Frontrunner to Replace Sen. Harris Fights to Pay Out $35 Mil to Biden Firm

Alex Padilla
California secretary of state Alex Padilla (D.) / Getty Images
November 25, 2020

California's top elections official is pushing the state to pay out a $35 million contract with a major Democratic consulting firm as he lobbies behind the scenes for a Senate seat.

California secretary of state Alex Padilla (D.), reportedly the favorite to fill Vice President-elect Kamala Harris's Senate seat, awarded Democratic public relations giant SKDKnickerbocker the lucrative deal in August as part of a voter outreach program. Weeks later, however, Democratic state controller Betty Yee's office refused to approve the contract, arguing that Padilla did not have the authority to pay for it.

The resolution of the dispute could be a make-or-break issue for Padilla. His victory in a fight that would send a tranche of money to some of the country's leading Democratic strategists could ease his path to being appointed to fill Harris's seat, a decision that Democratic governor Gavin Newsom plans to announce prior to inauguration day on Jan. 20.

SKDK has deep ties to Harris and President-elect Joe Biden. The firm's managing director, Anita Dunn, led Biden's presidential campaign, which has disbursed more than $2.2 million to SKDK since December 2019. Newsom did not make any payments to the firm during his runs for lieutenant governor and governor in 2014 and 2018.

According to internal emails obtained by CalMatters, Padilla has spent months fighting to pay the Biden-linked firm following Yee's rebuke. The Democrat personally lobbied Yee to approve the payment in an Oct. 20 email, citing an August bill signed by Newsom that called on Padilla to "conduct a statewide voter education and outreach campaign."

Padilla issued the contract on an "emergency" basis, meaning that it did not require a competitive bidding process and was not approved by relevant state agencies before it was awarded. The lack of transparency sparked criticism from Yee's office: In a September email, chief counsel Rick Chivaro wrote that trying to get a "definitive answer" on the contract was "a little like catching a greased pig."

SKDK may not be able to recover its expenses should Padilla fail in his attempt to fulfill the $35 million payment. The contract asserts that California can cancel the agreement "with no liability" should the state reduce funding for the program.

Padilla awarded the contract to SKDK as part of the state's "Vote Safe California" initiative, which aimed to "educate the public on the safety, security, and ease of voting in the general election amid the COVID-19 pandemic." The program also required SKDK to give "special attention" to "reaching first-time mail voters" after Newsom decided to send every registered voter in the state a mail-in ballot.

According to a Politico report, Newsom is "leaning heavily" toward picking Padilla—a longtime ally of Newsom's—to replace Harris. Top Democratic activists in the state, however, are urging Newsom to select a woman of color. Other reported candidates include state attorney general Xavier Becerra (D.) and Reps. Karen Bass (D.) and Barbara Lee (D.).

Bass was also floated as a potential Biden running mate but faced criticism over her role in headlining two Democratic Socialists of America conferences in 1988 and 1993. The Democrat has also praised the Church of Scientology, and she called Communist dictator Fidel Castro's death a "great loss" to Cuba in a 2016 statement.