Dan Morain
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  • Brian Nguyen / bnguyen@sacbee.com

    In her talk with The Bee’s editorial board, Attorney General Kamala Harris highlighted the $20 billion she helped California get from the suits against banks involved in the housing crash.

  • Brian Nguyen / bnguyen@sacbee.com

    Kamala Harris speaks to The Sacramento Bee editorial board on Tuesday. Harris is running for a second term as the state’s attorney general.

Dan Morain: Kamala Harris stays on message, which means she bobs and weaves

Published: Sunday, Aug. 10, 2014 - 12:00 am

Attorney General Kamala Harris will not lose re-election in November, and shouldn’t.

She is an engaging speaker and an agile thinker. An ascending star and a Friend of Barack, she has ready access to all the big Democratic money people in Hollywood, Silicon Valley and nationally.

David Geffen, Steven Spielberg, Barbra Streisand and Bill Maher are among her donors. Donald and Ivanka Trump have chipped in, too. So have venture capitalist John Doerr, Laureen Powell Jobs and Sean Parker, billionaires all. Harris was a guest at Parker’s $4.5 million Tolkien-themed Big Sur wedding last year.

She has $3.5 million in the bank for her re-election. Her opponent, a lawyer named Ron Gold, was $870 in arrears at the most recent accounting. Gold received 504,000 votes in the primary to Harris’ 2.17 million.

Harris talks about recidivism, an issue of statewide concern, and meth smuggling across the border in San Diego, something she is fighting.

She emphasizes the $20 billion she helped California get from the 2012 settlement of the suits against five big banks involved in the housing crash. She discusses her high-profile suit against for-profit Corinthian College in which she alleged it preyed on low-income Californians. It’s all good stuff.

Harris also can bob and weave with the very best.

She produced a 123-page book decrying the epidemic of truancy. But if truancy is a scourge, certainly teacher tenure laws that harm poor children are worthy of discussion. Not last week when she stopped by The Sacramento Bee editorial board to talk about her first term and re-election.

A Los Angeles County judge ruled in June that California’s last-hired, first-fired tenure laws violate poor students’ civil rights because younger teachers are assigned to tougher schools and are the first to receive layoff notices.

“Substantial evidence presented makes it clear to this court that the challenged statutes disproportionately affect poor and/or minority students,” Judge Rolf M. Treu wrote. The evidence, Treu wrote, “shocks the conscience.”

It evidently shocked President Barack Obama’s education secretary, Arne Duncan, and Los Angeles Unified School District Superintendent John Deasy, both of whom praised the ruling in Vergara v. California.

“Every day that these laws remain in effect represents another opportunity denied,” Deasy said after the ruling.

Will there be an appeal? She won’t say. What does she think of tenure rules? Sorry.

Harris said she cannot discuss any aspect of the case because she represents Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson, the defendant.

“I cannot talk about the case,” she said, adding that she’d “lose her Bar card” if she discussed the matter. No one would want a disbarred attorney general. But hiring and firing of teachers is a fundamental issue. Voters might want to know where she stands. Then again, the California Teachers Association supports the status quo, and almost certainly will press for an appeal. Democratic politicians cross the union at their peril.

Harris is rightly outraged that people lost their homes because of banks’ predatory lending practices.

But does she think the Legislature should legalize Internet gambling? Should everyone’s smartphone double as a slot machine, so gambling addicts could fritter away rent checks at any hour from any place?

“I am not prepared to form an opinion and express one right now because we’re studying it,” Harris said. “With issues like that, I want to be very well informed about exactly where it is going and the potential impact of what my opinion might be.”

Harris does take a stand on campaign money from entities that care about Internet poker. Wealthy Indian tribes that own casinos and will want a piece of the Internet poker have given her $124,900 since she took office in 2011.

Perhaps California’s top law enforcement officer has a view of marijuana legalization. Not exactly, though she was more nuanced on this issue. The career prosecutor is well aware of drug cartels’ involvement and the ill effects of marijuana on some teenage brains. The politician can read polls, which show voters support legalization.

“Voters are probably going to see it as an issue for them on a statewide ballot in the next two years, and I think they’ll make a decision,” Harris said. “In terms of where I am at this moment, I am absolutely in favor of medical marijuana.”

The experience of Colorado and Washington should inform Californians’ decision, she said. That’s reasonable. If it’s legalized, should marijuana dealers be allowed to advertise?

“Marijuana is something, not unlike beer or tobacco, we should examine and be clear in terms of the effects on minors,” Harris said. Is that a yes or no?

“Do you believe marijuana can damage permanently or disable the brain of someone who is 15 through 18 years old? That is the answer to that question for me.”

Upon taking office in 2011, Harris refused to defend Proposition 8, the 2008 initiative that sought to ban same-sex marriages. Democratic voters supported her view, and attitudes of other voters were shifting rapidly in favor of marriage equality.

Perhaps, then, Harris, who opposes the death penalty, won’t appeal a federal judge’s ruling last month declaring capital punishment is unconstitutional. She’s still deciding whether to appeal. Is capital punishment unconstitutional?

“That is something that ultimately the courts are going to have to decide,” she said. “And ultimately it is going to be the Supreme Court of the United States, not the attorney general of the state of California.”

Harris is on every pundit’s short list of officials most likely to succeed Jerry Brown as governor, or run for U.S. Senate when Dianne Feinstein or Barbara Boxer retires. Which raises another question: When she is elected in November, will she serve a full four-year term?

“I hope so,” she said. What if a Senate seat should open? “I have not thought about that.”

Every time politicians take a position, they risk alienating some voters and donors. Good politician that she is, Harris knows the value of focusing on the issues she views as most important. It’s called staying on message. I admire her skill.

Courage and authenticity are qualities worthy of admiration, too.


Follow Dan Morain on Twitter @danielmorain.

Read more articles by Dan Morain



Dan Morain, editorial page editor

Dan Morain

Dan Morain, editorial page editor, has been a columnist at The Sacramento Bee since 2010. As a news reporter, he covered the California Supreme Court when Rose Bird was chief justice, the Legislature when Willie Brown was speaker and the Governor's Office during Gray Davis' tenure. He spent 27 years at the Los Angeles Times, where his final assignment was to be part of the team that covered the 2008 presidential campaign. He and his wife, Claudia Morain, have three children, each of whom attended public schools and California's public universities.

Email: dmorain@sacbee.com
Phone: 916-321-1907
Twitter: @DanielMorain

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