The names and parties have evolved, but over the last half-century, California’s two U.S. senators have displayed sharply contrasting styles.
One has been the workhorse, tending to the state’s prosaic, if complex, interests in Washington, such as water.
The other has been, if not a show horse, something of a showoff, saying and doing things that garner media attention, but often are symbolic at best and frivolous at worst.
For two decades, Democrat Alan Cranston was our worker bee while one-termers who said much and accomplished little – Republican George Murphy, Democrat John Tunney, and Republican S.I. Hayakawa – sat in the other seat.
Late in his career, Cranston went awry, catching the presidential bug and becoming enmeshed in scandal, but by then Republican Pete Wilson was on hand for serious business.
In 1992, the state’s voters elected two new senators, Democrats Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, and the pattern continued. Feinstein took care of business while Boxer made headlines, such as her infamously egocentric berating of an Army general in 2009 for calling her “ma’am” during testimony.
“Do me a favor, can you say ‘senator’ instead of ‘ma’am’?” Boxer pointedly asked the general. “It’s just a thing. I worked so hard to get that title, so I’d appreciate it. Thank you.”
Boxer is retiring, and two Democrats, Attorney General Kamala Harris and Rep. Loretta Sanchez, are vying for her seat.
Harris has the money, endorsements from virtually every major party figure, including President Barack Obama, Gov. Jerry Brown, Feinstein and Boxer. She also leads in every statewide poll, and seems bent on coasting to victory by saying and doing as little as possible.
Underdog Sanchez has always something of a maverick in Congress, and rails against “the establishment” – meaning the politicians who’ve endorsed Harris. But she’s been an erratic campaigner, not making sustained statewide appeals to independent and Republican voters she needs to win.
Their essential traits were on display in Los Angeles on Wednesday during their only debate, seen by a tiny portion of voters and probably inconsequential in effect.
Harris, characteristically, offered predigested, politically correct bromides, saying nothing that she hadn’t said before.
On immigration, for instance, Harris’ pale response was “It is time Congress acts,” followed by touting her support from the United Farm Workers.
Sanchez, meanwhile, was more animated, calling immigration reform “the moral imperative of our times,” but her scattergun verbiage came across as unfocused.
On terrorism, Sanchez was blunt: “We have to eliminate ISIS.” Harris was vague: “We have to be smart and tough as a country.”
As a senator, Harris would probably continue her cautious-to-a-fault mien, more concerned with image than substance, while Sanchez would probably be a worthy addition to California’s unbroken string of ineffective, motormouth senators.
Whoever wins, Feinstein will remain in harness as our only senatorial workhorse – until she retires.