Padilla faces a familiar foe in bid for full US Senate term
SAN DIEGO (AP) — Alex Padilla feels comfortable enough in his bid to remain California’s junior senator that he is casting aside his Republican opponent — constitutional lawyer Mark Meuser — to campaign for fellow Democrats.
“We are facing a radical right-wing movement that continues to call into question the democratic process anytime that it doesn’t work in their favor,” he wrote supporters in September, asking to split donations with a group representing Democrats running to become the top election official in their states.
And writing on behalf of Sen. Mark Kelly of Arizona in August, Padilla said Kelly “is a former NASA astronaut, and like me, one of the few engineers in the United States Senate.”
Padilla has long made his personal story part of his public appeal, from his first race for the Los Angeles City Council in 1999 to his current campaign as overwhelming favorite against Meuser in a rematch of their 2018 race for California secretary of state. In an odd twist, voters in November will cast ballots twice: once to fill the last two months of Kamala Harris’ term and the other for a new six-year term.
Finances are one measure of the lopsided contest. Padilla, who was appointed by Gov. Gavin Newsom when Harris became vice president, raised $10.5 million as of June 30, and had $7.1 million left. Meuser raised $496,000 and had less than $30,000 to spend.
Padilla, 49, got his start in politics how many Latinos of his generation did: revulsion over Proposition 187, a 1994 ballot measure to deny education, health care and other non-emergency services to immigrants in the country illegally. Voters approved the measure by a wide margin but a judge invalidated it.
Padilla’s parents emigrated to Los Angeles from Mexico in the 1960s and raised three children in the Pacoima area. They worked 40 years, his father as a short-order cook and his mother as a housecleaner.
Padilla’s graduation from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology fulfilled his parents’ dreams, but he said he came home to television ads for Proposition 187 “basically saying the state of California is going downhill and it’s the fault of people like your parents; it’s because of families like yours.”
“I was insulted. I was offended. I was enraged,” Padilla said. “I had no choice but to get involved to make a difference.”
Padilla was 26 when he joined the Los Angeles City Council and he became its president two years later, having set aside his engineering career. He served two terms in the state Senate and was then twice elected secretary of state. He resigned during his second term to become California’s first Latino U.S. senator.
Padilla ties much of his Senate work and priorities to earlier experiences — how his engineering background means infrastructure will always be “a big deal;” how immigration comes up every chance he gets in discussions with other senators.
“The work is still unfinished from an immigration reform standpoint — long, long overdue for the nation,” said Padilla, who chairs a Judiciary subcommittee on immigration, citizenship and border safety. “No state has more at stake in it than California.”
Other issues Padilla has worked on include power grid reliability and voting rights. He also led a $25 billion effort to convert gas- and diesel-powered school buses to electric vehicles.
“When he got appointed, I knew he was going to hit the ground running,” said U.S. Rep. Tony Cardenas, a fellow California Democrat, his roommate in Washington and friend for decades.
On the June primary ballot in California, Padilla captured 54.1% of the vote among 23 contestants. Meuser finished second with 14.9%.
Meuser, a San Francisco-based lawyer at the firm of top Republican political operative Harmeet Dhillon, said he had no plans for a rematch with Padilla until pandemic health restrictions that he found overbearing were put in place. His campaign site says he was involved in 22 lawsuits against Newsom for “his unconstitutional usurpation of power.”
Another top priority for Meuser in the Senate would be balanced budgets. He thinks states should decide on access to abortion.
On discredited claims that former President Donald Trump won the 2020 presidential election, Meuser said there were enough irregularities “that I cannot say within any kind of certainty who’s won or who’s lost.”
Some of those positions may seem wildly out of sync with Californians, but Meuser says he’s counting on low turnout and support from independents and Latinos who are disaffected with President Joe Biden.
“This can be a much more competitive race than most people realize,” he said.