Kamala Harris and the New Democratic Hope

14 Jan 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

A Harris-Villaraigosa Senate Battle Could Split Hollywood Dems (Analysis).

The last time California had a male or Republican senator, George H.W. Here in California, it’s been a blockbuster week in politics: Barbara Boxer is finally stepping down as perma-Senator after over 20 years; former San Francisco mayor and current lieutenant governor Gavin Newsom is running for governor; and attorney general Kamala Harris gunning for Boxer’s soon-to-be-vacated seat. Weather anchors spoke about “these temperatures” and “a chill right down”; a weird, L.A.-like haze rested over the San Francisco Bay, and officials temporarily banned the burning of home fires. There’s certainly something compelling about Harris’ daring bid for US Senate: there are only one in five senators are female in this Congress; and there are only two black Senators currently (Cory Booker of New Jersey and Tim Scott from South Carolina). Harris’ decision — just five days after Boxer’s announcement that she would leave the Senate at the end of her term — appeared designed to discourage potential challengers and give her a head start on fundraising.

It seemed apt in this moment that Senator Barbara Boxer, who has represented California in Congress for the past thirty-two years, confirmed what had been widely assumed: she will not seek reëlection in 2016. If Harris won, she not only would contribute to the growing number of women in power, but having three actual black senators at one time would make history because, to date, two is the best we’ve been able to achieve as a nation. During her ten years in the House and twenty-two in the Senate, Boxer has been known for channelling the beliefs of a progressive mainstream—sexual equality, environmental preservation, and, often, anti-interventionism—at times when they seem to have too few powerful advocates.

It’s anybody’s guess which will be the fiercer contest, because a Harris-Villaraigosa match has the potential to deeply split the entertainment industry’s Democratic donors and activists. But she also embodies a particular generation of California liberal, and her retirement from Congress marks a shift in the progressive face of the state. She may have made it to the national stage when Barack Obama called her “the best looking attorney general in the country”, but Kamala Harris is now the odds-on favourite to become the next senator from California – and perhaps the nation’s next progressive star in the making. Allan Hoffenblum, publisher of the California Target Book, a political almanac, said Harris remains relatively unknown in parts of California, and he expects someone from the Hispanic community and the business sector to seek the office. “There’s just too many egos and ambitions out there,” Hoffenblum said. “If Kamala Harris does clear the field, I wouldn’t be surprised if the business community, which doesn’t really want another Barbara Boxer going to Washington, looks for somebody who would run as (an independent) candidate.” The 50-year-old Harris, the first woman and first minority to serve as California’s top prosecutor, launched her campaign in a video on her website. Both the attorney general, who announced her candidacy on Tuesday, and the ex-mayor, who is “seriously” exploring a bid, have deep ties to Hollywood major fundraisers and contributors.

Boxer joined the Senate in 1993, after a ten-year term as the congresswoman for California’s District 6, which at that point included a large swath of Marin and Sonoma Counties. She called herself a fighter — echoing a mantra often used by the liberal Boxer during her campaigns. “I will be a fighter for middle class families who are feeling the pinch of stagnant wages and diminishing opportunity,” Harris said. “I will be a fighter for our children who deserve a world-class education, and for students burdened by predatory lenders and skyrocketing tuition.

This was a young redoubt of merlot liberalism—comfortable, lefty, drawn to yoga and the raising of tomatoes—and Boxer entered politics representing its mores. California has outsized importance in the US economy: on its own, it is the world’s eighth-largest economy, just behind booming Brazil but ahead of Russia and Italy. Potential primary contenders include former Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and billionaire environmental activist Tom Steyer – both fierce liberals with nationwide notoriety of their own, and both of whom are said to be considering a run. And I will fight relentlessly to protect our coast, our immigrant communities and our seniors.” Steyer, a 57-year-old former hedge fund manager, said in a statement on his blog on The Huffington Post that Washington needs “climate champions” who will fight for the next generation.

Her first successful political campaign, for the Marin County board of supervisors, in 1976, promised “the new politics of the mid-70s, the politics of caring about people and their environment, with an equal concern about what happens to their money”—a perfect distillation of the region’s outlook, then and now. California’s contributions are one of the chief reasons the US remains the world’s biggest economy … and a black woman is poised to be one of the most nationally influential politicians in the state. California’s internal public policy tussles – and its standard more-liberal-than-the-nation solutions – often help lead the rest of the nation and the world forward, be it on pollution standards, minimum wage increases, medical marijuana legalization, organic produce certification, healthcare access for the uninsured, public-private technology innovation such as iHubs and tax breaks that encourage local production of zero-emission Teslas, same sex marriage and wetlands protections such as the CA Coastal Act of 1976. While the entertainment industry previously had avoided local campaigns, many of its heaviest hitters went all in for Villaraigosa, the one-time labor organizer whose life story and status as a Latino political pioneer, appealed to Hollywood. “People look at him as they would a movie star,” longtime public affairs consultant Kerman Maddox, a Villaraigosa fundraiser, said in an interview at the time. In Congress, Boxer was known for her popularity at home. (She won seventy-four per cent of the vote in the 1986 congressional race and nearly seven million votes in her 2004 Senate run, a record at the time.) She was a candidate suited to Democrats seasoned by the sixties: those who took issues of identity politics and sexual rights as givens, who were categorically suspicious of big, wealthy institutions (less so of big, wealthy liberals) and who saw personal passion as more crucial to the course of civic life than coalition politics.

California’s politicians can bring to Washington the ability to combine strong, safe regulatory experience with a booming economy and environmental protections, offering a compelling counter-point to Republicans who argue otherwise. The state attorney general has found herself in the midst of controversies over the years, but mostly she has climbed California’s political ladder by a careful strategy – perhaps “too cautious”, according to the Los Angeles Times editorial board – to establish her credentials for higher office. The ex-mayor further cemented his Hollywood ties with the prominent role he played nationally as a key player in Barack Obama’s outreach to the Latino community.

And, with the exception of Jerry Brown’s first stint as governor from 1975-1983, California internal top politics has been tended to be dominated by southern California figures like Ronald Reagan and Arnold Schwarzenegger – but Harris (and Newsom) are both northern California people through and through. Even before the burgeoning Senate bid, some giddy commentators predicted Harris might eventually run for the White House – the Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza once floated a theory that she could elbow aside Hillary Clinton to run for the top job in 2016. Just how concrete those ties are was demonstrated in Villaraigosa’s 2009 campaign for reelection, when he raised nearly $2 million in one night from Hollywood donors, including many of the industry’s deepest Democratic pockets.

Harris was born in Oakland, a progressive crucible, to high-flying, brainy parents: Donald Harris, a Jamaican American Stanford university economics professor, and Shyamala Gopalan, and India-born breast cancer specialist who taught at McGill University. Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de Leon, a Los Angeles Democrat who is close to Villaraigosa, said the contest should reflect the state’s diversity and Southern California “has to be part of this equation.” The names of at least a dozen other Democrats were circulating as possible candidates. Among them were sports agent Casey Wasserman (grandson of the legendary Lew Wasserman); Disney CEO Bob Iger; HBO Films president Colin Callender; media mogul Haim Saban; Laker great Magic Johnson; 20th Century Fox co-chairman Jim Gianopulos; director-producer Jerry Zucker; syndicated television mogul Michael King; writer-TV producers Linda Bloodworth-Thomason and Harry Thomason (both longtime friends of Bill and Hillary Clinton); superagent Patrick Whitesell; DreamWorks Animation CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg; then-William Morris chief Jim Wiatt; and News Corp.’s then-president Peter Chernin.

Though the Boxer voting record has its share of noteworthy outliers—she voted against the Iraq invasion, late-nineties financial deregulation, and the expansion of foreign surveillance, all of which placed her in opposition with the senior California senator Dianne Feinstein—her yeas and nays are not those of a maverick. And while Boxer, her fellow senator Dianne Feinstein and House minority leader Nancy Pelosi all hail from northern California, they spend much of their time in Washington DC – so Harris’s move to DC will provide us with a new generation of representatives steeped in the area’s emerging tech-focused culture. Her reputation as a front-guard liberal rises instead mainly from her flair for the legislative process, which in many cases has involved causing a scene. While I believe California has much to gain from politicians like Newsom and Harris who see their work as largely cooperative and people-focused – as opposed to the ideological culture warriors who normally represent us in national policy debates – there’s a long road ahead for each.

Harris is a friend of President Barack Obama and attracted national attention when she helped negotiate a settlement with major mortgage lenders and secured extra funding for California. As district attorney in San Francisco, she was California first African-American chief prosecutor and now serves as the state’s first black and Asian-American attorney general. (Her mother was an oncologist who emigrated from India and her father was a Jamaican-American.) Though a career prosecutor, she opposes the death penalty and has carved out a reputation as an advocate of progressive reforms in the criminal justice system. Boxer is rightly celebrated for leading a march to call for a hearing on Anita Hill’s harassment allegations before the confirmation vote on Clarence Thomas.

While serving two terms as San Francisco’s district attorney, Harris angered a police union by seeking life without parole, rather than execution, for a convicted cop killer, David Hill. More than fifteen years later, she stirred up controversy with her verbal sortie with Condoleezza Rice during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on the escalation of troops in Iraq. (“Who pays the price?” Boxer asked. “I’m not going to pay a personal price. Charm and pragmatism helped her repair relationships with police groups – a valuable dexterity in the post-Ferguson era that other local-turned-national political figures such as New York City mayor Bill de Blasio, among others, may envy. Abrams and Katie McGrath, authors Lisa Jones Johnson and Jarone Johnson, event producer Brent Bolthouse, director-producer Brett Ratner, Haim and Cheryl Saban, and former studio head and longtime Democratic stalwart Sherry Lansing. “Kamala has been developing a base in Hollywood for several years now and people are very excited and impressed by her,” one longtime Hollywood political consultant told THR. “For many people, she really represents the future.” Like Villaraigosa, Harris further strengthened her Hollywood ties when she took on a national profile as one of Obama’s early supporters. And it helps to account for why, in California, where that conscience took its firmest root, she’s been heralded not just as a senator but as a kind of soldier for the cause.

As the state’s chief law enforcement officer, Harris has focused her crime-fighting efforts on cross-border gangs that she says are increasingly engaged in high-tech crimes such as digital piracy and computer hacking to target businesses and financial institutions. By jumping out of the Senate race quickly, Politico reports, Newsom seems to call dibs on the governor’s race and push Harris toward the Senate. (Newsom legendarily hates his current job, where he’s had a distant relationship with Brown and been marginalized. Frustrated progressives also pushed back when Harris resisted demands for an independent prosecutor to investigate police brutality and ducked marijuana legalisation, leaving California’s drug policy in a legal limbo.

While their political genes are from the same family line—they, too, rally voters around issues like environmentalism, gun control, marriage rights, and immigration—the liberalism of today’s California has different features. Harris, who has told interviewers she’s something of a chef and turns off the hip-hop, reggae and jazz for CNN and MTV with 35 minutes on the treadmill (she’s “not a morning person”), has been dubbed the “female Obama”. So does billionaire Tom Steyer, who shot to prominence with his massive (and massively underwhelming) spending spree on behalf of candidates concerned about climate change. Gavin Newsom, the state’s lieutenant governor, was eyed as a front-runner for Boxer’s seat until publicly declining to run yesterday (presumably to stay free for a gubernatorial campaign in 2018). That is certainly a simplification – and she has reportedly been consulting the likes of potential Hillary Clinton campaign manager Stephanie Schriock – but when the Democratic party gave her a national platform with a speech at the 2012 nomination convention, she flubbed it.

Steyer, a hard-charging former hedge-funder who likes to be in charge and has never run for political office, doesn’t seem like a natural fit for the race or the seat. Tasked with touting Obama’s housing record – “that’s leadership!” – her delivery at the convention was widely panned as somewhat snooze-inducing, the lowlight being a Freudian slip when she called the opposing candidate “Miss Romney”, which woke up Twitter. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee issued a supportive statement but stopped short of endorsing Harris: “With strong candidates like Kamala Harris Democrats remain confident that we’ll hold this seat and continue Barbara Boxer’s long history of fighting for California.” Republicans like to believe they might have a shot at the seat, but, as Dave Weigel explains, that would require several prominent Democrats to run against each other in the state’s jungle primary—and even then it probably wouldn’t work. Whereas Boxer’s California liberalism was largely about identity politics, prickly public activism, and institutional safeguards, the new generation tends toward meritocratic logic, integrated privatization, and innovation.

Foes pounced on the chance to embarrass Obama and his protege. “Not awkward and perfectly fine for him to say, right?” tweeted the Republican National Committee. Carly Fiorina, a former Hewlett-Packard CEO who lost badly to Boxer in 2010, could run again too—though she currently seems more interested in a quixotic bid for the Republican presidential nomination, and is headed to New Hampshire in February. In a bizarre self-produced video announcing her Senate exit, Boxer allowed herself to be mock-interviewed by her grandson, who is wearing shorts. “I am never going to retire—the work is too important,” she says. “But you know what? And she’d be a bright spot for her party, which is struggling with a shallow bench and foreshortened electoral prospects after the midterm elections.

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