On Monday, two-term Democratic state Senator Alex Padilla will be sworn in as California’s first Latino Secretary of State, replacing Debra Bowen, whose last months in office were plagued by a debilitating struggle with depression but were preceded by years of controversy. He will take the reins of an office that has struggled to provide campaign finance transparency, make better use of technology and handle nonelection responsibilities related to corporations.
The state has been stumbling toward a 2016 deadline to launch VoteCal, a voter registration database that would make same-day registration possible, and by the looks of its website, a lot of work remains. California Business Connect, an online project for streamlining business filings and provide access to records, is still a work in progress. And Cal-Access, the campaign-finance system, is deservingly much-maligned.
Often spoken of as a potential candidate for governor or U.S. Senate, Padilla will also be charged with doing something about California’s record-breakingly bad voter participation numbers.
Padilla was born in Panorama City, in Los Angeles County, and grew up with two siblings in Pacoima, where he attended San Fernando High School. His parents met in Los Angeles after moving from Mexico. Padilla received a Bachelor of Science degree in mechanical engineering from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 1994. He returned to California after graduation and worked briefly as an engineer writing software for Hughes Aircraft satellite systems.
Padilla, a Democrat, got involved in politics in 1995 as a staff aide to Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-California). He subsequently worked as campaign manager for three winning Democrats in three years: Assemblyman Tony Cardenas in 1996, Assemblyman Gil Cedillo in 1997 and State Senator Richard Alarcon in 1998. He was also a district director for Cardenas.
Padilla began his own political career in 1999. The 26-year-old Democrat became the youngest Latino ever elected to the Los Angeles City Council and two years later his colleagues elected him council president. He was president of the League of California Cities in 2005-2006.
Padilla won a seat in the State Senate in 2006 and was re-elected in 2010 with almost 70% of the vote. He was termed out of office in 2014 and joined a crowded field in the race to replace termed-out Secretary of State Bowen. But early favorite state Senator Leland Yee (D-San Francisco) dropped out after being arrested in an FBI sting operation and Padilla defeated Republican Pete Peterson, winning 53.6% of the vote in the November general election runoff.
Padilla, like his predecessor, was known during his tenure in the legislature as a technology buff. That didn’t turn out to be one of Bowen’s strengths, but Padilla made his MIT engineering degree and technology focus in Sacramento a big part of his pitch for the job. He introduced legislation in 2012 that governs the rollout of driverless cars in the state and was instrumental in getting development of a statewide earthquake warning system off the ground.
Padilla also authored the legislative ban on single-use plastic grocery bags that will probably be challenged in a referendum in 2016.
Padilla is a former member of the MIT governing board and president of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO). He is married, has two children and is expecting a third child in January.