Five Totally Out-of-the-Box Picks to Replace Kamala in the Senate

Joe Mathews
Connecting California Columnist and Editor, Zócalo Public Square, Fellow at the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (UC Press, 2010)

If Kamala Harris becomes vice president and Gov. Gavin Newsom has to fill her seat in the Senate, the conventional wisdom is that he will pick a statewide elected official—probably Secretary of State Alex Padilla or Attorney General Xavier Becerra. Either of those men would allow Newsom to make history, by appointing a Latino, and also give him a chance to make a second appointment—Padilla or Becerra’s replacement.

I wouldn’t bet against the conventional wisdom, but this is California, and these are strange times. And so one can’t rule out a strange, even out-of-the-box pick for the U.S. Senate. And if Newsom is inclined to surprise, there are a number of people he could tap from outside the state’s roster of pols who might do better than professional politicians and would be very good fits for a Senate that is unfair to California. Here are my top 5 out-of-the-box choices, in order of preference.

  1. Manuel Pastor, USC professor and sociologist. Some of our most impactful politicians have been scholars and thinkers—take Daniel Patrick Moynihan—so I’m voting here for arguably the most politically-savvy academic of our moment who makes California their subject. (I say arguably because I could say the same of Pastor’s USC colleague Mindy Romero). His book State of Resistance explains how California became the progressive force it is today, and points the way to a brighter future. Since the Senate’s structure works against California—we’re terribly underrepresented, with just 2 Senators for 40 million people—we need a senator who can connect California’s narrative to larger American and global narratives, to win us allies. Pastor is great at connecting narratives, and people.
  1. Priscilla Chan, doctor and philanthropist. Who are we kidding? For better and often for worse, Facebook rules the world, and California needs Facebook and other big tech types to succeed, given our highly progressive tax structure. Chan, via her and her husband Mark Zuckerberg’s political and philanthropic spending, is emerging as a dominant player in California politics.  Let’s put all that power and money to work for all of California in Senate. She could be the outsized force there that California so badly needs.

3. Rene Mendez, local administrator. You’ve never heard of him, but the longtime city manager of tiny Gonzales (pop. 10,000) in the Salinas Valley is one of the most creative public servants you’ll ever meet. His town succeeds despite being an underdog. In the Senate, any Californian is an underdog. No local official in California is better at running uphill.

  1. Debbie Allen, artist. Serving in the Senate costs, and success requires sweat, so why not Debbie Allen? (Young’uns should Google “Debbie Allen and Fame” if you don’t get my reference). She may be underappreciated, but there is nothing that Allen, perhaps Hollywood’s most multi-faceted talent, can’t do. She’s been singer, dancer, actor, writer, director, producer, and educator.  And she has Washington experience, as a past member of the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities. Who better to represent California in the Senate than one of our hardest-working artists? At the very least she’ll give the other senators a kick in the butt.

1. Billy Beane, sports executive. The U.S. Senate is an unfair game for California. Is there anyone in our state better at winning unfair games than the longtime Oakland A’s executive? Beane is best known as the leading figure in the book and film Moneyball, about how the A’s used advanced analysis to get the better of teams with more resources. It would be great to let him and his team apply their skills to figuring out ways to outmaneuver the 49 other states.

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