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Why Harris’ Senate seat is so important

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 bona fide 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’ replacement is a high-stakes battle for many reasons. California is the biggest, most populous, richest, most politically trend-setting state and the nation’s most ethnically diverse state. This gives it great clout. But there are also the problems that come with being a prosperous, non-stop-growth state. Land and water use, development, business growth, taxation and revenue flow, transportation and infrastructure improvements are contentious issues that spark furious fights between political, industry and watchdog activist groups.

That’s just the start. California is the poster state for an America that in the next couple of decades will be a majority-minority nation. Hispanics, Asians, and Blacks will outnumber whites. This will have 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.

There is also the worry over California’s other senator, Dianne Feinstein. She took heat from many Democrats for what they called her listless, aimless non-challenge at the confirmation hearing of hard-right SCOTUS nominee Amy Coney Barrett. Many openly question whether Feinstein is operating at full power. Some call for her resignation.

Feinstein almost certainly won’t resign any time soon. So, choosing the right junior senator seat is even more crucial. He or she will have to carry a lot of political water for the state.

The name of the game in American politics is a GOP-controlled Senate whose 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.

It’s an elite, upper-crust gentleman’s political body. Senators get six-year terms. The senate is loaded with a labyrinth of arcane procedures and rules ensuring that only the most moderate, finely honed and compromised legislation is passed.

The Senate’s dominance doesn’t end there. It is the sole determiner of who sits on the high court, and 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 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.

With Biden in the Oval Office, California’s two Democratic senators are poised to play an even bigger role in the coming legislative battles, including battles 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. 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. They’ll have to hit the ground running to deal with the crushing needs and demands of the state and its constituents.

Names of seasoned politicos have been bandied about as Harris’ likely replacement. 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.

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