CA Dem Who Pushed Plum Contract to Biden-Linked Firm Tapped for Senate Seat

California secretary of state Alex Padilla (D.) / Getty Images
December 22, 2020

The California Democrat who fought to pay out a $35 million state contract to a Biden-linked consulting firm was selected to succeed Vice President-elect Kamala Harris in the U.S. Senate.

Democratic governor Gavin Newsom appointed California secretary of state Alex Padilla to replace Harris on Tuesday, months after Padilla awarded Democratic public relations giant SKDKnickerbocker a $35 million no-bid contract as part of a state voter outreach program. 

The secretive deal saw Padilla ensnared in controversy as he lobbied for the Senate seat. After California's chief fiscal officer refused to approve the contract—arguing that Padilla lacked the authority to grant it—Padilla spent months lobbying to pay the firm, which has deep ties to Harris and President-elect Joe Biden.

His efforts have so far proved unsuccessful, with the payment still yet to be approved. But Padilla's decision to award the contract to SKDK may have boosted his standing among the nation's top Democratic operatives. Anita Dunn—the firm's managing director—led Biden's presidential campaign, which disbursed more than $2.2 million to SKDK during the 2020 cycle. Other top clients include Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer's (D., N.Y.) Senate Majority PAC and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. SKDK's website currently thanks "Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, and all of our clients who fought for the soul of the nation."

Newsom—whose office did not respond to a request for comment—has not revealed how the outstanding payment will be handled given Padilla's imminent promotion. Padilla's office also did not respond to a request for comment.

Padilla awarded the contract to SKDK as part of California's "Vote Safe" initiative, which was created to "educate the public on the safety, security, and ease of voting in the general election amid the COVID-19 pandemic." Padilla issued the contract on an "emergency" basis due to the pandemic, meaning it did not require a competitive bidding process and was not approved by state financial officers before it was granted. The contract saw SKDK target "first-time mail voters" and those with language barriers.

Republican state lawmakers have used the contract's lack of competitive bidding process to accuse Padilla of operating without accountability.

"If Gov. Newsom unilaterally appoints [Padilla] to serve the 40 million residents of this state based on his resume of a … partisan PR deal with taxpayer money, Americans can expect more of the same—no transparency, no accountability, and backroom deals," Republican state senate leader Shannon Grove said in a recent statement.

Padilla will become California's newest U.S. senator after Harris is sworn in as vice president in January.