Dan Morain

January 9, 2011

Harris should focus on her job

Here’s a fundamental rule of politics: Any time a politician selects two former U.S. secretaries of state to serve as advisers, you can figure that the politician has big plans, like Kamala Harris.

Former Secretaries of State Warren Christopher and George Shultz are co-chairmen of Harris’ transition team, erasing any doubt that she is looking beyond her current gig as California’s new attorney general.

Either that, or Harris will have the best darned foreign policy of any attorney general in America.

Harris would have plenty to do within this state’s borders, if she’s interested. She heads the 4,500-person Department of Justice, and can deploy attorneys and agents to defend civil rights, and combat fraud, corruption and organized crime.

The job also is a steppingstone. Four of the last 12 attorneys general have become governor. As if to highlight that point, Harris invoked the name of one of those attorneys general who became governor, Earl Warren, no fewer than six times in her 28-minute inaugural speech this week.

Harris is living loud and large, having written a book about her crime-fighting philosophy. National television news shows portray her as a new-wave prosecutor intent on curbing recidivism. Politico dubbed her the “Democrat’s anti-Palin.”

It’s the sort of stuff that gives jaded prosecutors the impression that each attorney general cares less about the office’s important work and more about their own political future than the last.

Perhaps Harris will be an exception.

“I want to be the best attorney general that California can have,” she said, annoyed that her stated goal of doing an excellent job gets mistaken for ambition for higher office.

On her first full day in office, she spent an hour and a half meeting career deputies in her 17th-floor suite in the Department of Justice building, no press allowed, lest the staff think she was using it as a photo op. Nice touch.

Part prosecutor, part politician, Harris, 46, was elected San Francisco district attorney twice before she eked out her first statewide win in November by besting Los Angeles District Attorney Steve Cooley by eight-tenths of 1 percent.

She already had a national profile and friends in high places. In the frigid winter of 2007-08, she knocked on doors in Des Moines for her friend Barack Obama. President Obama returned the favor this fall by visiting Atherton to raise money for Harris’ campaign.

On the night in 1995 when Willie Brown was elected San Francisco mayor, Harris was there to present him with a baseball cap with the words “Da Mayor” written across the front.

Brown wore a more characteristically dapper silver fedora and sat up front at the courtyard of the California secretary of state’s building when Harris took her oath.

Willie Brown predicts Harris will be governor after Jerry Brown, with a caveat: “She must be the best attorney general ever and she has to not evidence any interest in being governor.”

So far, there is plenty of evidence that she’s running. Her inauguration lasted almost twice as long as Jerry Brown’s swearing-in, and she promised much more. She promised to defend the environment against “Big Oil,” enforce the state’s greenhouse gas reduction law, and protect civil rights, workers’ rights and privacy rights.

She pledged to fight for same-sex marriage, combat truancy, reduce recidivism and wage war on mortgage fraud, organized crime, drug gangs and pedophiles, particularly those who use the Internet to snatch their prey.

There were omissions on her very long to-do list. There was no talk of defending the state against lawsuits, or representing voter-approved initiatives, even ones liberals hate. There was no mention of the thankless job of representing the government in death penalty cases. None of that lends itself to soaring rhetoric.

John Van de Kamp was aggressive on behalf of consumers and environment when he was attorney general in the 1980s. He understands the office’s power and its potential. He also knows the flip side of challenging interests.

“The more you do in the job, the more enemies you accrete,” said Van de Kamp, never a great candidate, who lost the 1990 Democratic primary for governor.

It’s heady to be a contender for governor, maybe the front-runner. Harris has the talent to rise. But first, she needs to tend to the job she has and leave foreign policy to her pal in the White House. For now.

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