Politics & Government

Kamala Harris, a front-runner for U.S. Senate, is a blank slate

Attorney General Kamala Harris, with then-Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa in 2011, could soon be competing with her onetime political ally if Villaraigosa also decides to run for the U.S. Senate.
Attorney General Kamala Harris, with then-Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa in 2011, could soon be competing with her onetime political ally if Villaraigosa also decides to run for the U.S. Senate. Associated Press file

As California attorney general, Kamala Harris helped secure billions for homeowners and foreclosure victims.

She’s a career prosecutor who prioritized school truancy prevention and combating transnational gangs. She has fought environmental polluters and defended the state’s landmark greenhouse gas emissions law.

But as she begins her run to replace fellow Democrat Barbara Boxer in the U.S. Senate, there is one thing Harris has not done that could become a blessing – or burden – in a contested election: cast a vote on legislation. For all her credentials and accomplishments, she never has served in a legislative body.

The other potential candidates in the race, including former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, have spent time in the Legislature or Congress. Villaraigosa’s associates said part of his consideration of whether to run includes examining his own background as an executive and lawmaker.

Democratic strategist Garry South, who has counseled Villaraigosa as he evaluates a campaign, said Harris is a bright, talented and charismatic candidate. But on many federal issues in the purview of a U.S senator, South said, she remains a blank slate.

“She can’t run for the U.S. Senate just talking about her record in the attorney general’s office and as a DA,” he said. “She will have to be knowledgeable about, and take stands on, all kinds of federal issues, including water, transportation and housing.

“A big-city mayor (like Villaraigosa), by contrast, deals with the feds constantly on a wide range of matters.”

Other political analysts say Harris’ lack of personal legislative engagement could work in her favor, preventing would-be opponents from scrutinizing scores of complex bills and twisting her votes to serve their own narratives – a standard campaign tactic. Top prosecutors in other states have effectively used their posts to win congressional seats, sometimes over opponents with more executive or legislative experience.

“The fact that she doesn’t have a voting record is probably a net positive, because there is nothing to attack her on,” said Roy Behr, a Democratic consultant who worked for Boxer, whose seat Harris is seeking to claim in 2016.

A priority for Harris will be avoiding the pitfalls that did in past California frontrunners. In 1990, then-Attorney General John Van de Kamp, an establishment favorite who previously served as district attorney of Los Angeles, fell to former San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein in the Democratic primary for governor. Feinstein captured voters’ emotions with an ad featuring footage of her announcing the assassinations of then-Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk. Van de Kamp focused some of his resources on a trio of ballot initiatives – involving drug enforcement, legislative ethics and environment – to broaden his experience beyond his years as a prosecutor. All went down to defeat. Republican Pete Wilson ultimately defeated Feinstein for the governorship.

Four years later, Democratic Treasurer Kathleen Brown was the odds-on favorite to unseat Wilson. Brown’s strongest issue, the economy, was eclipsed by public focus on illegal immigration and the death penalty, which she opposed. She drew criticism for failing to take a clear stance on issues, making her appear to lack substance. Wilson won re-election.

Harris so far has declined interview requests on the race and has yet to take a public stance on a number of issues.

She refused to provide her position on teacher job-protection laws, which have become a national issue in recent years as the White House has pushed for more accountability. The state last year appealed a ruling declaring teacher employment rules unconstitutional, and Harris deflected questions because of her involvement in the petition.

Harris angered marijuana activists by refusing to say whether she supports legalizing recreational marijuana (a spokesman later said she wants to “watch and analyze” the situations in Colorado and Washington, where recreational use is legal). She also drew criticism from editorial writers for not engaging early enough on Gov. Jerry Brown’s plans to shift responsibility for thousands of lower-level offenders from state prisons to county jails.

She has, however, sponsored legislation as attorney general and as a district attorney.

While opponents could test her grasp of issues and attack her absence of a voting background, the question is whether that will bother voters in a Senate race in the same way it might for a chief executive job such as governor, said Dan Schnur, a former Republican strategist who now directs the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California.

“There is something to be said for hands-on voting experience, but when you are talking about one out of 100 people in the Senate, voters may be more inclined to take a risk,” said Schnur, who once worked as an aide to Wilson, who was himself once a senator. “Voters are inclined to place just as much value on a candidate’s spoken position on issues even if that position is never recorded in a legislative or congressional vote.”

Harris’ skills in overseeing the district attorney’s office in San Francisco and the 4,400 employees in the state attorney general’s office will be important factors for voters to assess. Key to that analysis will be her history of making final decisions on crucial actions, said Democratic strategist Mary Hughes, whose work has focused on electing more women to office. “In this climate, in this Congress, that’s an important quality,” she said.

“The range of topics as a district attorney and attorney general that Harris has taken on and taken an interest in has been pretty broad,” Hughes said. She characterized Harris as “solutions oriented” and a “problem solver” on school truancy, human trafficking, domestic violence and privacy protections.

“Looking out for people is one way to look at how she has pursued her career,” Hughes said.

Harris also has strong legal credentials, Hughes said. Sens. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Claire McCaskill of Missouri, Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire and Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota all were prosecutors. Heitkamp, a former state attorney general, won her Senate seat over a Republican congressman. Klobuchar, a former county attorney, successfully fended off a GOP state lawmaker and a congressman in her two Senate general elections.

In her close win in 2010 over then-Los Angeles District Attorney Steve Cooley, a Republican, Harris was attacked for opposing the death penalty. But her supporters say the issue could become an asset for her with Democratic voters as support for capital punishment shifts. Her role as the state’s chief law enforcement officer gives her latitude to highlight any number of subjects over the next two years.

Still, many of her positions on foreign affairs and domestic policy have yet to be aired. And her candidacy could invite scrutiny of her record, including a crime lab scandal while she was the San Francisco district attorney that involved prosecutors’ failure to disclose the histories of tainted police officers to defense attorneys.

If a well-funded Democrat runs for Senate, Harris’ record will be scrubbed and “roundly criticized in TV ads across the state,” predicted Kevin Spillane, Cooley’s campaign consultant. “The question now is will there be candidates or a candidate with enough resources to go after Harris’ glass jaw,” Spillane said.

Should he run, Villaraigosa has vulnerabilities of his own to deal with. Eric Bauman, chairman of the Los Angeles County Democratic Party, recently met with Villaraigosa, and said the former mayor engaged on the positive and unfavorable aspects of his decades in elected office.

“He has a record as a legislator, legislative leader and executive, which means that he can say, ‘I authored a bill to provide health care to working families,’ ‘I wrote the bill to ban (workplace) discrimination based on sexual orientation.’ ... And we discussed the things he failed to achieve and had hoped to.”

Harris has pledged to fight for seniors, the next generation of students and middle-class families with stagnant wages. Last week, she was selected by the White House to talk about the effects of President Barack Obama’s recent executive actions on immigration.

Her campaign strategy since entering the race has hinged on avoiding future confrontations by locking up support from prominent Democrats. It didn’t hurt when Democratic Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, Treasurer John Chiang, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, billionaire climate-change activist Tom Steyer and others took themselves out of the running.

“Though she has never gone through the type of scrutiny that comes with a Senate campaign, the current expectations are that she is a polished, talented and knowledgeable candidate,” Behr said. He added a cautionary note: “History is littered with candidates who are expected to do well and then don’t.”

Call Christopher Cadelago, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 326-5538. Follow him on Twitter @ccadelago.

Kamala Harris

Party: Democrat

Occupation: California attorney general

Birthplace: Oakland

Residence: San Francisco

Education: Law degree, UC Hastings College of the Law, 1989; bachelor’s, political science and economics, Howard University, 1986

Experience: California attorney general, 2011-present; district attorney, San Francisco, 2003-11; chief S.F. city attorney, division on children and families, 2000-03; deputy district attorney, Alameda and S.F. counties, 1990-2000.

Related stories from Sacramento Bee