Joe Garofoli Jan. 25, 2021 (SFChronicle.com)
Sen. Alex Padilla began to choke up. He was talking about his father, Santos Padilla, an immigrant from Mexico.
The California Democrat was recalling the time he brought his father with him when he was seeking the endorsement of a labor organization during his first run for office. The elder Padilla wasn’t there to provide moral support — he was living evidence that the young politician came from a place where the fight for dignity wasn’t an abstract concept.
It was a moment of insight into how Padilla, the first Latino to represent California in the Senate, will bring a different life experience to Washington than most politicians — one that represents the many immigrants whose stories aren’t told enough in the nation’s capital.
“So many of these issues,” Padilla said, “are personal to me.”
Santos Padilla worked as a line cook for years in a unionized restaurant. But when his son was in high school, the restaurant shifted to using nonunion labor and the elder Padilla lost his health benefits. When Alex Padilla was in college, his father had his pay reduced. Soon, after 35 years on the job, he was laid off.
“And I remember the look in his eye, coming home, knowing that he couldn’t provide for his family the way he wanted. That dignity was taken from him,” said Padilla, 47, his voice catching during an interview on The Chronicle’s “It’s All Political” podcast. “I took him to that interview so that the labor leaders in that room knew that I knew what that dignity meant, of a good union job and a good union contract.”
Not only did Padilla win the endorsement, he won that 1999 race for a Los Angeles City Council seat. Two years later, at age 28, he became the youngest person and the first Latino to be chosen by his peers to be council president.
Election to the state Senate and then as secretary of state followed. Last month, midway through Padilla’s second term, Gov. Gavin Newsom appointed him to fill the remaining two years of Vice President Kamala Harris’ Senate term.
Video caught tears welling in Padilla’s eyes on a Zoom call when Newsom mentioned his parents while asking him to take Harris’ place. Just like tears welled when Padilla was first sworn into office on the L.A. City Council. By his side were his father and mother, Lupe Padilla, who also immigrated from Mexico and cleaned people’s houses for a living. She died two years ago; his father lived to see his son become a U.S. senator.
His appointment will make history. But the @AlexPadilla4CA I know is far more interested in changing history — especially for the working men and women of our state and country.
I can think of no one better to represent the state of California as our next United States Senator. pic.twitter.com/xiAzpTS42Y— Gavin Newsom (@GavinNewsom) December 22, 2020
Those public displays of emotion are rare for Padilla. Many describe him as stoic, someone whose voice rarely wavers and whose oratory won’t long be remembered. Those who know him say his methodical delivery is the product of his training in engineering, a field that prizes verifiable fact and precision and where flamboyance is of little value. He earned his degree from MIT and worked briefly writing software for an aerospace company after graduating.
Former Assembly Speaker Fabian Nuñez has known Padilla for 30 years — well enough to say, “If you want someone to give a moving speech, it’s not Alex.”
But, Nuñez adds, Padilla becomes emotional “every time he talks about his family, his mom and dad in particular. When you’re second generation and you’re really close to your parents, you watch their suffering and you see how much they’re sacrificing for you.
“That’s why Alex gets emotional,” Nuñez said. “He understands the struggle of immigrants.”
Like many California Latinos of his generation, Padilla’s political consciousness was forged by Proposition 187, the 1994 measure that would have cut off undocumented immigrants from public education and non-emergency health care. State voters approved it, but the courts threw it out.
But Padilla’s social awareness began before that, when he was a teenager in a working-class immigrant neighborhood of Pacoima in the San Fernando Valley. Padilla played baseball in high school and began to travel to games in wealthier parts of L.A.
“It was while I was taking those weekly bus trips to other schools throughout Los Angeles that I began to see the inequities,” Padilla said. “Why are all these other schools a lot bigger, newer and in better shape than mine? Why do the communities that we were driving through seem to be in much better shape than where I grew up?”
He noticed those inequities more at MIT. Many of the students were wealthy and didn’t have to work to put themselves through school, as he did.
Padilla will be a senator who understands firsthand what student loan debt looks like. When he was applying for financial aid, his father’s income “was about $19,000 a year. Tuition alone at MIT was $19,500,” Padilla said. That didn’t include room and board or books “or travel home for Christmas.”
“We know what it’s like to scrape for it and scrape for it and work for it,” Padilla said.
He returned to California after graduation to find the state embroiled in the Prop. 187 campaign. The message Padilla heard was, “‘California is going downhill. And it is the fault of families like yours and people like your parents.’
“I was offended. I was insulted. I was enraged,” Padilla said. “And I knew right then and there that while my engineering degree was well-earned, I had to do my part in electoral politics. I was cynical up until that point. But I knew that I had no choice if I wanted to help change the trajectory of California.”
Democratic Rep. Tony Cárdenas, who grew up a few blocks from Padilla in Pacoima and represents the San Fernando Valley in Congress, said that “Prop. 187 really shocked a lot of households where we grew up.”
Until then, he said, people thought, “Everybody is fine. We’ve got green cards. We stay out of trouble. But no. Prop. 187 was attacking green card holders like my dad.
“The message was that, even though you’ve been here legally, we’re going to strip you of your rights.”
Padilla said that “my parents had been here for nearly 30 years, with no urgency of becoming citizens. But 187 changed that overnight.”
Both his parents soon became citizens. And this month, almost exactly 30 years after Pete Wilson, the godfather of Prop. 187, left the Senate to become governor, their son — the son of immigrants — took the oath of office in Washington.
“Dr. Martin Luther King once said the arc of history bends towards justice,” Padilla said. “What sweet justice.”
Now that he’s in the Senate, Padilla may surprise those who believe he will be “a business-friendly moderate,” as the Wall Street Journal described him last month. While his priorities are addressing the coronavirus pandemic and hastening an economic recovery, last week he tweeted that it was time “to get to work” on “Medicare for All, Green New Deal and immigration reform.”
This week will be about celebrating a new administration and a hopeful new day in Washington. It will also be about getting to work on:
– Effective vaccine distribution
– Getting our economy and jobs back on track
– Medicare for All
– A Green New Deal
– Immigration reform— Alex Padilla (@AlexPadilla4CA) January 18, 2021
Padilla briefly worked for Sen. Dianne Feinstein when he first started in politics, and he surprised many Latino Democrats by endorsing her in 2018 over Kevin de León. But he will be far different from the state’s moderate senior senator.
“For people who say he’s not progressive enough, I say, wait and see,” said Nathalie Rayes, president and CEO of the progressive Latino Victory Project.
Padilla said he “definitely will be more progressive than Sen. Feinstein,” while quickly adding that he respects her and has learned much from watching her.
“The perspective and the life experience that I bring to the Senate is my own,” Padilla said. “And I’m going to be unabashed about it because of what I’ve been through.”
That’s because, Cárdenas said, “he will always be Alex from Pacoima.”
Joe Garofoli is the San Francisco Chronicle’s senior political writer, covering national and state politics. He has worked at The Chronicle since 2000 and in Bay Area journalism since 1992, when he left the Milwaukee Journal. He is the host of “It’s All Political,” The Chronicle’s political podcast. Catch it here: bit.ly/2LSAUjA
He has won numerous awards and covered everything from fashion to the Jeffrey Dahmer serial killings to two Olympic Games to his own vasectomy — which he discussed on NPR’s “Talk of the Nation” after being told he couldn’t say the word “balls” on the air. He regularly appears on Bay Area radio and TV talking politics and is available to entertain at bar mitzvahs and First Communions. He is a graduate of Northwestern University and a proud native of Pittsburgh. Go Steelers!