Harman Exploring Bid for Governor


The late-hour jockeying for a spot in California’s upcoming governor’s race continued Wednesday with Rep. Jane Harman, a wealthy and moderate Los Angeles Democrat, indicating through her aides that she is exploring a bid.

Harman, who is said to have a considerable fortune of her own that she could spend in a statewide race, was one of the key Democrats urging U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein to enter the race.

When Feinstein declined last week, Harman suggested that the remaining field of two Democratic candidates--Lt. Gov. Gray Davis and former Northwest Airlines chief Al Checchi--needs a woman.


Harman’s late entry--with less than a week left until the filing deadline--and her lack of familiarity to state voters would pose formidable challenges to her candidacy, political analysts said.

But her supporters also said she has been encouraged to run by several leading Democrats who are unimpressed with Checchi and Davis. Other political insiders also described her as one of the few state politicians who might be able to finance a major last-minute campaign.

“There is no question she would be financially viable,” one consultant said.

Washington’s Roll Call magazine recently estimated her assets at about $15 million. But another California political observer estimated her wealth--largely from her husband’s major audio equipment manufacturing company--in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

“A number of people approached her after Feinstein’s withdrawal, and she is in the process of considering the race,” said Mike Monasmith, Harman’s spokesman in her Washington office.

Monasmith declined to elaborate and Harman was unavailable for comment. But Democratic political watchers said the congresswoman has been calling supporters and strategists to discuss the feasibility of mounting a campaign.

Roy Behr, a former advisor in Harman’s congressional races, said she has talked to him for unofficial and friendly advice about the chances of her success in the governor’s race.


“She would bring some real assets to the race,” he said. “She would be the only woman candidate in the race. . . . And she is a very successful fund-raiser.”

Money is always a major issue for candidates attempting to win statewide office in a place as large as California. But this time it has been an even larger prerequisite because Checchi has indicated that he will spend up to $50 million of his estimated $550-million fortune on the contest.

Few political observers were able to speculate how much Harman might be able or willing to spend on a contest. But they said her own resources, combined with past demonstration of fund-raising ability, could make her a viable challenger to Checchi and Davis, the only one of the three who has already won statewide office.

Harman, 52, a former legislative director to U.S. Sen. John Tunney in 1972 and 1973, first won election to the House in 1992. Her South Bay district stretches from Venice to San Pedro.

The race for one of California’s most competitive House seats cost $2.3 million, much of which Harman contributed herself.

She narrowly won her next two elections after outspending the same Republican opponent--Susan Brooks--more than 2 to 1 both times. Harman did not use her own money for her 1994 and 1996 reelections. Both times she won with just 48% of the vote.


The prospect of her entry into the governor’s race could pose a headache for California Democrats who would be forced to find another candidate who could hold on to such a competitive congressional seat. Party Chairman Art Torres said Wednesday, however, that “there are enough candidates out there who could fill it.”

In the House, Harman has a reputation as a moderate Democrat. She has been a strong defender of the California defense industry and last fall her name was circulated as a possible candidate for secretary of the Army.

Harman is an attorney who served in 1979 as a special counsel to the U.S. Defense Department.

Harman also has voted with congressional liberals to oppose the welfare reform bill in 1995 and the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Her late-hour candidacy was just the latest evidence of a turbulent political atmosphere in California as the Feb. 4 deadline for entering the gubernatorial race approaches.

This week, Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan downplayed but did not rule out his own interest in challenging the only major Republican candidate to enter the contest so far--Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren.


Bob Mulholland, political director for the state Democratic Party, said the late-forming contest is a reflection of several factors. In recent weeks, major court decisions have thrown out a voter-approved plan to limit campaign contributions to state candidates and cleared the way for an open primary that lets voters select any contender from any party.

Finally, Checchi campaign manager Darry Sragow speculated that Feinstein’s interest prevented many Democrats--such as Harman and former White House Chief of Staff Leon Panetta--from making plans because they did not want to challenge such a major contender.

“During the entire stretch that Dianne was publicly contemplating a run for governor, the race seemed to be frozen,” Sragow said.