada. Democratic Rep. Ben Ray Luján of New Mexico will join the Senate in January.
That amounts to 9% of the Senate, while roughly 40% of the U.S. population identifies as a person of color. California is nearly 40% Latino and about 6% Black.
The disproportionate whiteness of the chamber isn't necessarily about too few diverse candidates but about too few diverse candidates who are winning. The South saw its highest number of Black Senate candidates ever this year, but none won races outright. In Georgia, Democrat Raphael Warnock, who is Black, is in a January runoff against Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler.
The only Black woman to be a major party's nominee for Senate this year — Marquita Bradshaw in Tennessee — was not supported by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. Bradshaw, an environmental justice activist, surprised her party by defeating the establishment's preferred candidate for an open seat, a win she said demonstrated voters' appetite for a candidate with working-class roots.
But the party committee decided the race wasn't competitive after a popular former Democratic governor lost in 2018 and because Bradshaw hadn't raised much money.
She won 35% of the vote against Republican Bill Hagerty. She raised just $1.6 million, less than 1% of what Jaime Harrison, another Black Democrat running for Senate, raised in his long-shot race in South Carolina. He also lost.
Bradshaw said the national party should treat any candidate who wins a primary as viable.
“It is supposed to be ‘blue no matter who,’” Bradshaw said. “But that just did not happen for Tennessee.”
Black women's representation in the Senate shouldn't have come down to California, Bradshaw said, and she's planning to focus on expanding voter education and supporting Black women as they run for office — and not just in presidential election years.
Asked how the party lifts up diverse candidates, DSCC spokesperson Stewart Boss pointed to those it endorsed in 2020 and the ongoing effort to send Warnock to the Senate. The other candidates were Adrian Perkins in Louisiana, Mike Espy in Mississippi and Paulette Jordan in Idaho, who would have been the first Native American woman in the Senate. They all lost.
Jesse Hunt, spokesperson for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, pointed to the GOP's support for John James for Senate in Michigan, calling him “the type of leader we need in politics." James lost to Democratic Sen. Gary Peters.
That's put pressure on Newsom, and those with a stake in his choice are lobbying openly. California Rep. Karen Bass, whom Newsom is considering for Harris' seat, said she doesn't view various groups in direct competition because all deserve representation. But she's been clear about her desire for a Black woman in the Senate, though she stopped short of criticizing the party broadly for the lack of representation.
“I do not view it as Gov. Newsom’s responsibility to solve the representation issue in the entire Senate," she said. “But on Jan. 20, there will not be an African American woman in the Senate, and everybody applauded the role that Black women have played in our elections in the Democratic Party in America. And the idea that there will not be that representation there at all is a problem."
Others under consideration for the job include Rep. Barbara Lee of Oakland, who is Black; Secretary of State Alex Padilla, who is of Mexican heritage; and Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia, who is Peruvian American.
The conversation over who should get Harris’ seat isn’t cleaving neatly along racial lines. Labor icon Dolores Huerta and California Latinas for Reproductive Justice want Newsom to appoint a Black woman.
Diaz, of the Latino Policy and Politics Initiative, says part of the problem is the extraordinary power of incumbency. After six years in office, senators become entrenched, build strong donor networks and rarely step aside voluntarily. Diaz points to California's other senator, Democrat Dianne Feinstein, who is serving her fifth full term. In 2018, the senator was challenged by state Sen. Kevin de Leon, the son of a Guatemalan immigrant, under the state's top-two primary system.
De Leon won the endorsement of the California Democratic Party and prominent labor unions, in part because of his support for immigrant rights and aggressive policies to curb climate change.
But the national party stuck by Feinstein, which also assured the race wouldn't take away resources from efforts to win House seats. De Leon raised less than $2 million to Feinstein's $9 million — but still captured 45% of the vote. Two years later, Feinstein is facing criticism over her handling of the Supreme Court nomination of Justice Amy Coney Barrett and questions about her age. At 87, she is the Senate's oldest current member.
“Sen. Feinstein did not let up and and would not make her seat available to a new generation of Democratic leaders," said Diaz, who worked on Hillary Clinton's 2016 presidential campaign.
Helen Torres, executive director of Hispanas Organized for Political Equality, a California group focused on Latina leadership training, said Black and Hispanic voters have long built coalitions that can power diverse candidates.
Looking ahead to elections in 2022, Torres said, “we do need to drive this narrative in a much bigger way."
“How do we really think through a national strategy to ensure that the U.S. Senate looks like the United States? That’s the larger prize, quite frankly."