By Tim Linden
Sen. Padilla was first elected to the Los Angeles City Council in 1999, serving for seven years. He also served in the California State Senate and as California Secretary of State before being appointed to the U.S. Senate in 2021. He was on the November ballot to both complete the current term and serve a full term.
Give us a thumbnail sketch of your background?
My parents arrived in California from different regions of Mexico in the 1960s with little formal education, but a tremendous work ethic and big dreams. They met in Los Angeles, fell in love, decided to get married and applied for green cards. I am forever grateful for their decision to pursue the American Dream. For 40 years, my father worked as a short-order cook. Hard work. Honest work. Union work. And as he’ll proudly tell you, his kitchen never failed an inspection. For those same 40 years, my mom worked tirelessly as a housekeeper.
Together, they raised my sister, my brother and me in a modest three-bedroom house in the proud, working-class community of Pacoima in the San Fernando Valley. It was there that my parents taught us about the values of service to others and of getting a good education. On weekends, we were often at park clean-ups and other neighborhood service projects. Today, my sister, my brother and I all work in public service.
What event/accomplishment has been the highlight of your political career? Was there a seminal event that led you to a career in public service?
When I was in school, I never thought I would run for elected office. After graduating from Los Angeles public schools, I attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology where I earned a degree in Mechanical Engineering. As a student, I was working towards a career in the aerospace industry. At the same time a recession was hitting in the early 1990s, Prop 187 in California created an atmosphere of antagonism toward my community. I could not believe how immigrants—people like my parents who proudly worked hard in pursuit of the American Dream—were being demonized and scapegoated for the financial problems of our state government. I realized my community needed a stronger political voice.
I became politically active, working on campaigns, serving as a field representative for my federal and state representatives, and ultimately running for office myself. At the age of 26, I was elected to represent the community I grew up in on the Los Angeles City Council.
My story is not unique. The hateful rhetoric around Prop 187 encouraged many Latinos to become politically active.
Is Congress as dysfunctional as it appears to the average citizen who holds the institution in such low regard today?
This Congress has proven it is still possible to get big things done and address major challenges facing our country, both when Republicans choose to work with Democrats as well as when they refuse.
The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law will deliver long overdue, historic investments in rebuilding America’s infrastructure—including its water infrastructure—while creating millions of good-paying jobs.
The law also includes the Power On Act, bipartisan legislation I introduced with Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) to invest $5 billion in electric grid resiliency. Once-in-a-generation weather events are now becoming a regular occurrence in California, Texas and across the nation. We need to harden the nation’s electrical grid to prevent shutoffs and better withstand extreme weather events and natural disasters, like wildfires, extreme heat and freezing, and droughts.
The FIRE Act—my bill to strengthen the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) wildfire preparedness and response efforts—passed unanimously out of the Senate. Protecting our communities from the destruction of wildfires can and should be a bipartisan priority, so I was proud to see the success of this legislation.
While we always look to find common ground when we can, I’m also proud of the many priorities that Democrats moved forward this Congress, even when Republicans refused to join us. We passed significant legislation to lower costs for families, including health care and energy costs, and boost our economy and small businesses as we recover from the COVID-19 pandemic. We provided long overdue funding to improve drought resilience in Western states and mitigate the risk of catastrophic wildfires.
Agriculture has many issues of grave concern; can you please weigh in on the following issues:
A. Immigration Reform:
Our immigration laws are outdated and in need of reform. They do not meet the needs of our economy, including the agricultural sector. That is why the very first bill I introduced when I came to the Senate was the Citizenship for Essential Workers Act. My bill would provide a path to citizenship for those who have served on the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic. This includes farmworkers who tirelessly work the fields so that we can have food on our tables and who play a vital role in keeping our supply chains functioning. As Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration, Citizenship, and Border Safety, I continue to reach out across the aisle to my Senate colleagues about where bipartisan progress can be made. We have bipartisan solutions just sitting in front of us waiting to be passed, so that we uphold our nation’s values and strengthen our economy. Sadly, Republicans in Congress aren’t interested in real solutions—they refuse to take the votes necessary to move the needle forward on immigration reform. They would rather engage in fear mongering about the border than work in good faith. It’s a pattern repeated by Republicans because it is politically convenient for them. Meanwhile, we have workforce shortages and gaps across this country that go beyond the agricultural industry and are affecting millions of Americans.
B. Drought Relief:
Since I joined the Senate, I’ve made addressing this historic drought a major priority. I’ve consistently met with agricultural groups, water users, Western Senators, and administration officials, including Interior Secretary Deb Haaland and Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Calimlim Touton, who were recently in California meeting with local leaders on this issue. I have worked closely with my Senate colleagues to ensure both the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and the Inflation Reduction Act build on California’s climate leadership and prioritize support for drought and wildfire resiliency–two of the biggest challenges facing California right now.
The Inflation Reduction Act provides $4 billion to address historic drought in the West, including for inland water bodies like the Salton Sea and for bolstering the resiliency of the Colorado River Basin and watersheds up and down California experiencing extreme drought. It also includes $5 billion to reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfires, support more fire-resilient forests, expand forest conservation, and increase urban tree planting—which will help address extreme heat in many of our cities.
When coupled with the $8.3 billion provided in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law for western water infrastructure—including water recycling, desalination, aging infrastructure repairs, and other water infrastructure projects—Congress has taken significant action to increase drought resiliency and bolster water supplies in the short-, medium-, and long-term.
Short of introducing legislation to make it rain, this is a good start. But as we face what looks to be another dry year following the worst drought in 1,200 years, extreme heat, and record wildfires, we can no longer depend on plans and solutions designed and built for a different climate, which is why I’m working to support new and innovative strategies for water conservation and drought resilience, including water reuse, reclamation, recycling and efficiency.
C. Farm Bill:
The Farm Bill is critical for California communities, whether vulnerable families that receive food and nutrition assistance or for the 69,000 farms and ranches that produce more than 50 percent of the nation’s fruits and vegetables and more than 400 agricultural commodities. This year I visited farmers and local leaders in the Central Valley, and I worked a day in the fields with farmworkers in Southern California. This helped me see firsthand the challenges we must address in the Farm Bill to ensure the equitable treatment of California producers—whether by improving risk management tools for specialty crops, supporting the growth of organic agriculture, or supporting university researchers helping to ensure a safe and reliable food supply.
D. Climate change:
The federal government must play a role in the response to climate change, especially as Western states on the frontlines of the climate crisis face drought, wildfires, and extreme heat. This year, Democrats passed the Inflation Reduction Act, which is the largest investment in history to tackle the climate crisis. By investing approximately $369 billion over the next 10 years in energy security, environmental justice, and climate change programs, the act will lower carbon emissions by roughly 40 percent by 2030. These measures will also create good-paying, green economy jobs and keep down energy costs for consumers.
In the last five years, California has experienced some of its most destructive and deadly fires in recorded history. Last year, I was proud to have secured $10 billion for the Wildfire Hurricane Indemnity Program (WHIP+) to help agricultural producers who were affected by wildfires in 2020 and 2021, including those who have smoke-tainted crops, and I secured provisions to increase the payment limit for assistance, specifically for the specialty crops and high value crops prevalent in California, such as wine grapes.
I will continue working with my colleagues on the Senate authorizing and appropriations committees to ensure the drought and wildfire crises we are facing are adequately addressed and reflected in the upcoming farm bill.
E. What is the future for production agriculture in California?
California is blessed with many natural advantages, and Californians have always been pioneers of new ways to store, transport and save water that fuels some of the most fertile agricultural land and the most vibrant communities in the world. We must acknowledge the realities of higher temperatures, reduced precipitation, and more frequent drought. I look forward to rolling up my sleeves and working closely with the agricultural industry to confront the difficult, complex and politically-fraught challenges we have to tackle if we’re going to be good stewards of California’s land and water, for our children and for future generations.