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Alex Padilla On Becoming California's 1st Latino Senator


It is December 30. There is one more day left in this year, and here is where we are. The U.S. Senate will not vote on boosting direct relief payments. Also, a sitting senator is saying he will object when Congress meets to certify the Electoral College vote. And, by the way, control of the country's greatest deliberative body, well, that is still up in the air, pending runoff elections in Georgia next week. Into all of this steps Alex Padilla. Until this month, he was California's secretary of state, and soon he will be its newest U.S. senator. California's governor recently appointed Padilla to fill Vice President-elect Harris' Senate seat. He joins us now.


ALEX PADILLA: Thank you, Ailsa. And an early happy New Year's wish to you.

CHANG: (Laughter) An early happy New Year to you, too. OK, I promise we will get to the Senate in a moment, but first, I do want to talk about you a little bit. You will be California's first Latino senator. You are the son of Mexican immigrants. Can you just tell me what went through your mind when you learned you would be heading to the Senate?

PADILLA: Wow. I mean, for anybody who might not have seen the video of that exact moment, I just couldn't help but immediately think of my parents and their journey. My parents are immigrants from Mexico. And like so many others - millions of others around the country, frankly - worked so hard, struggled, sacrificed, trying to achieve the American dream - less so for themselves, frankly, but for the next generation. And to think that a short-order cook and a housekeeper raised three children to all be public servants and one of them would be entering the United States Senate, it's - it feels surreal sometimes. But I'm excited about the opportunity, and it just shows us the American dream is still alive and well.

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CHANG: And especially here in California, where Latinos make up something like 40% of the population, which is more than any other race or ethnicity - I mean, how significant do you feel your appointment is to Latinos here in this state?

PADILLA: Well, based on the response this last week, it's huge. You know, 40% of the population now, and not once in California's 170-year history has there been a Latino representing California in the United States Senate. So it's a tremendous honor. It's definitely historical. But with that comes a tremendous responsibility, and I'll work hard every day to live up to that responsibility.

CHANG: Well, let's talk a little bit about that responsibility. I mean, with Kamala Harris departing the Senate, there are now no Black women in the Senate. Some people were disappointed that Governor Newsom did not replace her with another Black woman. What would you say to those people who are disappointed about that?

PADILLA: I say - first of all, I say, I hear you. And I actually agree. The voice of Black women must be present in the deliberations of the United States Senate. Second, I'd say I'm committed to, as I have at every stage of my career, being the best U.S. senator for all Californians. You know, if you look at California's leadership across the board - the constitutional officers, the U.S. senators, even the legislative leaders - it does represent California. There's Latinos and Asians, men, women, African Americans, LGBT representatives. I wish every state's leadership would reflect the diversity of their populations. And so clearly, the need to uplift more Black women voices at the federal level, the state level and at the local level across the country - and I'm committed to that.

CHANG: I want to turn to bipartisanship and partisanship right now because, you know, as secretary of state in California, you oversaw a very high-stakes election. You are now entering a Senate to join some colleagues who are very openly casting doubt on the integrity of this election without any basis. How do you plan on working with those fellow senators who have been casting doubt on this election?

PADILLA: Yeah. So a couple of things - you know, informed by my experience when I was on the Los Angeles City Council and president of the city council, I worked with Democrats and Republicans to get things done. As a member of the California legislature once upon a time, I worked with Democrats and Republicans to get things done. Even at this capacity as secretary of state, you know, collaborate and coordinate with Democratic and Republican colleagues across the country in this consequential election year. So that's the same approach I'll take when I get to the Senate.

But another element that I think has served me well is my education. You know, my degree is in mechanical engineering, so I try to be driven by data and facts and science in everything we approach. So whether it's election integrity, whether it's climate or expanding health care and even the front-burner issues of a COVID response, you know, we've got to be driven by data.

CHANG: Right. That is Alex Padilla, California's former secretary of state and soon-to-be U.S. senator.

Thank you very much for joining us today.

PADILLA: Thank you very much. Please continue to stay safe. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.