In mid-September, Gavin Newsom sat amid a sepia landscape of torched forest in a bomber jacket and somberly signed a bill. It was the peak of the worst wildfire season in California’s modern history. The bill — AB2147 — would enable incarcerated people trained in firefighting to gain employment professionally upon release. The photo-op fit right into the greater historical arc of Governor Newsom’s political career — a performative act with headlines in mind.
Four days later, Newsom was joined by then-VP nominee Kamala Harris on a different scorched terrain. Together, the two took turns pointing at charred treetops, peering into a combusted car, and asserting the ‘realness’ of climate change. Suffice it to say, Newsom is not above theatrics. Now, charged with appointing Kamala’s replacement — a task he’s admitted to dreading — organizers are trying to capitalize on Newsom’s egoistic tendencies by pressuring him publicly.
Food & Water Action, Ground Game LA, People’s Action, POWER, and Sunrise Movement LA have collaborated on a letter petitioning Governor Newsom to appoint a progressive to the Senate. The letter calls for a candidate “who has the guts to stand up to the fossil fuel industry and will make the climate crisis and a just recovery for COVID-19 their top priority.” It goes on to include a progressive policy wishlist, including a Green New Deal, a Homes Guarantee, Universal Basic Income, and defunding the military-industrial complex. While the letter gives shape to an ideal Senator-to-be, it does not endorse a specific candidate.
There’s a long list of candidates in the running — some aspirants, some not. Alex Padilla is widely presumed to be the front-runner, if only due to his close personal relationship with Newsom. Karen Bass, Barbara Lee, Xavier Becerra, Ro Khanna, Nanette Barragan, and London Breed round out the list of likely contenders.
In conjunction with the public letter, Food & Water Action is sending each prospective candidate a comprehensive, fifty-four question questionnaire. The intention is to give each candidate the opportunity to share stances that they may not have otherwise expressed publicly. It’s also a litmus test to test these candidates’ willingness to work with grassroots organizers.
What separates this initiative from others happening across the state is the prioritization of policy over identity politics. While it’s widely accepted that Newsom’s appointment should be a person of color, what’s more uncertain is whether people of color across the state will serve to benefit. Has the appointee supported buffer zones, which are crucial to protecting frontline communities from the health hazards associated with living near oil drilling? What about banning private prisons, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and the 2028 Olympics from being held in Los Angeles? Each of these do — or will — disproportionately burden Californians of color.
Some might say that appointing a progressive Senator is a pipe dream, but that would be ignoring the message Californians have repeatedly put forth. About half of California’s registered Democrats voted for Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren in the presidential primary. Furthermore, voters statewide showed their readiness for change earlier this month by passing Proposition 17 and rejecting Propositions 20 and 25. Los Angeles County residents voted to defund the police with Measure J, while San Franciscans passed Props E, I, and K, which respectively limit policing, tax the rich, and expand affordable housing.
Another consideration is appointing someone at least as ideologically progressive as Harris herself. While her heavy-handed prosecutorial background historically bred distrust with progressives and criminal justice advocates, Harris had the opportunity to move past her record in her presidential bid — and she calibrated left.
Senator Harris attempted to court environmental activists by listening to their concerns. In response to pressure, she co-sponsored the Green New Deal, signed the No Fossil Fuel Money pledge, and introduced the Climate Equity Act with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. This confirms that at best, she’s ready to be a climate ally; at worst, a political weathervane. Even if the latter is true, she’s caught wind of the progressive movement and adjusted accordingly. The same cannot be said for Governor Newsom.
Newsom’s governing philosophy is camera-conscious and top-down. He’s not particularly persuaded by movements, and actively avoids them when he can. He does things for the people — not with them. Novelty and legacy rank higher in his book than political appeasement.
Still, progressives can work with that. Beyond the inevitable media frenzy surrounding Newsom’s announcement in the next few months, his appointment will affect his re-election campaign. After the appointee serves the last two years of Kamala’s term, they will be up for re-election on the same ballot as Newsom in 2022. The two will be seen as a package-deal, and a competitive race for one would undermine both.
The only viable threat to a Democratic incumbent in a statewide race here is a progressive challenger. If Newsom appoints a moderate, a primary challenge from the left will be all but certain. It would be wise for the Governor to appoint someone who doesn’t leave a wide lane on the left.
Politics aside, this senate choice has life or death consequences for most Californians. Our state is not just witnessing a historic and dystopic climate crisis (case in point, massives fires and weeks of blood orange skies), but also a housing and homelessness crisis, the largest wealth gap in the country, and a pandemic worsened by a healthcare crisis. Appointing a senator who understands the intersectionality of these issues and is willing to put the health and safety of our most vulnerable residents over big business and industry is not just good politics, it’s essential.
We have until 2030 to change course to avoid the most devastating scenarios of climate chaos. Here in California, we’re on the frontline of the climate fight, and our Senator should carry that urgency with them to Washington. We don’t have time for moderation or political games — we need to get to work.
If you’d like to help, sign this petition demanding Newsom appoint a progressive. Food & Water Action will also be hosting a Twitterstorm on Friday, December 4th, at 10am PST. You can use this toolkit to join in.