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Monday, March 8, 2021

Adam Schiff’s Path to Higher Office

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Dan Schnur is the Director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California. He also works as an Adjunct Professor at Berkeley. As an educator, Schnur's repertoire of subjects includes political communications, leadership and California public policy. In addition to his teaching work, Schnur previously served as Chairman of the California Fair Political Practices Commission

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Dan Schnur
Dan Schnur is the Director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California. He also works as an Adjunct Professor at Berkeley. As an educator, Schnur's repertoire of subjects includes political communications, leadership and California public policy. In addition to his teaching work, Schnur previously served as Chairman of the California Fair Political Practices Commission

Congressman Adam Schiff would make a fine United States Senator. It is unlikely that we’ll see that happen, at least not for many years. But given recent events, he could end up as California’s next Attorney General.

As Gavin Newsom considers Vice President-elect Kamala Harris’ potential successor, he is facing immense pressure from across the ideological and demographic spectrum. Organizations representing the African American, Latino, Asian Pacific and LGBTQ communities have all weighed in on behalf of candidates from their respective groups, and many of California’s leading feminist voices have stressed the importance of being represented by a woman of color.

Newsom has appropriately devoted more of his time over the last several weeks to dealing with resurging COVID-19 cases and has carefully avoided any public comments that would tip his hand. But Secretary of State Alex Padilla has emerged as the perceived front-runner, and he received an important boost last week when Senator Dianne Feinstein endorsed her former staffer as the best person to take Harris’ place.

Feinstein’s public advocacy for Padilla may have been intended to give Newsom some flexibility. Her recent decision to step down as the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee under heavy pressure from party progressives — and her stated justification that she was doing so to focus on drought and wildfire issues — has regenerated ongoing rumors that the 87-year-old Feinstein might decide to resign her Senate seat before her term expires in 2024.

This would give Newsom an unprecedented two Senate appointments, allowing him to satisfy two of the most insistent constituencies rather than just one. Choosing Padilla or another state officer like State Controller Betty Yee or State Treasurer Fiona Ma would give him yet another opportunity to appoint their replacement, as well.

But if Attorney General Xavier Becerra does not get snagged in the state’s growing scandal regarding unemployment benefits being delivered to Death Row inmates and is confirmed as Joe Biden’s Secretary of Health and Human Services, Newsom would then have no fewer than four statewide appointments to hand out. This is where Schiff’s opportunity could arise.

The Senate seats are the biggest prizes. With just one vacancy, Newsom might be tempted to consider a Latina, allowing him to make history by simultaneously appointing the state’s first Hispanic American Senator and filling Harris’ seat with another woman of color. (My choice would be Monica Lozano, the former chair of the University of California Board of Regents and the longtime publisher of La Opinion). But given that the pressure is more narrowly focused on appointing an African American woman, two open Senate seats would allow Newsom to make a groundbreaking appointment of his longtime ally Padilla as well as a Black woman such as Representative Karen Bass or San Francisco Mayor London Breed. Then the governor could make even more history by appointing an LGBTQ leader like Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia or State Senate President Toni Atkins to Padilla’s position.

The likelihood of either of those Senate seats being given to a white male such as Schiff is approximately the same as me pitching for the Dodgers on Opening Day.  But a constitutional office is another story. There are a number of suitable female and minority candidates for the Attorney General position, as well. Newsom enjoys making history, and appointing the state’s first Asian Pacific AG (someone like Representative Ted Lieu or State Assemblymember Rob Bonta) would allow him that opportunity. But a female leader, such as Oakland Mayor Libby Schiff or former state legislator Martha Escutia, also remains a strong possibility.

If Newsom is able to satisfy political and demographic pressures with his Senate appointments, a well-qualified leader like Schiff becomes a more plausible pick. Schiff would need to decide that he wants the job even if it were offered. There is rampant speculation that he could succeed Nancy Pelosi as Speaker if she steps down in two years. But there, too, demographics could present an obstacle if he were to face Democratic Caucus Chair Hakeem Jeffries or Assistant Speaker Katherine Clark.

If Newsom satisfies political and demographic pressures with his Senate appointments, Schiff becomes a more plausible pick.

If Schiff were to decide that a return to Sacramento makes sense, and if Newsom feels that his other choices could satisfy the other constituencies, then this appointment would provide Schiff with a platform to run for either governor or senator in the future. Giving up a high-profile post in Washington under a new administration might be difficult, but it could also lead him to something even bigger.


Dan Schnur teaches political communications at UC Berkeley, USC and Pepperdine. He hosts the weekly webinar “Politics in the Time of Coronavirus” for the Los Angeles World Affairs Council & Town Hall.

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