Who Will Gov. Newsom Pick for Senate?

The California governor’s big decision might make him a few friends, and a few enemies.

With a penchant for upsetting both his Republican colleagues and the more progressive wing of his own party, the governor of this cobalt blue state is faced with a choice. He is tasked with filling the Senate seat soon to be vacated by one of the Democratic Party’s brightest stars — a multiracial lawyer with a knack for public speaking who is headed to the White House.

Some might say, “it’s a fucking valuable thing.”

While there is currently no indication that Gov. Gavin Newsom is planning to trade his Senate pick for cash or personal favors — as former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich was convicted of doing back in 2009 — he will almost certainly cement some allies while also making some foes.

“This is not something that I wish even on my worst enemy, because you create enemies in this process you know, not just friends. And it’s a vexing decision. It’s a challenging one,” Newsom said during a recent press conference

Now that Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) is Vice President-elect Newsom has the authority to appoint a successor to the Senate seat without holding a special election — and though Newsom isn’t expected to begin considering her replacement until after the transition process is formally initiated, POLITICO and Forbes have reported on who’s rumored to be on the governor’s shortlist. 

These are the Bay Area power players who might serve as California’s next senator.

Rep. Barbara Lee: As the most senior woman of color in Congress, many see Lee as among the top contenders for the role. She has represented Oakland and surrounding areas in the House of Representatives since 1998 and formerly chaired the Congressional Black Caucus and chaired the Congressional Progressive Caucus. 

Some have made the argument that Newsom should appoint a woman of color to fill Harris’ seat because the vice president-elect is currently the only Black female in the Senate. Newsom seems likely to opt for a history-making pick, and in a recent University of Southern California poll that asked voters who Newsom should choose, Lee led the pack. Lee’s office did not return a request for comment.

Rep. Ro Khanna: This two-term congressman has become one of the most progressive presences in the House since his 2016 election. Khanna, who represents California’s 17th Congressional District — which encompasses much of Silicon Valley — won re-election with over 70 percent of the vote last week. He would follow in Harris’ footsteps as the state’s second-ever senator of South Asian descent.

“Ro strives to be a strong progressive voice in California and across the country,” spokesperson Heather Purcell told SF Weekly. “He is keeping all of his options open to best do that. We aren’t closing any doors right now.”

Treasurer Fiona Ma or Controller Betty Yee: In a state where Asian Americans currently comprise 15 percent of the population, either Ma or Yee would be a representative choice. If elected, either woman would be California’s third Asian American senator. 

Both are long-time San Franciscans — Yee grew up in the Parkside neighborhood and earned a master’s from Golden Gate University, while Ma served on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in the early 2000s. Both are popular statewide, too — Yee earned more votes than the governor in her 2018 re-election bid — and might be reluctant to leave California politics. The women have publicly broached the idea of running for governor once Newsom terms out in 2026, with Ma confirming to POLITICO that she considers herself particularly well-qualified for the role because of her experience as treasurer.  Neither office returned a request for comment.

Lieutenant Governor Eleni Kounalakis: The Greek American made history when she was elected California’s first female lieutenant governor in 2018 — but despite her working relationship with Gov. Newsom, some see her as an unlikely pick as a wealthy white woman. Kounalakis is heir to the Sacramento corporation AKT Development and served as the U.S. ambassador to Hungary under President Obama. Though she currently lives in San Francisco with her family, she might consider relocating to Sacramento, having expressed interest in a future run for governor.

“Of course it’s an honor to be viewed as someone qualified and prepared to follow VP-elect Harris to the US Senate,” Kounalakis said. “I also believe the Governor will pursue a process that reflects the will of the people of California.”

Mayor London Breed or Mayor Libby Schaaf: As the mayors of San Francisco and Oakland, these are two of California’s most prominent local politicians. Breed is San Francisco’s first Black female mayor and would follow in Harris’ historic footsteps if she became only the second African American to represent California in the Senate. Neither office returned a request for comment.

State Sen. Scott Wiener: The non-profit civil rights group Equality California penned a letter to the governor urging him to choose an LGBTQ+ candidate, naming Wiener, among others. The 50-year-old gay attorney has represented California’s 11th Senate District — covering San Francisco and parts of San Mateo County — since 2016, winning a second term last week. The former member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors has lived in the Castro neighborhood for over 20 years, and his appointment would represent a first for the state. But he doesn’t necessarily want the job right now.

“While I’m flattered to be mentioned, my focus is getting ready for my return to Sacramento, and I do not anticipate being appointed to Senator Harris’s seat,” Wiener told SF Weekly. “Governor Newsom has numerous strong candidates to consider, including several excellent LGBTQ candidates.”

Olivia Tucker is an intern for SF Weekly. Nick Veronin contributed to this story.

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