LOS ANGELES – As Kamala Harris steps into her role as vice president and leaves her Senate office this week, Democrat Alex Padilla will become the first Latino senator from California, a state where Latin American residents make up 40 percent of the population , and will be one of six senators. Mr. Padilla, who has served as California’s secretary of state since 2015, is traveling to Washington at a time when the country – and California – is deeply mired in the pandemic and the slow rollout of vaccines. His own political career began with immigration activism, and he believes the country needs a path to citizenship for all undocumented immigrants. He said he was confident the Senate would be able to focus on an impeachment trial and the pressing need to bring the pandemic under control – “we’ll be walking and chewing gum at the same time.”
These are slightly edited excerpts from the conversation.
California is about 40% Latino, but you are the state’s first Latino senator. Why do you think it took so long? What does he say about California and the political influence of Latinos?
I’m not sure if I have a 170-year-old answer to this question, but it’s a big time for the Latino community in California. I’m sure there are a lot of researchers and academics with various theories. I just know that this just added to the sense of urgency with which I am ready to undertake the job.
There are a lot of big issues that need to be addressed – increasing access to health care, tackling climate change, comprehensive immigration reform, closing the education gap. But for now, it’s all through the prism of Covid, in recognition of the devastation the damage has caused to far too many families, far too many communities, especially Latin American communities and other communities of color.
Let’s talk about the pandemic. Los Angeles is currently an epicenter of the pandemic, and Pacoima, the neighborhood you grew up in, is the epicenter of that epicenter. What can the Senate do about it?
That’s a great example of people saying, well, you know, don’t take it too personally. Well, I can’t help but take it personally. My dad lives there and we have managed to keep him safe and healthy since March. But I think about his safety every day.
From the start, communities of color, the essential workers, who Latinos disproportionately make up, are at heightened risk due to the nature of their work. We contract it, and it affects us disproportionately compared to other communities. And that’s what’s happening right now.
I just wish so many other governors had taken the bold and aggressive steps our governor took. We were able to keep the per capita numbers relatively lower for much of 2020, compared to other states, including neighboring Arizona.
Here’s what breaks my heart, you know, catching the morning news and hearing about the Dow Jones, Dow Jones record. But if you go to Covid test sites or food banks, you see increasingly long lines. This contrast is heartbreaking.
I know Governor Gavin Newsom has been a long-time ally and he just appointed you. But given the infection rates here and the slow pace of vaccine rollout, it seems odd to congratulate him. Do you really think he’s doing a good job at the moment?
I think he was treated harshly by the Trump administration. It is clear that there will be a next phase of the vaccine, but it is really difficult to plan the next phase of the vaccine deployment when you don’t know when the next batch of vaccine will arrive. I know Donald Trump is not up for this. His failure or refusal to lead since day one of the pandemic is what has caused this mess across the country.
Democrats are going to have an extremely busy agenda – do you think impeachment will stop them? Do you want to see a trial in the Senate?
It may lengthen workdays or longer work weeks, but we must prioritize the Covid response and stand up for our democracy and our responsibility, our responsibility and our accountability. No one is above the law. This is what the Americans believe. And they deserve a Congress that will act on it.
So is there any doubt in your mind that you want to see some action on this?
Absolutely. And as I talk to more and more of my coworkers, I hear loud and clear as we can and we will be walking and chewing gum at the same time. We must.
Your own political career grew out of your immigration activism. I have spoken to many current immigration activists who are very skeptical about whether the Biden administration will make the kind of sweeping changes they want to see. Do you share this skepticism?
No state has more at stake in this debate than this one. Look, I’m an optimist, but I know full well this is going to take a lot of work and I can’t wait to get there. I think we need normalization and a path to citizenship for all undocumented immigrants in the country. Much of the essential workforce we have hired since the start of the pandemic is undocumented. It is not enough to cancel the decrees signed by Donald Trump. We must go further and propose a comprehensive reform of immigration. So it can be difficult, but I know that we may have to rebuild the asylum system at the border, among other things. Today let’s talk about the wait times for the naturalization process for eligible citizens.
How concerned are you about the future of the elections? Are the doubts that the president and other Republicans sowed undermine democracy?
Doubt is a huge danger and it is not just a potential danger. We’ve seen the fatal consequences of having a conspiracy theorist with a megaphone sitting in the Oval Office. Buteven with the departure of Trump, we have a lot of work to do before the next election. Misinformation, misinformation is extremely dangerous. We are already seeing it play into the distribution of vaccines and the lack of confidence in some communities of the vaccine and therefore a reluctance perhaps to take it as soon as possible.
President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. has campaigned for unity, and I think that will be a theme of his speech on Wednesday. How optimistic are you or not that unity is something that can happen in our country, given the past four years and weeks?
Unity is truly a value. You know, we are not going to reach utopia in a day, a week or even a year. But it will be something that we strive for. I hope this will manifest itself in the working environment in the Congress halls. But it’s also important to perform at salons and possibly at dinner parties and hair salons across America.
Democrats have a slight advantage in the Senate. Do you think that means there will be more ambitious action, more ambitious legislation?
I certainly hope so. Look, we have to think big. It’s gonna be my feeling. Even without last year’s pandemic, in addition to the health and economic devastation that Covid has caused to many communities, it has also exacerbated many underlying disparities, which really need to be addressed. Education, for example, with so many young people learning, trying to learn from a distance, has brought back concerns about the digital divide, whether it be broadband access or digital literacy, or even the affordable price of devices. So there was an education deficit before the pandemic and the evidence shows that it is exacerbated by the pandemic. This is just one example.
Where are you on the political spectrum? Do you expect to be somehow on the more progressive side of the caucus, or do you consider yourself moderate?
I can’t wait to get to the Senate and start pushing the boundaries.