Harris must focus, be more forceful

08/24/2014 6:39 PM

08/24/2014 6:40 PM

Attorney General Kamala Harris almost certainly will lead California’s Department of Justice for the next four years, appropriately so.

The weakened California Republican Party failed to recruit a candidate to seriously challenge Harris’ reelection to the most important statewide office that is not governor or Supreme Court justice.

In her first four years as attorney general, Harris has focused on consumer issues, suing for-profit Corinthian Colleges for misleading students, and wresting tens of billions of dollars from settlements of nationwide lawsuits by the federal government to assist individuals and regions affected by the housing crisis. Nowhere was that crisis more prevalent than the Northern San Joaquin Valley.

She has supported gun control, helped implement Gov. Jerry Brown’s criminal justice realignment, tried to bring attention to human trafficking, and highlighted threats posed by transnational organized crime. In 2013, she refused to appeal the court decision overturning Proposition 8, the 2008 initiative that sought to ban same-sex marriage. It was an important political and moral stand, and one popular with her Democratic base.

Still, the state’s top lawyer has displayed an unwillingness to take risks. She could be more aggressive on public corruption cases, though her handlers might worry that would cause friction with fellow Democratic politicians. She should raise privacy issues, though that might upset Silicon Valley interests.

She has ducked taking stands on Internet gambling, which is supported by wealthy casino tribes, and marijuana legalization, which is increasingly popular among voters but also would have public safety implications.

Voters deserve to know her views on Vergara v. California, which could become a landmark challenge to the state’s teacher tenure rules. Harris says she is precluded from discussing the case because her office represents the state.

Harris’ opponent, Los Angeles attorney Ron Gold, has little campaign money or organization. He supports marijuana legalization, but does not appear to have thought through basic details. Gold could not articulate a clear view about whether marijuana purveyors should be permitted to advertise their product if it is legalized, and what impact widespread advertising might have on children.

The GOP’s failure to recruit a worthy opponent to Harris is surprising, given that George Deukmejian, who became governor, and Dan Lungren, a former congressman, held the post in recent decades, and Cooley nearly won four years ago.

The attorney general is entrusted with an office that has a great tradition, and long has attracted talented lawyers who are more interested in a mission than money. Giants have held the post, including Earl Warren, who became chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court; Pat Brown, who became governor; and Stanley Mosk, who served more than three decades on the California Supreme Court.

Harris could become a solid attorney general. But deputies attorney general don’t see her as particularly committed to the work of the office. She rarely is sighted in Sacramento, where much of the Department of Justice is located.

She spends much of her time in Los Angeles and San Francisco, smart politics for an aspiring governor or U.S. senator. She must know that how she handles her current job will help determine whether she wins another job.

Harris has had months to fill one of the most important positions, chief assistant attorney general for the criminal division, and took months to fill the head of the civil division earlier in her tenure.

Harris’ re-election is as close to a fait accompli as there is in politics. She has done nothing that would warrant denying her a second term. In that second term, she should focus on running the office and taking some stands, even if that means crossing potential supporters.

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