Harris’ tough job is about to get much harder

California Attorney General Kamala Harris gives her first news conference in Los Angeles in November 2010. Harris now has her sights set on making a run for the U.S. Senate.
California Attorney General Kamala Harris gives her first news conference in Los Angeles in November 2010. Harris now has her sights set on making a run for the U.S. Senate. Associated Press file

While other politicians and would-be politicians coyly float trial balloons, Attorney General Kamala Harris became the first candidate to declare that she is running for U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer’s seat, a level of forthrightness that is praiseworthy.

However, the deadline for candidates to formally declare their candidacy to replace Boxer isn’t until March 16, 2016, 427 days from now, give or take, and the general election is not until Nov. 3, 2016. In other words, Harris will be attorney general for a long time.

Voters should not begrudge Harris her ambition. But she won a second four-year term to be attorney general two months ago, and took the oath of office for a second term only last week. As she knows well, being attorney general is a huge job. Californians have a right to expect that she won’t give it short shrift.

Certainly, other officeholders, except for the ones who must retire because of term limits, spend significant amounts of time running for their next jobs. But the senate campaign will be a huge undertaking.

Boxer raised $29 million for her 2010 re-election. That’s the starting point for the 2016 campaign. Amassing that kind of money will require that Harris travel beyond California’s sources of money, the Silicon Valley and Hollywood, to Washington, D.C., New York, Texas, Florida and Chicago.

Complicating her task, Harris will have to abide by federal campaign fundraising limits that are far stricter than California’s rather loose laws. Federal contribution caps are far lower than California’s generous limits.

All the while, Harris will need to focus on her day job. She has big ideas about the criminal justice system and how to reduce the revolving prison door. She should continue to push for changes in policy that might help reduce recidivism. She also has made clear that she intends to get involved in discussion of unreasonable use of force by police, another important issue.

Her inbox includes deciding which cases to appeal before the U.S. Supreme Court. One pending decision involves whether California will file an amicus brief in defense of Arizona’s independent redistricting commission.

The justices will decide later this year whether Arizona voters – and by extension California voters – have the right to use an initiative to decree that independent commissions can draw congressional boundaries.

If the high court sides with the Arizona Legislature, politicians would regain the power to gerrymander the lines to protect incumbents. Harris has not commented publicly about the issue, though an aide has said she will side with voters, as she should.

Harris oversees a law enforcement operation that combats human trafficking, drug rings, border crime and California’s strict gun and tobacco control law. Her attorneys are engaged in environmental and consumer protection, and handle appeals on behalf of the prosecution. She opposes capital punishment, but is appealing a federal judge’s decision declaring the death penalty to be unconstitutional.

All of this work will become more difficult in the months between now an Election Day 2016.

Harris never needed to say it. But from her first run for statewide office, she clearly had set her sights beyond the California Department of Justice.

Former Assembly Speaker and San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown was in Sacramento in January 2011 when Harris was sworn in the first time. Brown, who has assumed her next job would be governor, observed that Harris’ future electoral success required that “she must be the best attorney general ever.”

Harris has every right to run for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Boxer. She might make a fine senator. There is nothing wrong with ambition. But even as she runs, she must not lose sight of the job she has.