California's political dominoes teeter toward 2010

Legal News Line Nov. 12, 2008, 12:30pm

Kamala Harris

SAN FRANCISCO (Legal Newsline)-When San Francisco District Attorney Kamala Harris announced her intention to run for state attorney general in 2010 on Wednesday, it came with a caveat that she'll only run if current Attorney General Jerry Brown does not, thus becoming yet another Democratic Party domino waiting to fall in what may be a major California shake-up in 2010.

"You should know that I did not make this decision lightly," Harris wrote in an email announcing her candidacy. "Many of you have been urging me to run for some time and it was only after much personal deliberation and consultation with my family that I arrived at this decision. You should also know that I will not run against the Democratic incumbent should he seek reelection."

The first domino fell - more like crashed with thundering applause - on Election Day as the city erupted in scattered parties from Union Square to the Castro District's blocked off streets as the announcement came that Sen. Barack Obama would become the next President of the United States.

As the city shook with euphoria over the election of the country's first black president, which officially began the end of President Bush's administration, powerhouse Democrats slowly started shifting into place like a meandering line of dominoes ready to topple, one after another, from Sen. Dianne Feinstein to Attorney General Jerry Brown to San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom and on to a host of others like Harris, whose specific political plans for 2010 depend on those in line ahead of her.

New poll, same results

Speculation over who would run for governor in this nation-state centers on the Democrats two biggest names - Feinstein and Brown - who both have expressed interest in following Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who will be termed out in 2010.

In a Field poll released on Wednesday, Feinstein again easily outdistanced other potential Democratic candidates for governor as the best known and most favorable. Feinstein had a 50 percent favorability rating as compared to 39 percent unfavorable and just 11 percent offering no opinion.

Brown, clearly the favorite should Feinstein choose to remain in Washington, polled an identical 34 percent favorable and unfavorable, with 32 percent offering no opinion.

The results were less encouraging for the other candidates in the poll including Newsom, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Lt. Gov. John Garamendi, the only candidate who has announced he will run, regardless of Feinstein's decision. Newsom's unfavorable rating hit 41 percent. More than half the voters had no opinion of Garamendi, despite nearly 30 years in state politics including a run for governor in 2006. Villaraigosa had just a 28 percent favorable rating.

As for the top three Republican names - former eBay CEO Meg Whitman, former Congressman Tom Campbell and State Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner - more than two-thirds of those polled offered no opinion about any of them.

This poll echoes a summer poll that showed Feinstein -- a former San Francisco Mayor who has always wanted to be governor -- would start the race with a huge lead in favorability and name recognition over all other comers, including Brown.

But Feinstein now has to weigh a choice between a risky election, with the prize at the end a multi-billion dollar budget deficit and a cantankerous Legislature, or a return to the comforts of the Democratic-controlled Congress and a presidential ally. Some have speculated she could become the first female to chair the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Brown has aggressively been raising funds which, he told Legal Newsline, speaks for itself when assessing his interest in running for governor. But it is unclear if Brown wants to challenge Feinstein, a political ally for nearly half a century who officiated his wedding in 2004.

Most political insiders believe Newsom and Villaraigosa would make way for the senator should she jump in the race, but probably would run against Brown if she does not.

Once those dominos fall, then lesser-known candidates like Harris, will know which way they will be pushed.

Harris a 'rising star'

Harris, 44, is clearly a hot ticket following Obama's victory. She offered early support for the President-Elect in California, as others like Newsom and Villaraigosa backed Sen. Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primary. Harris stood on the stage in Springfield, Ill., when Obama first announced his candidacy, and traveled to several states to campaign for him, sealing the relationship for future political campaigns of her own.

If Harris won the post, she would become the state's first female attorney general, the state's first black attorney general and the state's first Indian American attorney general. Her father is an Indian American physician and her mother a Jamaican American economist. She boosted her exposure during the president-elect's campaign, often appearing on talk shows on his behalf.

Harris wrote in her email that she has an ambitious plan if she becomes the next attorney general.

"I can tell you from the frontlines," Harris said, "we need tough new ideas for strengthening our criminal justice system in California. As Attorney General, I will fight for all Californians - from distressed homeowners to families whose neighborhoods are under siege. In the coming months, I will detail new ideas on how we can fight street gangs, go after subprime lenders and others responsible for the financial crisis, and fundamentally reform our prison system."

Political commentator Frank Russo, who called Harris a "rising star" among Democrats, said on his blog Wednesday Harris has many potential options ahead.

"The other caveat as to a Harris run for AG is that she has national prominence and may be asked to play a major role in the Obama administration," Russo wrote.

Harris is not the first Democrat to announce they are waiting for Brown to make up his mind. Several months ago, former Assemblyman Joe Canciamilla, D-Martinez, said he too would run for the attorney general's post if Brown decides to step aside.

As each domino falls, several others will be knocked forward, falling off in various directions. Though none will fall as big as President-Elect Obama, the whole political line-up will take months to fully play out. Whether it represents sweeping change or more of the same won't be decided fully until the next election.

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