As legislative districts were being redrawn in 1991, Washington attorney Jane Harman went to veteran Rep. Howard L. Berman (D-Mission Hills) and said she might just like to join him in the House of Representatives.
Berman--who had met Harman three decades earlier when he was a student at UCLA and she attended Los Angeles' University High--thought it was a fine idea. Until, that is, the new boundaries took shape: "The worst" (least Democratic) part of one House district was now "the best" (most Democratic) part of a new one. Stretching from Venice to San Pedro, this reconfigured district included the Republican strongholds of Torrance and the Palos Verdes Peninsula.
"We all said, 'You're nuts. You can't win that seat. There's no way,' " Berman recalled. "She says, 'The heck with what you guys say,' the pros, and she goes out and she wins."
Stuck in one of the nation's most politically difficult districts--just 41% of her constituents belong to her party--Harman has spent her six years in Congress in dogged pursuit of parochial interests. She exploited her longtime Beltway connections to get seats on the science and national security committees that cater to the defense industry anchored in the South Bay. She also stuck with her first campaign's "pro-choice, pro-change" theme, voting a liberal line on social issues, a conservative line on the military and money.
Now, as the 52-year-old multimillionaire formally launches her bid for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination today, the question is what Harman will do when she leaves the local politics of the 36th Congressional District and tries to sell herself to all the voters in the nation's most populous state.
Does her middle-of-the-road record mean she's got something for everyone, or that she's hard to pin down, with no guiding vision?
"She's been focused on the issues that relate to her district and her region," said Rep. Vic Fazio of West Sacramento, chairman of the Democratic Caucus. "When you go to the broader questions of the environment, education, some of the issues that will be more important on a statewide basis . . . that's certainly been, up to the moment, not as high a priority."
Harman's voting record illustrates the difficulty of labeling her.
She has been called a Clinton Democrat, though she voted with the president on key issues only 71% of the time last year, 62% of the time during the previous two years. Of the 10 major interest groups that rate federal lawmakers, Harman gets middling scores from almost all, including a matched set of 60 out of 100 from the liberal Americans for Democratic Action and the conservative Chamber of Commerce.
Businessman Al Checchi, one of two rivals for the Democratic nomination, has already begun criticizing her voting record--not how Harman voted, but how often.
In 1995 and 1996, she missed one in 10 roll calls--more than all but a handful of her California colleagues. So far this year, as organizing her gubernatorial campaign has kept her in California, Harman has missed about half the votes.
"If she missed the votes because of illness or she missed the votes because of family reasons, voters will make one judgment," said Checchi consultant Darry Sragow. "If it turns out she missed the votes because she likes to play tennis in the afternoon, they'll make a different judgment."
Kam Kuwata, Harman's spokesman, said Sragow was being "silly." "When you represent a district 3,000 miles away, there are added challenges," Kuwata said. "The people in her district certainly have sent her back."
Harman does not often pontificate on the House floor or stage news conferences. Instead, she has focused on the defense and technology issues so crucial to her constituents and on women's issues such as abortion rights, which helped get her elected.
"She's been extremely sensitive and tenacious about doing everything she can to save as many jobs as she can in a very tough atmosphere," said former Rep. Mel Levine of Los Angeles, who went to Harvard Law School with Harman and represented portions of her district from 1982-92. "There were a number of things that were out of anybody's control: The Cold War ended. But in that context, she's been a real tiger on behalf of her constituency."
Two key victories were in helping save the C-17--a massive plane being made at the Douglas Aircraft plant in Long Beach--in 1994, and the B-2 bomber--whose radar system is built at Hughes Electronics in Culver City--the next year. She also helped keep Los Angeles Air Force Base open, and in 1996 was the only California Democrat who voted for the successful override of the president's veto of a defense budget $7.1 billion higher than the administration proposed.
Stan Ebner, Boeing's senior vice president for Washington, D.C., operations, said Harman combines a lawyerly quest for information with political savvy to address the complex issues of military procurement and defense conversion. In the 1970s, she spent two years as a top aide to then-Sen. John Tunney (D-Calif.) and did a tour as a deputy secretary to the Cabinet in the Carter administration.
"She is a sponge for the facts. She wants to understand all the facts, then she runs it through her political computer, which seems to function very well," Ebner added.
As a staunch defender of the military's budget, Harman also tried to carve out a role for herself on the high-profile topic of women in the armed services. She led a fight to allow military women stationed overseas to get abortions if they paid for it with their own money (a proposal that failed) and against a provision forcing the discharge of HIV-infected soldiers and sailors (that one passed).
Last fall, she toyed with the idea of seeking a nomination as secretary of the Army. Last month, prompted by a debate over whether training standards should be different for men and women, she became the buzz of the Beltway after running two miles in 18 minutes and completing 57 sit-ups and 27 push-ups.
"She was always cautious, she was always careful to know her facts," said Susan Barnes, an attorney who runs Women Active in the Nation's Defense. "When I would go meet with her staff, they would really put me through the paces. They were not an automatic knee-jerk for the women."
Harman is not viewed as an automatic for anyone on Capitol Hill.
She was a supporter of welfare reform--including denial of benefits to legal immigrants--but opposed a measure barring illegal immigrants from public education. She backs a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution--in defiance of the president--but always has sought to up the funds for the Defense Department.
"She can be pretty independent when she thinks she's seen a perspective that perhaps others haven't," Fazio said. "She listens, but she's not afraid to go it alone when she thinks she has a good reason to do so."
Often described as a "doer," Harman is tenacious and aggressive, sometimes rubbing people the wrong way.
"There are some people who believe that her elbows are rather sharp," said one former House member, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
"There are people around who probably don't like some of her positions," acknowledged Berman. "They're sitting in perfectly safe Democratic seats where they don't have to lift a finger, and this woman is helping us hold onto some political turf that's very difficult for any Democrat to win."
Although Harman's success in the South Bay has depended on her ability to appeal to independents and Republicans, her immediate challenge is to beat fellow Democrats in the June primary.
With immense personal wealth but virtually no name identification outside the Southland, Harman has just three months to speak out on the statewide issues that will dominate the gubernatorial campaign. Supporters are confident that her moderate message fits the moment.
"Her voting record really reflects where the public is," said Rep. Robert T. Matsui (D-Sacramento), one of the first to endorse Harman's gubernatorial bid. "She's kind of where the state of California is."