Kamala Harris, Antonio Villaraigosa

Attorney General Kamala Harris , right with Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, speaks at a news conference regarding criminal and civil responses to mortgage fraud in Los Angeles Monday, May 23, 2011. (AP Photo/Nick Ut)


The rush by Democrats in Washington to back California’s Kamala Harris for Senate raises hackles.

By Alex Isenstadt
1/21/15 – 8:03 PM EST

The procession of prominent Washington Democrats who lined up last week to sing the praises of California Attorney General Kamala Harris for Senate had the feel of an anointment. Sen. Cory Booker said he was “so excited” about her candidacy. Sen. Elizabeth Warren called Harris, a favorite of the Obama White House, “smart” and “tough.” Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand told supporters she needed Harris “by my side.”

But back in California, a backlash is brewing among Latinos, who say the Democratic establishment’s quick embrace of Harris threatens to deny a Hispanic candidate a fair shot at the state’s first open Senate seat in more than two decades. Latinos are an outsize force in California politics: With nearly 40 percent of the population, they have moved ahead of whites to become the state’s largest demographic group. Since 1990, Latino representation in the Legislature has more than tripled, and Hispanics have been chosen in recent years to lead both chambers of the state Capitol.

Nothing against Harris, Latino officials say, but there needs to be a level competition for the seat that Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer is vacating in 2016.

“National figures should slow their roll a bit and allow this process to evolve naturally so we can all rally around one strong Democratic candidate,” said state Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León, a Los Angeles Democrat.

“I think Hispanic leaders are concerned about some kind of coronation, as opposed to a real electoral campaign,” added Arturo Vargas, the executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials. “There are certainly talented Latinos who could run for that seat.”

A number of possible Latino candidates have been floated as possible candidates since Boxer announced her retirement earlier this month, from Rep. Xavier Becerra, the House Democratic Caucus chairman, to Alex Padilla, the just-elected California secretary of state. But most of the speculation has centered on Antonio Villaraigosa, the colorful and ambitious 61-year-old former Los Angeles mayor. In recent days, prominent Hispanics across the country have urged Villaraigosa to jump in, frustrated by the clamor for Harris before the race has really begun.

Among the Villaraigosa suitors has been Henry Cisneros, the former Housing and Urban Development secretary. The two spoke by phone over the weekend, and in an email, Cisneros said he expected Villaraigosa — whom he hailed as a “trailblazer in a California Latino tradition that is proud and rich in history” — to enter the race.

During a recent meeting on Capitol Hill, members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus voiced concern about the developments in the California race. “It’s a little premature to assume there’s only going to be one Democratic candidate,” one of the group’s leaders, California Rep. Tony Cardenas, said in an interview. He has also urged Villaraigosa to run.

Cardenas, who represents a Los Angeles-area district, argued that any Hispanic Democrat from Southern California would have a larger base of support than Harris, who is from the Bay Area, a less population-rich part of the state.

The flare-up is a rare recent instance of tension inside the Democratic tent. Most of the intraparty battles in congressional elections lately have been on the Republican side — tea party activists accusing national Republicans of playing favorites in primaries and supporting candidates deemed more moderate. Democratic leaders have, by and large, avoided taking sides in primaries.

But Democratic officials say they have good reason to back Harris, the contest’s only announced candidate, early on. In California, the top two finishers in the June primary advance to the general election regardless of party affiliation, so a large group of Democratic candidates could, in theory, splinter the vote and allow a Republican to make the runoff. In lining up behind Harris, Democrats say they are discouraging a crowded field from developing.

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