Kamala Harris

By Howard Mintz
hmintz@mercurynews.com
Posted: 04/04/2015 – 08:50:03 AM PDT

Kamala Harris, California’s attorney general and the clear front-runner for an open U.S. Senate seat, has an unusual image problem.

Over the past five years, she has taken on the nation’s largest banks, tried to curb school truancy, pursued international crime rings, rapped the knuckles of billion-dollar cellphone carriers, fought for gay marriage rights and stared down wealthy health care magnates.

But Harris’ style and near-incandescent political star power often seem to overshadow her substance. After all, state attorneys general don’t typically wind up on “Oprah” — much less get praised for their good looks by the president of the United States.

This newspaper’s review of Harris’ tenure as the state’s 32nd attorney general, undertaken as her early entry in the Senate race dissuaded potential contender after contender, shows her to be something of a paradox. She’s often viewed as politically fretful and overly cautious, but at times she’s surprisingly willing to take risks.

One thing is clear: She’s avoided major stumbles that might sidetrack her quest to succeed U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer, who decided not to seek re-election in 2016.

“I think she’s been a little more surgical in her priorities,” said Richard Frank, who was former Attorney General Bill Lockyer’s chief deputy. “I think she’s very politically savvy, and that political acumen has served her well.”

In an interview with this newspaper, the 50-year-old Harris used phrases such as “smart on crime” and “people’s lawyer” to describe her approach as California’s top law enforcement official. And while she concedes it will become tougher to separate political considerations from decision-making now that she’s running for senator, she disputes criticism that she can be too political.

“I consciously try to avoid that,” Harris said. “I’ll be judged on the body of work and not the popularity of any one decision.”

To be sure, Harris has on occasion been judged by her public persona and panache.

At a Silicon Valley fundraiser two years ago, President Barack Obama famously called her “the best-looking attorney general in the country,” which caused a stir with just about everyone but Harris. And her status as a Democrat to watch nationally was cemented with her invitation to speak at the party’s 2012 nominating convention.

But there have also been plenty of policy and legal decisions to judge how Harris is doing her job.

Viewed by critics as a finger-in-the-wind pol, Harris nevertheless has taken the risk of going toe-to-toe with the banking and health care industries, walking away from blockbuster deals to exact better ones. Greeted coolly by major law enforcement organizations when first narrowly elected in 2010, she has clearly won some of them over, even while shifting away from the more traditional model of attorneys general emphasizing tough-on-crime agendas.

Harris has talked truancy and privacy rights, not three-strikes-and-you’re-out — apparently without political peril.

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