Capitol Alert

Loretta Sanchez makes some moves, takes some hits in U.S. Senate debate with Kamala Harris

Candidate Kamala Harris watches as fellow Democrat Loretta Sanchez strikes a pose at the end of her closing statement during their U.S. Senate debate held Wednesday at Cal State Los Angeles.
Candidate Kamala Harris watches as fellow Democrat Loretta Sanchez strikes a pose at the end of her closing statement during their U.S. Senate debate held Wednesday at Cal State Los Angeles. Los Angeles Times

In a slashing U.S. Senate debate, Democrats Kamala Harris and Loretta Sanchez quarreled over police shootings, rising crime, higher education and Sanchez’ congressional attendance record.

Harris portrayed Sanchez as a legislative lightweight and challenged her commitment to a job she’s held for nearly two decades.

Sanchez, in turn, sought to assert herself as the aggressor, repeatedly running over her time and leaning over the lectern to make her points. Shifting from smiles to scowls, she painted her opponent as naive about the ways of Washington and pointed to her own votes against the federal bank bailout, Patriot Act and Iraq War, positions she cast as courageous.

Looking to make up ground in the only one-on-one confrontation of the fall contest, Sanchez tore into Harris, the state attorney general, for being on the sidelines during the national dialogue over police shootings. She argued Harris should have taken a position on legislation empowering a special prosecutor to examine lethal uses of force by police officers.

On the debate over police body cameras, Sanchez said, “My opponent was absent.”

Harris, sitting on a lead less than five weeks before the Nov. 8 election, did not shrink from the verbal lashings, using the question about police shootings and law enforcement transparency to prosecute Sanchez’s legislative record.

Harris has said she didn’t support the measure, Assembly Bill 86, because it would have taken discretion away from district attorneys. At the debate, she seized on Sanchez’s use of the word “absent,” citing a recent report showing she has nearly the worst attendance record in the U.S. House of Representatives.

“I think it is is important that you show up,” Harris shot back. “You can travel and have a lot of stamps in your passport, but when you have been appointed to be the chair of the anti-terrorism task force and you don’t show up once, that should call into question your commitment to protecting our country’s national security interests.”

Often pegged as overly guarded, Harris stepped out of her comfort zone to lacerate Sanchez for protecting for-profit college chains as they sought to deflect tougher federal regulations.

When Sanchez accused Harris of unfairly painting the entire for-profit industry with an overly broad brush, Harris welcomed the extended debate. She mentioned helping to permanently shutdown the behemoth Corinthian Colleges and secure a $1.1 billion judgment.

“They were engaged in the most unbelievable predatory practices targeting some of our most desperate and in-need people who just simply wanted to get an education,” she said.

She slammed Sanchez for passing just one bill in 20 years – “and that was to rename a post office.”

Later, Harris directly confronted Sanchez for saying that up to 20 percent of Muslims want to form a caliphate to target Western norms, remarks that the California Immigrant Policy Center dismissed at the time as “wildly off-the-mark.”

“That is playing into the hands of ISIS and all that they are doing to try and recruit young Muslim men throughout our country and around the world,” Harris said.

Harris and Sanchez are candidates for the state’s first open U.S. Senate seat in 24 years, competing in the first high-profile runoff between two members of the same party since voters adopted the top-two primary system in 2012. Harris, the daughter of immigrants from India and Jamaica, and Sanchez, whose parents are from Mexico, breathed additional historic significance into the race. Either would become the first woman of color to represent California in the U.S. Senate.

Yet none of those dynamics have translated into sustained competition, with both candidates largely overshadowed by the presidential contest. Sanchez has worked to shift the momentum with probing hits on Harris’ record, but the general failure to stir excitement has mostly been to her detriment.

Sanchez trails in every public poll as well as in fundraising. With Harris set to launch TV ads, the lone debate on the campus of California State University, Los Angeles represented Sanchez’ most high-profile opportunity to shine attention on her underdog bid.

Both candidates seemed to relish the stage. Sanchez, at one point simultaneously dropped her head while raising her arm and one elbow, a dance move called dabbin. When she accused Harris of spending her campaign funds to fuel a lavish lifestyle, Harris stepped back and let out a hearty laugh.

Returning to crime, Sanchez didn’t pass up the opportunity to again tear into a fall initiative backed by Gov. Jerry Brown to make certain prison inmates eligible for early parole, contending that Harris wrote a rosy assessment of its dangerous impacts. Sanchez said the title and summary for Proposition 57 is too favorable to Brown because it calls serious violent crimes, “nonviolent.”

“She talks a good story on gun control,” Sanchez said. “But did you know that if you give guns to gangs, you can get out of jail free if this passes... She has failed to lead on supposedly the area that’s her expertise.”

Sanchez also brought up a report Harris released this summer showing that statewide violent crime increased 10 percent last year, the first rise since 2012. Homicides increased nearly 10 percent and aggravated assaults were up 8 percent.

“Worst of all she has failed to protect Californians as attorney general,” Sanchez said, her voice rising. “And as a senator, she would fail to lead.”

Of Harris’ crime report, Sanchez added, “that is a report card you do not want to show to your dad.”

Harris swatted back, saying Sanchez was engaging in Willie Horton-style “fear-mongering.”

Christopher Cadelago: 916-326-5538, @ccadelago

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