Sen. Alex Padilla is campaigning hard — just not for himself

On an unusually cool morning in the Central Valley, Senator Alex Padilla rallied campaign volunteers and urged them to knock on doors and call voters to promote a Democratic candidate in one of the nation’s most contested congressional districts.

“We’re about to turn this seat in Parliament blue!” Padilla told dozens of supporters. “There’s a reason the Republican Party is so scared and pouring tons of money here — because they’re seeing what’s happening.”

Padilla, California’s first Latino senator, who was appointed to the seat when Kamala Harris became vice president, will appear on the ballot twice in November — to fill Harris’ remaining term in the Senate and for a full six-year term.

Padilla’s performance on Saturday morning at a nondescript union hall — he stumbled for Rudy Salas, a congressman trying to unseat GOP Rep. David Valadao — was similar to the rest of his campaign: He focused on improving the prospects for California’s Democrats and others States with a significant number of Latino voters to improve.

“I’m not going to take my own race for granted,” Padilla said during an interview the day before between bites of lemon curd pancakes at a Pacoima cafe, which was once a seedy bar near his childhood home. (He now lives at Porter Ranch.)

But Padilla has not aired a single television ad for general elections, nor has he openly campaigned for himself.

“I’d much rather come back with a democratic majority, wouldn’t I? How do I maximize my chances of being effective and impactful?” said Padilla.

Two men and two women are talking

From left: Bakersfield City Council candidate Manpreet Kaur, Congressman hopeful Rudy Salas, Sen. Alex Padilla and State Assembly candidate Leticia Perez campaign together in Bakersfield on Saturday.

(Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times)

Alongside Salas, Padilla has campaigned with House candidate Christy Smith in northern Los Angeles County and Senator Michael Bennet in Colorado. He plans to appear with Rep. Katie Porter and House candidate Jay Chen in Orange County in the coming days, and with Sen. Mark Kelly in Arizona.

With the Democrats outstripping the Republicans in California by 23 points, there is little doubt that Padilla will win re-election. Polls show the senator is double digits ahead of his GOP rival Mark Meuser.

“We do surveys, we track the numbers. You look very good,” said Padilla.

Padilla, 49, also has an exponential fundraising advantage, having deposited $11.6 million as of Sept. 30, compared to Meuser’s $835,000, according to the Federal Election Commission.

Meuser said his prospects were boosted by his reputation with GOP voters, as well as social media.

“The Internet is the great balance,” said Meuser in a telephone interview.

Meuser said he originally intended to run for California’s secretary of state — as he did in 2018 when Padilla beat him by 29 percentage points — but decided to run for the Senate after seeing the government’s response to the pandemic would have.

“It just became so clear that we need someone who understands the Constitution,” he said. “The longer we dealt with COVID, the clearer it became that this is where I, with my unique experience as a constitutional scholar and constitutional attorney, do best.”

Meuser graduated from Oak Brook College of Law, an unaccredited Christian correspondence school with an impressive bar exam pass rate. He believes his legal work will boost his campaign, such as his role in preventing attempts by California Democrats to keep President Trump out of the 2020 state election and efforts by election officials to block radio host Larry Elder from to appear on the 2021 recall election.

“I have a good reputation in the grassroots communities in California,” said Meuser, an Ironman competitor and avid reader who was born in Huntington Beach.

“If they get involved and show up to vote, I think we have a really good chance of winning,” he said.

Meuser, 48, caused controversy last week when he compared his decision to seek office in California to proselytizing in Africa.

“If you wanted to be a missionary, would you go to the Bible Belt? Or are you going to the dark continent of Africa?” Meuser said in an interview with the Bay Area News Group. “If you want to help people, go where the need is greatest.”

Meuser said he was making an analogy and declined to comment on criticism that the comment was racist.

Padilla condemned the comments as “appalling and offensive,” words echoing his Oct. 10 criticism of three Los Angeles City Council members and a union leader after they were heard on a recording containing racist comments.

Padilla’s call for the resignation of Latino Democrats — particularly then-council president Nury Martinez, a longtime ally and high school classmate — prompted other elected officials to make a similar demand.

“It took maybe a split second to think, if it was someone else, what would I say?” said Padilla. “And I happen to know these people, consider them friends, but that’s wrong. And so my answer was my answer and I felt like I had to speak up.”

Dan Schnur, who teaches political communications at USC and UC Berkeley, said that while virtually every Democrat in the country has now called for council members to resign, immediately after the recording was released, that was not the case.

“For the first day or so, most politicians were very cautious. It wasn’t until Padilla called for her resignation that the rest of the world followed suit,” said Schnur, who unsuccessfully ran against Padilla for foreign minister in 2014. “He deserves great credit for being the first prominent political leader without a vested interest in the outcome to take such a strong stance.”

The son of a cook and a Mexican immigrant housekeeper, Padilla grew up with his two siblings in an impoverished community plagued by drug dealers and pimps. His parents valued education, volunteering at their Catholic church, and baseball—activities that Padilla said kept him busy and out of trouble. He received a bachelor’s degree in engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and returned home to work in his field.

Padilla’s life story resonates with voters.

“I love the fact that he comes from a working-class family and worked his way up,” said Cathee Romley, a 65-year-old Bakersfield retiree.

His engineering career was turned upside down by Proposition 187 — the successful 1994 election measure that attempted to illegally deny many taxpayer-funded services to immigrants in the country. Padilla was among a generation of young Latinos in Los Angeles who were pushed into politics by the proposal, which was later largely crushed by the courts.

In 1999, at age 26, Padilla became the youngest person elected to the Los Angeles City Council. Two years later he was elected President of the Council and in 2006 he was elected to the Senate.

Californians are seeing the results of his tenure in their daily lives — banning single-use plastic bags and posting calorie counts in chain restaurants. (The latter was prompted when Padilla’s mother was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes.)

After Padilla was elected secretary of state, he was credited with increasing electoral access, but faced bipartisan criticism over a no-bid voter education contract with a firm with strong Democrat ties. While his tenure has not been flawless, he avoided major pitfalls that have brought down other San Fernando Valley Democrats.

“Alex is pretty much a Boy Scout,” said Bill Carrick, a longtime Democratic strategist who never worked for Padilla.

Introducing Padilla at the Bakersfield event, Raji Brar, a business owner and community leader, noted that his presence at the former GOP bastion gives local Democrats “validation”.

“We don’t have the numbers that a US senator would normally care about. We may not even be necessary for his victory,” said 46-year-old Brar. “But it shows that what we do here matters.” Sen. Alex Padilla is campaigning hard — just not for himself

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