Ambition is fine, but Newsom, Harris and others should focus on task at hand

Kamala Harris
Kamala Harris bnguyen@sacbee.com

As statewide officials not named Jerry Brown take their oaths of office today, each will be thinking about their next step up, if only in passing.

Knowing that Brown cannot run for a fifth term, some of them will cast their eye at the Governor’s Office. Seeing that Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein are closer to retirement, they will contemplate U.S. Senate runs in two or four years.

Gavin Newsom, Kamala Harris, Alex Padilla and the rest are smart, capable and ambitious. Like all ambitious people, they hope to rise. There is nothing wrong with that. Here’s our advice: Focus on the job you’ve got. While you’re at it, take stands, even if it means rubbing your campaign donors wrong.

As lieutenant governor, Newsom has little authority or staff. But he does sit on the California State University Board of Trustees and University of California Board of Regents. As the public university systems seek additional money, he should use those positions to help lead the debate.

Newsom remains engaged in efforts to further legalize marijuana. If that is to happen – we don’t think it should – there must be strict regulations for driving while under the influence, and ensuring that ads and marketing don’t target minors, for starters.

Unlike Newsom, who doesn’t often shy away from taking stands, Attorney General Harris seems to avoid contentious issues. She has not, for example, made clear her view on marijuana legalization. In the coming years, she ought to be less cautious.

In many ways, Padilla, the incoming secretary of state, has the greatest opportunity to make an impact that voters will see.

Padilla made a campaign promise to increase voter registration by a million people in the next four years. That’s hardly sufficient. Voter registration grew by 1.9 million between 2006 and 2010. He should aim for 2 million, at least, if not 3 million.

Padilla has an opportunity to enhance California’s campaign finance website. It was groundbreaking when Republican Secretary of State Bill Jones oversaw its creation 15 years ago. Not much has changed since, except that it crashes during times when it’s most used.

Incoming Treasurer John Chiang is giving up the Controller’s Office to Betty Yee, an outgoing Board of Equalization member. Chiang started, but by no means completed, making public employee salaries transparent on a database available to anyone with Internet access. Yee ought to follow through on that pledge by, at a minimum, adding names to recipients of the largest salaries.

Yee and Chiang will sit on the boards that oversee the massive California Public Employees’ Retirement System and California State Teachers’ Retirement System pension funds. They need to be stewards of the pension funds and of taxpayers’ money, which means not acceding to every wish of public employee unions.

During his first term, Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones hectored Covered California, this state’s version of Obamacare, and campaigned for Proposition 45, a failed measure that would have given his office greater control over health insurance.

In his second term, Jones, a potential candidate for attorney general, ought to find ways to help extend Covered California’s reach, while maintaining oversight of insurance carriers.

Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson won re-election with the aid of $11 million-plus from the California Teachers Association. At 65, Torlakson may be the one statewide officeholder who is not seeking higher office. Still, he ought to show some independence from his patron.

For now, all statewide offices are held by Democrats. That can and probably will change as California Republicans rebuild their party.

Party labels aside, the politicians who deserve to become governors and U.S. senators are the ones who work hard, display independence and authenticity, and understand they’re beholden to the citizenry, not their donors.