In the race to replace Sen. Barbara Boxer, one issue is especially important in this election: the U.S. Senate’s power to confirm Supreme Court justices.
And primarily for that reason, we recommend two very different candidates in the June 7 primary: Democratic Attorney General Kamala Harris, and Republican Duf Sundheim, an attorney from Palo Alto.
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We have our disagreements with both candidates. Harris has been hesitant to take stands on important criminal justice issues during her time as California’s top attorney. But Harris and Sundheim understand the transcendent importance of the U.S. Supreme Court and offer wise if divergent views about the sorts of individuals they would support.
Boxer’s decision to retire after 24 years in the Senate created a once-in-a-generation opportunity, and 34 candidates paid the requisite filing fee and filled out paperwork to replace her. Five have risen to the top.
Harris, an adept Bay Area politician on the ascent, cleared the field of serious Democrats, with the exception of Rep. Loretta Sanchez, who has represented Orange County in Congress for 20 years. Sanchez has served honorably.
Boxer’s replacement will arrive in Washington as a celebrity. She – polls suggest Harris and Sanchez most likely will win the top two slots in the June 7 primary – will have the freedom that comes from representing a solidly Democratic state to take bold stands on issues of equality, privacy and women’s health, workers rights and criminal justice, including gun control. Harris, a skilled attorney, has the potential to become a national leader on the liberal side of many issues, most notably matters related to the judiciary.
Concluding California will be a Democratic stronghold for years to come, Republicans fielded candidates who lack experience in elective office. Of the top-tier Republicans, Sundheim is the clear choice, based on his temperament, philosophy and vision. He is a former California Republican Party chairman, as is one of his leading rivals, attorney Tom Del Beccaro. A third Republican is Ron Unz, a software engineer who ran for governor against Pete Wilson in 1994, and sponsored a 1998 initiative that restricts bilingual education in public schools.
The death in February of Justice Antonin Scalia made clear the impact that one justice can have on a split court on an array of issues, including campaign finance law, marriage equality, privacy and union rights. A balanced Supreme Court is one reason why control of the White House and the U.S. Senate is of paramount importance.
In this rancorous era, it’s an unfortunate reality that judicial appointments will be the subject of partisan fights. Senators ought to look to a nominee’s qualifications and temperament. Harris and Sundheim have thought through what would inform their votes. They also offer voters a clear choice.
Harris said that in hindsight, she likely would have voted against the confirmation of Samuel Alito and Chief Justice John Roberts, President George W. Bush’s appointees. She said she would vote to confirm Barack Obama’s choice to replace Scalia, Merrick Garland, the chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. Garland clearly has the experience, intelligence and temperament to serve on the Supreme Court.
Sundheim says he probably would have voted to confirm Justice Elena Kagan, and isn’t sure about Justice Sonia Sotomayor, Obama’s earlier high court appointees. He is critical of Garland’s stand in a gun ownership case, and isn’t sure he would vote to confirm him. But Sundheim said he would part ways with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and urge a full Senate hearing for Garland. There is no reason to deny Garland a hearing, other than political gamesmanship.
Sundheim takes other stands with which we disagree, opposing, for example, high-speed rail. But we’re confident he would give all sides a fair hearing before taking a stand.
As attorney general, Harris pushed hard to get $20 billion for the state from the national litigation over the mortgage meltdown, and has taken strong stands in favor of government transparency and sensible gun control.
But she has been silent on too many criminal justice issues. During Harris’ tenure, Gov. Jerry Brown and the Legislature approved far-reaching criminal justice realignment. Voters approved initiatives to soften the “three-strikes” measure and reduce sentences for lower level offenders. She was absent from those debates, as she has been largely absent from the debate over marijuana legalization and the expansion of online gambling and fantasy sports betting.
She justifies her silence by saying she must represent the state in court, although past attorneys general have found ways to take stands. As a Senate candidate, Harris has no excuse to duck issues. Voters ought to insist that she speak up.
Sanchez has no such compunction. But for someone who has served in Congress for 20 years, she has little profile outside her Southern California base.
A senator must represent the entire state, not just Orange County. Or, for that matter, the donor-rich precincts of Silicon Valley, San Francisco and West Los Angeles. The top-tier candidates don’t offer prescriptions for how the federal government could help solve problems of unemployment and poverty that plague much of the state.
In the coming months, the candidates who survive the jungle primary should work to develop clear policy proposals for how the federal government could help ease the dislocation and distress that afflicts much of the region north of the Tehachapi Mountains.
Boxer’s retirement is part of a generational change in California’s leadership. Voters might have wished that different candidates had emerged to replace her. But they can have confidence that Harris or Sundheim could step into the U.S. Senate and serve this state and nation with distinction.