Kamala Harris Redefining the Job of Attorney General
California Attorney General Kamala Harris during her 2014 campaign. (Jason Merritt/Getty Images)
California's attorney general is often known as the state's "top cop." And to be sure, Kamala Harris has done her share of "law and order" press conferences announcing drug busts and gang takedowns.
But, as she heads into Tuesday's election, Harris has clearly emphasized different priorities than her predecessors.
One of Harris' new TV ads makes clear how different she is from previous attorneys general. The ad features a smiling Harris sitting around a classroom table with young schoolkids.
"If you're chronically truant from elementary school, you are four times more likely to drop out and become a perpetrator or a victim of crime," Harris says in the commercial. "That's why we're taking on the truancy crisis in the California Department of Justice."
The ad ends with a smiling Harris high-fiving all the children. It is, Harris acknowledges, a distinctly different emphasis from the typical "lock 'em up and throw away the key" approach to law enforcement.
"I think we have accepted a false choice, which suggests that one can either be soft on crime or tough on crime, instead of asking, 'Are we smart on crime?'" Harris said this week. She compares law enforcement with public health -- favoring prevention over treatment.
"If the sniffles (come) on, then it's early intervention," she says. "But if we're dealing with it in the emergency room or the prison system, it's much too late and it's far too expensive."
Harris has made reducing truancy a cornerstone of her job. Yet an A.G. has little direct impact over that. And Gov. Jerry Brown recently vetoed two anti-truancy bills she was pushing.
But Imperial County District Attorney Gilbert Otero, who heads the state association of DA's, appreciates Harris using the bully pulpit on issues like truancy.
"Truancy is a big issue" Otero said. "If the attorney general comes down and starts talking about something like that, then you know I'm all for it."
Two years ago, as California was drowning in home foreclosures, Harris took a big gamble. She walked away from national settlement talks between the Obama administration and several big banks.
Five months later, she announced a separate deal, which she called "the California commitment."
"The deal that is specific to California includes $12 billion of principal reductions and short-sale relief for California homeowners," Harris said at a press conference covered by national media outlets.
The agreement was hailed as a huge win for California -- and it earned Harris a splashy profile in the New York Times. But two years later, how much benefit have homeowners actually seen from that $12 billion?
According to Bruce Marks, director of the nonprofit Neighborhood Assistance Corporation of America, the headlines didn't match the results.
"You know she did stand up, she did take on the banks," Marks said. "But you know we haven't seen the significant impact for California homeowners like we would have expected to see."
Marks, who brags he "terrorizes" bankers, has helped win mortgage relief for thousands of homeowners across the nation. While Harris acknowledges some glitches in how the agreement was implemented, her office points to a report from the state monitor overseeing the deal, which said that big banks actually exceeded the relief Harris negotiated.
So how effective has Kamala Harris been? Robert Weisberg, co-director of the Criminal Justice Center at Stanford, notes that for better or worse, Harris is defined by the style and panache she brings to the job.
"She's so good at it there will be those who say, 'Oh my God, she's just so charismatic, I'm overwhelmed, I'm dazzled,'" Weisberg jokes.
"And there are those who say, 'Ah, it's all just style, it's not substance.' "
Harris dismisses comments like that, or President Obama's observation that she is "by far the best-looking attorney general" in the country, as "distractions."
Weisberg notes that despite perceptions of the A.G. as the state's top law enforcement official, California limits the powers of the attorney general.
But he adds that Harris' use of the office to promote issues like rehabilitation over incarceration comes as external forces, like the federal court order to reduce the state's prison population, were upending all the normal assumptions about criminal justice in California.
"Things are changing because of all kinds of forces," Weisberg said, "and she is, shall we say, participating in the change."
Harris did lead the charge on another change. After two gay couples sued to overturn Proposition 8, the ban on same-sex marriage in California, the attorney general (like her predecessor Jerry Brown) refused to defend it in court.
That, along with Harris's argument that Prop. 8's proponents didn't have legal standing to defend it either, infuriated conservative groups, including the Pacific Legal Foundation and its attorney, Harold Johnson.
"It's more than troubling," Johnson says. "It's actually shocking. The attorney general is the people's attorney and has a constitutional obligation to defend the laws enacted by the people and the constitutional framework."
But Kate Kendell of the National Center for Lesbian Rights says Harris' decision not to defend Prop. 8 as a brand-new attorney general came with some political risk.
"She demonstrated the courage of doing the right thing for all the right reasons, even though there were certainly some who were whispering to her that it wasn't politically expedient," Kendell said.
Some critics of Harris say she's been too timid when aggressive action was called for. After a PG&E pipeline exploded in 2010, killing eight people in San Bruno, the city's Mayor Jim Ruane was disappointed that Harris seemed indifferent to launching an independent investigation of the utility.
"She's the top cop in the state of California and we believe it should have been her initiative. She should have taken the initiative in the very beginning to pursue what we deemed were wrongdoings," Ruane says.
He and others, like state Sen. Jerry Hill, wanted Harris to do her own independent investigation of PG&E. Harris' office counters that the attorney general did work closely with the U.S. attorney and local officials in San Mateo County -- a collaboration that resulted in a federal grand jury indictment of PG&E.
And according to a recent Sacramento Bee article, Harris opened up a separate investigation into the gas line explosion and the California Public Utility Commission and its allegedly cozy relationship with PG&E.
Other critics, like Harris' Republican opponent Ron Gold, say the attorney general is turning a blind eye to political corruption. On KQED's public affairs show Forum recently, the former prosecutor criticized Harris for going easy on Democrats caught in FBI stings at the state Capitol.
"A.G. in her doesn't stand for 'almost governor,'" Gold said. "I think she's sitting this one through, sitting on her duff, and I think she needs to be more of an activist. She needs to do her job."
This time, unlike four years ago when Harris squeaked past L.A. District Attorney Steve Cooley, she's sitting on more than $2 million in campaign cash while her opponent struggles to get attention.
Meanwhile, she, along with Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, is widely considered to be eyeing a run for governor in four years when Jerry Brown will be termed out.
NOTE: This story was modified to clarify that the Pacific Legal Foundation's primary objection was Kamala Harris's arguing that Prop. 8's proponents didn't have legal standing to defend it in court.