California voters, meet Rep. Jane Harman. Jane, meet the voters--and California. You've got three months to get acquainted. In political time, that's three minutes.
Harman's introductory TV ads have been running in every major city since Tuesday. They'll keep on running right up until the June 2 gubernatorial primary. Not these same ads maybe, but some ads. This has got to be a quick and very good first impression.
The first two ads sketch her background and priorities: teenage usher at the 1960 Democratic convention in L.A., Senate Judiciary Committee counsel, White House aide, Defense Department lawyer, private attorney, three-term congresswoman. Safe neighborhoods, good jobs, quality schools.
So far, that message has been delivered to voters unfiltered by pesky reporters. Harman answered few questions after announcing her candidacy for governor on the last day possible, Feb. 4. She has yet to give a speech or hold a news conference explaining what she'd do if elected. She has been boning up on state issues and waiting for her grand kickoff next Friday on the steps of Torrance City Hall. Then she'll start stumping the state.
Harman, 52, is virtually unknown outside her South Bay district and starts out far behind two Democratic rivals, Lt. Gov. Gray Davis and airline tycoon Al Checchi. But her chief strategists--Bill Carrick and Kam Kuwata, longtime advisors to Sen. Dianne Feinstein--insist that it's still anybody's race because voters aren't exactly cheering on the other runners.
Being a woman helps. An estimated 56% of Democratic voters are female, and although they won't automatically support a woman candidate, they'll usually give one a very close look. In the 1990s, every Democratic nominee for governor or the U.S. Senate in California has been a woman.
Harman is a fast study, a hard campaigner and a veteran pol--one who has been around the track, but never stopped in Sacramento. She's got the dual advantage of having both experience and a fresh face.
She also has another asset--a rich husband willing to write big checks. She'll raise other money as well, Harman says, but either way "we'll have the resources we need."
Late last week, I phoned Harman in Washington and we talked about her candidacy.
First question: Will she promise to serve a full term and not get lured onto some national ticket in 2000? "Yes," she answered. "I feel strongly about that. I owe a responsibility to the voters who elect me."
All the Democrats now have taken that pledge. Only the Republican candidate, Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren, has refused.
What would be her first priority as governor? "Help every Californian share in the prosperity."
How? She talked about forming coalitions from all levels of government to generate consensus, lobbying for federal stimulus, "articulating a vision for California's future," upgrading education to emphasize "lifelong learning". . . .
Clearly, that answer needs work.
What about education? Some basics: Harman opposes private school vouchers because "public funds need to be spent on public education." Bilingual education "is broken and we need to fix it," but she opposes Proposition 227 because "it's a one-size-fits-all solution" that removes local control. Local bonds should require only a majority vote, rather than the historic two-thirds, because "we absolutely need to find a way to finance remodeling. You walk around some of these schools--half the bathroom facilities are broken, roofs leak. . . . "
Beyond that, she wants to "get kids ready to learn" when they're toddlers--and provide business tax incentives for retraining adults. That's lifelong learning.
She opposes racial and gender preferences, preferring "aggressive outreach." But she also opposed Proposition 209, fearing it would reverse some women's rights. "A decent public education for every kid is the best affirmative action policy," she says.
On other issues: She favors the death penalty, three-strikes sentencing, gun control, tobacco tax hikes, term limits and abortion rights.
She's a mainstreamer.
In 1960 as a 15-year-old, Harman and some high school friends decided it would be fun to go downtown to the Democratic convention. She talked her way onto the floor at the Sports Arena and met Eleanor Roosevelt. She wound up an usher at John F. Kennedy's acceptance speech in the Coliseum. She got hooked.
"It was enormously exciting--a formative moment," she recalls.
There's now a move to hold the next Democratic convention in Los Angeles. That could be quite a story--teenage usher returns 40 years later as host state governor.