In elevating Kamala Harris to Congress, Californians didn’t just elect a new senator. They also ensured they’ll have a new California attorney general, a change with broad legal and political repercussions.
Gov. Jerry Brown controls who will fill the coveted post. He could let Harris’ deputy assume the role or pick anyone else with the requisite legal experience, a decision that would map the contours for a looming 2018 race to be California’s top cop.
Arguably the second-most powerful statewide official after the governor, the attorney general oversees a system of thousands of lawyers, investigators and peace officers, wields broad powers to open criminal and civil investigations, join federal lawsuits and write official ballot measure titles and summaries that will shape voter perceptions. It is widely seen as a stepping stone to more prominent positions, as it has been for Harris.
“The (attorney general) is an entirely independent operator, has direct supervision over all the state’s (district attorneys), can initiate cases, can take cases over from local DA’s,” said David Carrillo, an expert on the California constitution at UC Berkeley. “It’s a very powerful office.”
Any choice would need to pass muster with state senators and Assembly members who have the power to reject an appointment. But once an appointee clears that legislative bar, Carrillo said, he or she would enjoy broad autonomy.
“There’s the political calculus of getting it past the Legislature, but once that person’s in office, they have two years of the full powers of the office, and they’re not beholden to anyone,” Carrillo said.
Brown declined through a spokesman to illuminate how the process could play out.
But that hasn’t stopped political prognosticators from speculating about candidates. Whomever Brown picks, he faces a central choice: whether to choose a placeholder candidate who would step aside rather than run for re-election in 2018 or to elevate someone with the desire to try to serve for almost a decade and the political and financial wherewithal to mount a serious run. That person also would have the huge advantage of using the ballot label “California Attorney General” in the 2018 election.
“Is the governor trying to pick someone who will be consistent with his perspectives and there for 10 years? Or is it a caretaker to keep the office functioning well for two?” said former Attorney General Bill Lockyer. “Does he want to have an impact on who the next attorney general or maybe a future governor will be? Or does he prefer to just have an open primary scramble and whoever wins the election gets it in 2018?”
Administration officials like Brown chief of staff Nancy McFadden or first lady and top Brown aide Anne Gust Brown, both attorneys and members of the governor’s inner circle, often surface in speculation about who could be tabbed for a short-term tenure. Chief Deputy Attorney General Nathan Barankin, who serves under Harris at the Department of Justice and would automatically be elevated to acting attorney general when she resigns to join the Senate, could also slide into the job.
Those options remain firmly in the realm of speculation. Barankin and McFadden did not respond to emails seeking comment. Speaking to reporters, the governor made light of the suggestion he might appoint his spouse.
“My wife is fully employed,” Brown said.
Lockyer acknowledged that “the political chattering class loves to suggest Anne” but added that Gust Brown has said she is not interested and posited that her assuming such a prominent spot “doesn’t seem to be consistent with where (the Browns’) lives together are heading” as Gov. Brown nears a potential end to decades in public service when his fourth term ends in 2018.
“It starts with (Gov. Brown) being utterly unpredictable,” Lockyer said. “It’s very hard to reliably forecast.”
Brown could also dip into the private sector. Prominent trial lawyer Joe Cotchett said the topic of a successor came up in recent conversations with the governor. Although Brown did not go into detail about whom he might appoint, Cotchett said, he made it clear he preferred a long-term choice. A Brown spokesman called a report that the two had discussed an appointment accurate.
“He only wanted someone who could win in 2018,” Cotchett said.
A longer-term choice could include any of a number of prominent district attorneys. That list includes Alameda County’s Nancy O’Malley, Los Angeles County’s Jackie Lacey, Santa Clara County’s Jeff Rosen, San Diego County’s Bonnie Dumanis and San Francisco’s George Gascón, as well as Los Angeles City Attorney Mike Feuer. Through staff, all of those district attorneys either declined comment or deflected the question by saying they were focused on their jobs. The platform of serving as attorney general would vault any of them into serious contention in a state campaign.
Another school of thought has Brown tabbing an ambitious legislator with a law degree and a war chest. Multiple lawmakers contacted for this story expressed interest but demurred, either in an interview or via staff, about the likelihood of such a move.
“I was totally flattered and deeply honored to be even mentioned,” said Assemblyman Mike Gatto, D-Los Angeles, who ha $2.1 million stashed in a campaign account to run for state treasurer at the end of June, is termed out and was named as a contender in the Nooner, a widely read political newsletter. “Whoever’s put in that job has the tremendous task of being thrown in the water and told to swim and oh, by the way, run for re-election immediately. It’s a very tough decision for the governor, and I think he’ll make a wise one.”
Multiple candidates have already set up committees to run. Among them are former Assemblyman Dario Frommer, Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones and San Bernardino County District Attorney Mike Ramos.
Frommer did not return requests for comment. Ramos would make an unlikely choice given that he is a Republican who has disagreed with Brown over policies like Proposition 57, the Democratic governor’s initiative to allow earlier parole for some felons designated as nonviolent.
“I’m a realist. I also know I’m a Republican and he’s a Democrat,” Ramos said, adding that his campaign is idling in “a pattern of wait-and-see” until the landscape becomes more clear. “If the person appointed attorney general continues down the path of really, I believe, hurting the public, our citizens, our victims, then I’m all in,” Ramos said.
Jones is said to have a frosty relationship with Brown, in part because of Jones’ work with the advocacy group Consumer Watchdog. That organization produced a report titled “Brown’s Dirty Hands,” which alleged Brown and allies circumvented campaign finance restrictions in order to accept money from the energy industry. Separately, the nonprofit filed a complaint alleging that McFadden violated conflict-of-interest rules by not properly disclosing holding stock in Pacific Gas and Electric Co. (A Brown spokesman called the charge “utterly baseless.”) Both allegations spurred the California Fair Political Practices Commission to open ongoing investigations.
In an interview, Jones said he has had his own clashes with Consumer Watchdog, calling the group “an equal-opportunity organization when it comes to criticizing elected officials.” Jones said he informed Brown’s office before he declared his candidacy but has not since discussed the subject with the administration.
“I think it’s fair to say every lawyer in the state would like to be appointed,” Jones said. “I wouldn’t even begin to speculate what his thinking is in that regard.”