Why Harris’ Senate seat is so important

by Earl Ofari Hutchinson

The instant that Joe Biden tapped California Senator Kamala Harris as his VP running mate, the murmur was: Who will fill her seat if Biden wins? Should it be a Black woman because Harris is a Black woman? Should it be a Latino because California has never had a Latino senator? Or should it be a bonafide progressive no matter the color or gender? The murmur is no longer a murmur. There’s now fierce jockeying for her replacement. Advocacy groups of one stripe or another demand that one of theirs fill her seat.

The fight over Harris’s replacement is a high stakes battle for a lot of reasons. Start with California. It’s the biggest, most populous, richest, most politically trend setting state. It’s also the nation’s most ethnically diverse state. This gives it clout and a cachet far greater than any other state. But there are also the towering problems that come with being a big, prosperous, non-stop growth state. Land, water use, development issues, business growth, taxation and revenue flow, transportation and infrastructure improvements are contentious issues that always spark furious fights between political, industry, and watchdog activist groups.

That’s just the start. California is the poster state for an America which in the next couple decades will be a majority-minority nation. Hispanics, Asians, and Blacks will outnumber Whites. This will have even more stark implications for racial, social, and political change in the country. The nation’s ethnic growth pain has been felt in California for a long time on an array of heated issues from gentrification to affirmative action battles.

There is also the great worry over California’s other senator, Dianne Feinstein. She took much heat from many Democrats for what they called her listless, aimless non-challenge at the Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing of hard right SCOTUS nominee Amy Coney Barrett. Many openly question whether Feinstein is operating at full power. There are calls for her resignation. Feinstein almost certainly won’t resign, at least any time soon.
 
So, getting the right occupant in the junior senator seat is even more crucial. He or she will have to carry a lot of political water for the state going forward. The senate is simply to vital to not have the right person in the post.

It not the House, or even the White House, is the real name of the game in American politics. A GOP controlled senate in which its majority leadership can repeatedly delay, dither, obstruct, gut and torpedo initiatives and legislation of a Democratic president from the budget to appointments at nearly all levels.

The senate is the ultimate in an elite, upper crust gentleman’s political body. Senators get six-year terms. In the early years they were the landed and propertied gentry. The senate is loaded with a labyrinth of arcane procedures and rules. This ensures that only the most moderate, finely honed, and compromised legislation is passed. The senate’s dominance doesn’t end with fine-tuned legislation, but appointments and confirmations.

It is the sole determiner of who sits on the high court, the lower court benches and who bags key spots in federal agencies. These are all top-grade posts that initiate, make, and implement crucial policy decisions after many congresspersons are long gone. The Senate Majority Leader has virtually dictatorial control over which of the president’s nominees are put to a confirmation vote.
The devastating result of that power was on full brute and naked display with the dozens of judicial and agency posts that were endlessly delayed, or outright sabotaged by the GOP controlled senate.

With Biden in the Oval Office, California’s two Democratic senators are poised to play an even bigger role in the coming legislative battles. A major part of the battle will be over federal revenue and spending. Much depends on California getting as much of the fed budget pie as possible.

Reapportionment almost certainly will increase California’s political standing and clout. Since it’s based on population growth, the state will get more representatives. This will bring increased pressure on the two senators to be strong advocates for progressive policies. Harris began to fill the role of a strong, vocal advocate for progressive causes. This served her well, brought her to the attention of Biden, and eventually made her the top candidate to be his running mate. Biden needed Harris in part because of her progressive bluntness and in part because of her California senator pedigree.

Her replacement then must have the requisite blend of being a progressive, with legislative acumen, the ability to work across the aisle, and the know how to work the levers of congressional lawmaking. It’s not a position for OJT. They’ll have to hit the ground running to deal with the crushing needs and demands of the state and its constituents.

The names of seasoned politicos have been bandied about as Harris’s likely replacement. They all bring something to the political table. But the one who is the complete package is Congresswoman Karen Bass. She has the political and legislative savvy, and bipartisan respect needed for the tough task ahead. She can hit the ground running.  California Governor Gavin Newsom will make the pick. It should be Bass.

(Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst.)

Editors Note: Gov. Gavin Newsom appointed California Secretary of State Alex Padilla to fill Vice President-elect Kamala Harris’ Senate seat on Dec.22, choosing the first Latino in state history for the role.

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