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Walters: California Politicians Play Musical Offices
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By Dan Walters, CalMatters Commentary
Published 3 years ago on
December 8, 2020

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Those of certain age might remember the once-popular parlor game called musical chairs.

A row of chairs would be set out and players — always one more than the number of chairs — would walk around them as music played and when it stopped, they would scramble to sit in the chairs. The one left without a chair would be eliminated, another chair would be removed and the game would continue until one player won by claiming the last chair.

Dan Walters

Opinion

Something like that is being played in California as Gov. Gavin Newsom decides whom he will appoint to some of the state’s most desirable political offices.

The game began last month when U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris became vice president-elect. Suddenly, Newsom was in position to make someone a major figure in national politics as a senator from the nation’s richest and most populous state.

The consensus among political handicappers has been that Newsom would make history by naming the state’s first Latino senator, with Secretary of State Alex Padilla, long one of Newsom’s closest political allies, the likely winner. If Padilla moved to the Senate, it would then create a vacancy and an opportunity for Newsom to advance someone else’s career with an appointment as secretary of state.

Suddenly, Newsom Has Another Big Office to Fill

The tempo of the game picked up on Sunday when it was revealed that President-elect Joe Biden would nominate California’s attorney general, Xavier Becerra, as secretary of health and human services.

Suddenly, Newsom has another big office to fill — one second only to the governorship in power and political prominence. Whomever he chooses, unless it’s a caretaker, will immediately become a potential candidate for governor or the state’s other Senate seat, given that Sen. Dianne Feinstein is unlikely to seek another term in 2024.

Dozens of names quickly surfaced in media and political circles. Obviously the next attorney general will be a Democrat and an attorney but beyond those basic criteria, the appointment will hinge on the message Newsom wants to convey, given his party’s fixation with identity politics.

Newsom made much of his appointment of a Black gay man, Martin Jenkins, to the state Supreme Court and is likely to appoint a Latino to the Senate. That would leave two other major identity groups, women and Asian-Pacific Islanders (API), to be recognized, lest Newsom face their wrath.

The leading contender for a secretary of state appointment appears to be Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, a San Diego Democrat best known for Assembly Bill 5, a controversial law that makes it very difficult for workers to be classified as independent contractors. She had already announced her candidacy for the office in 2022.

Having So Many Major Political Appointments to Make Is a Very Unusual Situation

That said, Gonzalez is an attorney, so cannot be dismissed as a potential appointee as attorney general. However, if Newsom wants to pay homage to the state’s large API population, there are at least three potential appointees, Oakland Assemblyman Rob Bonta, state Supreme Court Justice Goodwin Liu and Congressman Ted Lieu.

Bonta was in the mix when former Gov. Jerry Brown appointed Becerra, then a congressman, as attorney general to succeed Harris after she moved to the Senate in 2017.

Other potential appointees as attorney general include Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg, a former president pro tem of the state Senate; San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera; congressional members Eric Swalwell, Katie Porter and Adam Schiff, and Newsom’s own chief of staff, Ann O’Leary.

Having so many major political appointments to make is a very unusual situation. And as Newsom sorts through the possibilities, maybe a more contemporary analogy would be the Game of Thrones.

CalMatters is a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters. For more stories by Dan Walters, go to calmatters.org/commentary.

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