Joe Mathews: The U.S. Senate is an unapologetically anti-California institution, and we should act accordingly

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The United States Senate chamber. Photo by United States Senate, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Governor Gavin Newsom has a big decision to make: picking a replacement for Vice President-elect Kamala Harris in the U.S. Senate. There are no shortage of qualified candidates in the Golden State, but Zocalo commentator Joe Mathews says he should be the pick. Yes, it’s absurd. And that’s the point. Mathews says choosing one of California’s best and brightest to join the Senate would confer legitimacy on a body that gives equal representation to states with fewer residents than Fresno County.

Read Mathews’ column below:

Joe for Senate

Dear Governor Newsom,

You’re overwhelmed with texts and calls, and I understand why. With the election of Kamala Harris as vice president, you must appoint someone to fill the final two years of her United States Senate term. Everyone in politics wants this gig, and that’s a lot of pressure.

So let me take this burden off your hands. You don’t have to make the excruciating decision to elevate one of your politician buddies over all the others.

You could send me to the Senate instead.

At first, you may find the idea absurd. You might ask: Why in heaven’s name would I bestow a U.S. Senate seat on some smart-ass columnist who makes fun of me publicly, has no government experience, and occupies no elected office higher than School Site Council chair at his local elementary school?

The answer to your question lies in that absurdity. Only a crazy choice can meet this crazy moment for you and for California.

Let’s start with your own political interests. Thousands of powerful Californians, many of them your donors, see themselves in the Senate. Dozens of smart Democratic politicians—from legislators like Karen Bass or Katie Porter to mayors like London Breed or Robert Garcia to statewide officials like Xavier Becerra or Betty Yee—want to rise to higher office.

But since you can pick only one, your choice is guaranteed to breed resentment. There’s a real risk that some terrific Democrat you reject will run against you for governor in 2022!

So don’t fall into the no-win trap of picking a highly qualified, highly ambitious Democrat! Instead, pick me, an unqualified journalist who is not a member of any political party and has zero political ambitions!

I would fill the seat for two years while those Democrats battle amongst themselves to replace me in 2022.

Now, your advisors might fear that making me senator would seem like a joke. But that perception is my appointment’s central virtue. You’d be sending an unmistakable message:

Yes, our new senator is a joke—but nowhere near as big a joke as the Senate, or as American pretentions of democracy.

The Senate embodies the undemocratic American system that cancels California’s best efforts to protect our people and address big problems.

It’s indefensible that California and its 40 million people get the same two Senate seats as Wyoming, Vermont, Alaska, Delaware, or the Dakotas—each of which has fewer people than Fresno County. It’s intolerable that a party hostile to California holds majority control of the Senate, while representing a minority of the people.

California should never do anything that makes the U.S. Senate look. good. But that’s exactly what you’d be doing if you picked, say, Secretary of State Alex Padilla. He’d bring MIT-trained brilliance, a record of improving voting systems, and attractive diversity to a Senate that insults our democratic intelligence and, extensive studies show, favors the interests of white people.

We Californians would be better off if I—or another unserious choice, like a comedian or one of those clowns up in Blue Lake—were sent to the Senate as a human middle finger.

And if that middle finger were me, I would devote my writerly energies to attacking the Senate itself. 

I wouldn’t deliver a speech without calling for the dismantling of the body. I would constantly quote Alexander Hamilton, who criticized the Senate because it represented states, not people.

“As states are a collection of individual men, which ought we to respect most, the rights of the people composing them, or the artificial beings resulting from their composition?” Hamilton said. “Nothing could be more preposterous or absurd than to sacrifice the former to the latter.”

And if nothing is more preposterous than the U.S. Senate, then your appointee for that open seat can’t be too preposterous. Governor, why not fight the absurdity of the American system by sending an absurdity to Washington?

Your fellow Californian, 
Joe Mathews

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square



Joe Mathews