Democrat Kamala Harris of San Francisco and Republican Bonnie Dumanis of San Diego didn’t always agree.
But as their cities’ top prosecutors, they met often and shared an interest in reducing the revolving door of crime and improving the chances of former criminals rebuilding their lives. “I think it was clear she was a star from the beginning,” said Dumanis, the district attorney in San Diego.
“Part of what I admired about her is that she grew up within a DA’s office ... She’s worked her way from the bottom to the top.”
Harris, the state’s attorney general, formally entered the U.S. Senate contest on Tuesday to replace Democrat Barbara Boxer, casting her candidacy as a battle for the next generation of Californians.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Sacramento Bee
Harris, 50, becomes the first candidate to declare her intent since Boxer announced last week that she will not seek re-election in two years. Democratic Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom said Monday he wouldn’t challenge for the seat, and apparently will run for governor when Jerry Brown leaves office in 2018. Another position would come open that year if U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein decides to retire.
Harris pledged to forcefully represent the underserved.
“I will be a fighter for middle-class families who are feeling the pinch of stagnant wages and diminishing opportunity,” Harris said in a message to supporters. “I will be a fighter for our children who deserve a world-class education, and for students burdened by predatory lenders and skyrocketing tuition. And I will fight relentlessly to protect our coast, our immigrant communities and our seniors.”
Harris wades into what is expected to be a crowded and costly race, and the formal entry allows her to begin raising money in $2,600 increments.
Billionaire climate change activist Tom Steyer, former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, Treasurer John Chiang and several members of Congress, including Rep. Loretta Sanchez, are considering campaigns. Republicans have yet to field a candidate.
Steyer’s team has been logging hundreds of phone calls and emails to supporters and potential contributors to gauge what a statewide campaign might look like. He recently polled, and sees an opportunity for a campaign focused on providing the next generation a fair shake.
“Washington needs to be shaken up and we need climate champions who will fight for the next generation,” Steyer wrote in an essay on The Huffington Post. “California Democrats are blessed to have a deep bench of talent, and I will decide soon based on what I think is the best way to continue the hard work we have already started together.”
Meanwhile, Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León, who is close with Steyer and Villaraigosa, said he has yet to settle on a candidate and in the interim is focusing on ensuring that the field reflects the state’s ethnic and regional diversity.
“California’s electorate is rapidly changing, challenging past assumptions about how to win statewide elections,” he said. “It’s a state that’s much more diverse since the days that Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein ran. This is an opportunity to have a new generation represent the diversity of California.”
A former district attorney in San Francisco, Harris comes in with advantages. Bay Area voters participate at higher rates than those in Los Angeles, and Harris is admired by influential Democratic coalitions such as organized labor, environmentalists and multicultural communities. She may energize women in an election year expected to feature presidential candidate Hillary Clinton as the nominee.
Harris has campaigned for President Barack Obama and appeared as a speaker at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C. While in office, she took on many of the country’s biggest banks and is turning her attention to bias and excessive use of force by police officers.
Now among the state’s most compelling officials, her statewide ascent was nearly sidetracked before it began. Harris was credited with professionalizing and modernizing the district attorney’s office ahead of her run for state attorney general in 2010. In a tight race with Los Angeles District Attorney Steve Cooley, she was criticized by law enforcement associations for her personal opposition to the death penalty.
Harris won the race by less than 1 percent of the 10 million votes cast to become the state’s top law enforcement official. There, she offered ambitious plans to target truancy, violent gangs, prison recidivism rates and human trafficking. Answering concerns on her death penalty views, she promised “swift and certain” justice.
“The work she’s done across the state takes a look at social and societal ills – things that aren’t sexy to talk about but need to be addressed,” said Laphonza Butler, president of the Service Employees International Union.
Harris’ work on the mortgage crisis has drawn the most attention. In her first year in office, she considered a deal with some of the nation’s largest banks to help homeowners amid the foreclosure crisis. She concluded that the proposed $4 billion settlement wouldn’t do, and months later announced an $18 billion pact for Californians. Several hundred million more dollars have come in though separate mortgage settlements.
Brian Kabateck, former president of the Consumer Attorneys of California, said she is one of the few elected officials to hold lenders accountable. “I think she is phenomenal in that sense,” he said, recalling a conversation with Harris about her work in office.
“I told her, ‘You’re like the trial lawyer with the largest plaintiff’s firm in California,’ ” said Kabateck, who attended a recent event in Sacramento where Harris swore in Newsom.
Harris has not gone unblemished. She took heat for what critics call her office’s heavy-handed approach to crafting the titles and summaries of ballot measures. Sometimes, she demurs on controversial issues, resorting to talking points and generalities.
She was pilloried by conservatives for refusing to defend the state’s voter-approved initiative banning same-sex marriage. Frank Schubert, who ran the Proposition 8 campaign, said Harris and her predecessor Brown “violated her oath of office.” Schubert said such moves would not have been acceptable to the Democratic-leaning electorate had, for example, a Republican attorney general not defended the state’s landmark environmental protection laws.
“If Ms. Harris finds herself in a competitive race for the U.S. Senate, that decision to abandon the voters may come back to haunt her,” Schubert said. “What she did was profoundly wrong, and hopefully she comes to pay a price for it.”
After Proposition 8 was overturned, Harris officiated the state’s first same-sex wedding in years, a union between the Berkeley couple Kris Perry and Sandy Stier, two of the plaintiffs in the case that went before the U.S. Supreme Court.
Her national presence has grown, sometimes for reasons unrelated to her official duties. Appearing alongside Obama at a fundraiser in Atherton, the president described her as brilliant, dedicated, tough and “by far the best-looking attorney general.” He apologized after coming under fire, and she quickly accepted.
Meanwhile, Harris has worked to further enhance her profile in Southern California, where she’s lived part time since marrying Los Angeles attorney Douglas Emhoff last year. Ahead of her lopsided victory in November over little-known Republican Ron Gold, she ran TV ads that emphasized her work in office and ended with the kicker, “Kamala Harris: A prosecutor with conviction.”
“They were absolutely feel-good ads,” said Kabateck, who lives in Los Angeles.
Last week, Harris announced the formation of a bureau in her office to highlight crimes against children, including in the areas of adoption and foster care. She also used her inaugural speech at the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento to wade into the tense relations playing out across the country between police officers and African Americans.
Harris called for a review of special-agent training on bias and use of force, and said she would host a forum on the issue with law enforcement and community members. “We must acknowledge that too many have felt the sting of injustice,” she said.
Boxer’s seat: Who’s in, who’s out
California Sen. Barbara Boxer’s Thursday announcement that she would retire next year unleashed a wave of speculation about who will challenge for the seat. Where things stand with her would-be successors:
▪ Attorney General Kamala Harris: Harris announced Tuesday that she is running. “I will be a fighter for middle-class families who are feeling the pinch of stagnant wages and diminishing opportunity.”
▪ Former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa: “The urgency of the needs of the people of this great state have convinced me to seriously consider looking at running for California’s open Senate seat,” he said Saturday.
▪ Climate change activist Tom Steyer: The billionaire hedge-fund manager said Tuesday that “I will decide soon” about a Senate candidacy.
▪ Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom: The former San Francisco mayor, who rose to prominence after legalizing gay marriage in the city in 2004, announced Monday that he will pass. “It’s always better to be candid than coy,” he said.
▪ Secretary of State Alex Padilla: The only Latino in statewide office in California, Padilla’s jump to a Senate campaign would come awfully soon after his recent election as California secretary of state.
▪ Treasurer John Chiang: After nearly two decades in statewide politics, Chiang could have enough name recognition to make a run.
▪ Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones: Like Chiang, Jones was just re-elected in 2014 and would have a free ride at a long-shot bid.
▪ California Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León: One of the most prominent Latinos in California politics, de León has only recently begun to lead the Senate.
▪ Former Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg: Following a successful 14-year run in the state Legislature, Steinberg is looking for a re-entry into political office.
▪ Rep. Loretta Sanchez, D-Santa Ana: The nine-term congresswoman issued a statement Tuesday saying, “Californians deserve a strong voice in Washington. I’ve never been afraid to speak up, so I’m seriously considering running for the U.S. Senate in 2016.”
▪ Former state GOP chairman Duff Sundheim has opened an exploratory committee for a possible Senate run.
▪ Former state GOP chairman Tom Del Beccaro also is weighing a candidacy.
▪ Assemblyman Rocky Chavez, R-Oceanside, is considering a run.
▪ Former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice: A dream candidate for California Republicans, who have been wanting her to run for something – anything – for years.
▪ Former U.S. Senate candidate Carly Fiorina: The former Hewlett-Packard CEO suffered a bruising loss to Boxer in 2010, for which she still owes money. Recently, Fiorina has been floating her name for a possible presidential run in 2016 instead.
▪ San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer: As mayor of the second-biggest city in California, Faulconer has a platform but no statewide profile. He would also have to weigh his run against a mayoral re-election bid in 2016.
▪ Former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger
▪ Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin: Swearengin inspired immediate buzz when she announced her ultimately unsuccessful bid for state controller last year. She has yet to demonstrate she can raise real money, though.
▪ Former Rep. Doug Ose: Though coming off a narrow loss to Rep. Ami Bera in 2014’s most expensive House race, businessman Ose has shown previous interest in running for the Senate.
▪ Rep. Ed Royce: One of California’s most established Republican politicians, Royce would have to give up a safe House seat in Orange County and a powerful chairmanship in Congress’ new majority.
▪ Former gubernatorial candidate Neel Kashkari: The former U.S. Treasury official and political newcomer touted his economic credentials during a massive loss to Gov. Jerry Brown in November.
Alexei Koseff and Christopher Cadelago