Alex Padilla: Quiet, potent force on politics' long road

In American politics, we tend to favor the meteoric rise over the slow and steady climb, the big voices who rock the boat over the quiet ones who make themselves known behind the scenes.

Sen. Alex Padilla took the long path. The San Fernando Valley native and MIT grad has held elected office since 1999, when he won a seat on the L.A. City Council at age 26. In the years since, he has risen to progressively more prominent roles as a state senator and secretary of state. Then in 2020, his ally Gov. Gavin Newsom appointed him to replace Vice President-elect Kamala Harris as U.S. senator.

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Being the consummate team player defined Padilla’s ascent. He offered a quiet confidence and impressive discipline, rarely departing from script. Some would call him boring. Now, on politics’ biggest stage as a representative for 40 million Americans, his demeanor hasn’t changed.

But the scale of the tasks before him and the crises he faces certainly have. That became abundantly clear when, shortly before he was easily elected to a full term in 2022, three members of the L.A. City Council were caught on tape making coarse and sometimes racist remarks about their colleagues.

Padilla had worked closely with the offending council members. He had managed one of their campaigns. He went to high school with another, and his brother had been her chief of staff.

But days after The Times broke the story, Padilla stuck his neck out — becoming one of the first and most prominent elected officials to call on them all to resign.

Being the state’s first Latino senator weighed heavily on him when he made the decision, he said.

“I knew them personally and worked with them up close. But as hard as it was, knowing them personally, and as hard as it was knowing sort of the role I play and where I fit into all this, ultimately what’s right is right and what’s wrong is wrong.”

Alex Padilla

Alex Padilla, photographed at the Los Angeles Times in El Segundo on Oct. 9.

His close relationship to then-City Council President Nury Martinez was well known. So his quick stand didn’t go unnoticed in California political circles. He said that day he was “appalled at the racist dehumanizing remarks.”

His ties to Martinez and many other Latino politicians underscore his role as one of the architects of a political machine in the San Fernando Valley and beyond. Take, for example, Rep. Tony Cárdenas (D-Pacoima), who isn’t seeking reelection this year after nearly three decades in public office. Padilla was a roommate in Washington and managed his first campaign, while the woman running to replace Cárdenas — Assemblywoman Luz Rivas (D-North Hollywood) — went to high school and college with Padilla and received his endorsement shortly after announcing her candidacy.

None of this is coincidence and it reflects how the engineer by training has methodically aided his allies’ ascents.

Padilla has also stepped into the void created by the decline and then passing of his colleague Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.). While in office, Feinstein pushed for billions of dollars to address climate change and fund infrastructure projects.

Padilla, 51, is now picking up that mantle.

“A lot of the day in, day out of getting things moving along,” he said, “is behind the scenes.”

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