Thursday, February 17, 2011




Gravitas is the single attribute most essential for any new California attorney general to be taken seriously and operate effectively.

It’s a quality California’s new Democratic Attorney General Kamala Harris couldn’t quite establish in six years as district attorney of San Francisco and a year on the campaign trail running for her new office.

She has glamour. She appeals to celebrities. The “transition leadership team” she set up just days after the final vote count on November’s election established her as a razor-thin winner over Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley, with a margin of about one-half of 1 percent, established those two qualities, but raised doubts about how seriously she can be taken.

The big names on her “team” (it’s not quite clear what they actually did) included former Los Angeles Police Chief William Bratton, former Secretaries of State Warren Christopher and George Schultz, longtime liberal Los Angeles lawyer Connie Rice and Kathleen Sullivan, former dean of the Stanford Law School. Harris is also a personal friend of President Obama.

The question when she announced her team and its several committees was why? The announcement came less than three weeks before she was to assume office, so it was hard to see what they could accomplish, especially since no meeting dates were announced.

In fact, the transition team Harris announced dwarfed anything Gov. Jerry Brown did between the election and his inauguration. Brown named just a few new officials during that time and set up no committees, while employing no celebrities at all.

Maybe Harris recruited her big-name team members (even if she has made no discernable use of their talents) because she felt somewhat insecure. Her victory margin was the narrowest among statewide winners in the last decade. Some analysts thought she won the Democratic nomination (just barely) last spring mainly because she was the only woman in a field of six credible candidates and because her name recognition factor was highest in the field after being highly visible in San Francisco.

Starting out by calling the criminal justice system “broken” might also not play so well with the unpretentious but tough new governor, who was himself attorney general until Jan. 4.

Harris also must overcome a wide perception that her signature program as district attorney, a job-training system for 18-24 year-old low-level drug offenders called “Back on Track,” was nothing special at best and an abysmal failure at worst.

One nasty example of an individual who came through that program was Alexander Izaguirre, who avoided prison by entering the training program even though he was an illegal immigrant and would not have been eligible to hold any job he trained for. While out of prison, Izaguirre mugged former San Francisco resident Amanda Kiefer and fractured her skull.

Harris reworked the program after realizing illegal immigrants were enrolled, saying “I believe we fixed it.”

The low-level offenders in that program were nothing compared to the criminals Harris might have to deal with if county jails can’t handle the prisoners Brown proposes sending back to them as part of his budget plan.

Her signature issue, she says, will be trying to stop recidivism, the common phenomenon of released prisoners committing new crimes and returning to prison. A 2010 UC Berkeley study indicated that having a job is the key factor that helps some ex-convicts stay out of prison, so look for Harris to start another job-training program to go along with the education programs prisons have run for decades. If she can get the money to do that.

“We need to bring new methods to bear on key areas such as gang crime, truancy, protecting our environment, combating mortgage fraud and identity theft,” she said.

There are already laws governing all those areas, and like any attorney general, Harris will be able to choose which ones she tries to enforce and which ones she’ll ignore.

As she adjusts to far wider responsibilities than she’s ever had, Harris might be viewed as a new “wunderkind,” in the mold of Obama in 2007-8. She’s the first African-American statewide officeholder in almost three decades and the first Indian-American one ever. She can be a frequent national talk-show guest if she wishes.

But that’s all in the glamour/celebrity department. If Harris wants to advance to the next level and be a serious contender for governor in 2014 or beyond, she’ll need to establish herself as someone to be taken seriously, too.

Step one might be to avoid any more grandstanding moves like her pointless “transition team” announcement.

Email Thomas Elias at His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough," is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit

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