Sex-photo conviction shows Kamala Harris' edge in Senate race

Sex-photo conviction shows Kamala Harris' edge in Senate race
California Atty. Gen. Kamala D. Harris speaking Tuesday at a Los Angeles news conference on the conviction of 28-year-old Kevin Christopher Bollaert of San Diego on extortion and other charges stemming from his posting of naked photos of women on the Web without their consent. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

Incumbency can be a big asset to elected officials who aspire to higher office, and that maxim was on full display Tuesday when state Atty. Gen Kamala Harris hailed the conviction of a man who posted naked photos of women online without their consent.

Harris, a Democrat running for U.S. Senate, summoned TV news crews to her Los Angeles office to publicize her office's prosecution of Kevin Christopher Bollaert of San Diego.


The 28-year-old man was convicted of extortion and identity theft Monday after posting naked and sexually explicit photos of his victims, then charging them $250 to $350 to remove them from his websites.

"Yesterday the jury sent an important message: Bollaert's actions are illegal, and they won't be tolerated in California, and if you run a website like this, you're going to go to prison," Harris told reporters in a setting that resembled the White House press room, blue curtain backdrop and all.

Good policy is good politics, advisors to incumbents often say. In this case, the merit of the prosecution speaks for itself, as does the value of drawing attention to it.

But the political subtext of Harris's news conference was hard to miss. The venue was not the state capital or San Francisco, where Harris was district attorney for eight years, but Southern California, where she spent more than $1.2 million in reelection advertising last year to raise her profile. (She faced an opponent who stood virtually no chance of unseating her.)

Los Angeles, not incidentally, is also the hometown of Antonio Villaraigosa, the former mayor who is considering a run for Senate.

If he joins the race, Villaraigosa will instantly become Harris' chief rival. And a top imperative for Harris will be to undercut him on his own turf, an effort already apparent in her recent announcement that City Council President Herb Wesson, a longtime Villaraigosa ally, was backing her candidacy.

Harris, who is running to succeed Democratic incumbent Barbara Boxer, is also trying to maximize her appeal among women, who tend to vote in bigger numbers than men in California.

In that context, Harris' 20-minute discussion of the Bollaert case with reporters Tuesday fit her political needs.

She castigated Bollaert for embarrassing and degrading women for financial gain. One victim was a teacher, Harris said. Another ran a daycare center, and another was married to a military service member then deployed in Iraq. One attempted suicide.

On his websites, Harris said, Bollaert allowed visitors to post comments insulting the victims.

"There were threats of rape," she said. "There were threats of assault. The names and the words used against these innocent victims were enough to make anyone cringe."

With the June 2016 primary still 16 months away, Harris has ample opportunity to gain wider public recognition and build a favorable image among key constituencies just by doing her job more publicly.

As for the Senate race, for which Harris has been assiduously raising money for weeks, she declined Tuesday to take questions on that topic.

"We're in a state office building," Harris said. "And I'm not going to talk about politics now."


Twitter: @finneganLAT