Harman: A Focus for Her Ambitions

TIMES STAFF WRITER

When Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein opted out of the governor's race, Rep. Jane Harman was quick to respond to a reporter's query for reaction.

"It's a great opportunity for a woman," she said provocatively over the car phone.

The announcement would wait a few weeks, but she was in.

For someone who left the Golden State after high school and didn't return full time until a surprise bid for Congress three decades later, Harman's last-minute entry into the gubernatorial primary seemed a left turn without a signal. But she had always planned on greatness--it was just a question of when, where and what.

Now, with a Rolodex of A-list Democrats and her husband's bottomless bank account behind her, there was little to lose for this political moderate, a self-dubbed "pro-choice mother of four."

With gender as her passport in the first state to elect a pair of women to the U.S. Senate, Harman proffers herself as a consensus-builder with a can-do approach rather than a ream of position papers. After 15 years each in government and the private sector, she hopes to trump her Democratic opponents--Sacramento veteran Lt. Gov. Gray Davis and outsider Al Checchi, a maverick businessman whose vast wealth exceeds even her own.

Frustrated as a member of the House minority, with a cross-country commute and bruising biennial campaigns to keep her seat, Harman the gubernatorial candidate has everything to gain.

Her platform is spreading California's prosperity to all its corners, ending the divisiveness she blames on decades of Republican rule. But the longshot bid is equally about Harman's intense ambition: Worst case, she boosts her profile as a future candidate for top-tier political posts.

In a 1994 commencement speech at Smith College, Harman named "timing" and "courage" as leadership's key ingredients. This consummate seizer of the day molds herself to the opportunity at hand.

Possessed with a boundless sense of her own abilities, she was a klutzy kid who remade herself into a skilled athlete nicknamed GI Jane. Terrified of skiing, she hurls herself down the slopes anyway, perhaps just to tell herself she'll make it.

Prone to quick--some say impulsive--life-changing decisions, she married the wrong man when her parents nixed a beau who wasn't Jewish. They divorced after a decade, sharing custody of two small children; she promptly married a millionaire nearly twice her age and had two more.

And when a redrawing of the congressional map left an open seat in 1991, Harman moved to a South Bay district that pundits said favored Republicans--and won on an abortion-rights platform. Back inside the Beltway, she exploited decades-old connections to land a spot on the Armed Services Committee and soon became an expert on the aerospace concerns crucial to her Torrance-based district.

But California's governorship never graced the radar. She is a creature of Washington's power elite, a hostess of senators and Supreme Court justices who never joined the California bar and, to this day, has cars registered in D.C., not the Golden State.

Sacramento?

With a wry smile and blue eyes blazing, the 52-year-old Harman is so fond of repeating her mother's mantra, "Life has chapters," that husband Sidney cringes at the phrase. Her five years in Congress, where she is respected for bipartisan work on defense issues but rarely occupies the spotlight, are the longest she's held any job.

"To me, the answer to why she sought this is the man and the mountain," said Rep. Howard Berman (D-Mission Hills), who met Harman nearly four decades ago in the Young Democrats on the Westside. "It's there."

'Unlimited Possibilities'

For goodness' sakes, vote for Lakes

Janie's got what it takes!

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Jane Margaret Lakes Frank Harman lost her first election, for junior high treasurer. She also bombed at cheerleader tryouts. But sitting under the redwoods at summer camp in Santa Cruz, she "dreamed a life of pretty unlimited possibilities."

"I was encouraged to dream that way by my own mother," she explained. "She never said, 'Janie, someday when you grow up, maybe you'll be governor of California.' But if she were alive today, she'd be damn proud that I'm trying to do that."

If Mom was an inspiration, Dad was a role model. Adolph Lakes achieved the nearly unfathomable, finishing medical school in Germany before fleeing the Nazis for New York in 1935.

Janie Lakes bought the American dream, predicting in her little brother's yearbook that she would be president (and he a janitor).

The political spark was ignited when Harman's University High School boyfriend, Justy Frank (not the Frank she would eventually marry), got floor passes for the 1960 Democratic Convention in Los Angeles.

Later, she went to Smith--where her mother had been denied a scholarship--planning to major in physics and be a doctor like Dad. But she soon switched to government, bringing Hubert Humphrey to campus and summering as a Washington intern. While housemates played bridge, Jane volunteered on campaigns.

The overachiever in Harman was evident early: she grew red-faced playing Ping-Pong in Frank's basement. In air-mail love letters to Justy from Geneva during her father's sabbatical, she bragged that her A's in math, Latin and chemistry were highest in the class.

"In retrospect, it seems perfectly clear," said Philip Green, the Smith professor who advised her on her thesis about fair housing in California. "I have a vision of her as a sort of Tara Lipinski in politics, standing on the podium at the age of 4 and making an acceptance speech."

Setting a Torrid Pace

Candidate Harman looks positively presidential striding through the lobby of the historic Eureka Inn in a tailored suit, ready for croissants and coffee at a local union hall. She is bursting with suggestions for economic development in this corner of California--an artists colony, eco-tourism, a bigger airport, a deeper port--from her 6 a.m. run through town.

"It's a great way to get to know a city," she says. Last year, she did the same in Pyongyang.

She rarely misses a run, whether with a group of Republican businessmen on a five-mile loop around her $2.5-million Rolling Hills home, or with her husband--who turns 80 this summer--through Rock Creek Park near their $2-million Washington manse. She belongs to three gyms--two in D.C., one in L.A.

She is almost always on time, and even falls asleep promptly when the day's schedule is done. As a legislative aide to Sen. John Tunney (D-Calif.) a quarter-century ago, she attended meetings a few days after giving birth.

Kind of hard to keep up with.

An aide quit because she could only give 98%--not the 110% Harman demands of self and staff. With a keen memory for detail, she can be a hawk in staff meetings: Aides tick off projects in progress and the boss wonders why items stay on the list month after month. She shuns e-mail, doesn't like leaving messages--get someone on the phone now.

A rock on her desk reads NEVER NEVER QUIT.

"It's a survival-of-the-fittest kind of game," said former aide Julie Phillips. "Jane being the fittest."

Attention to Detail

Peter Coogan, a Boston attorney she dated at Harvard Law, remembers a classic Harman trick: Always buy two pairs of identical earrings. When one inevitably disappears, there's a backup.

Such pragmatism marks her approach to things personal and political. She is cautious--when one of the 24 women first elected to the House in 1992 wrote a book about the group, Harman was the only member who declined to be interviewed--and keeps doors propped open with her massive network of powerful contacts.

She has paved a middle-of-the-road record to match her district, conservative with money--voting for tax cuts and the balanced budget--but progressive on social issues such as gay rights and abortion rights. Her offhand bragging about being the best Republican in the Democratic Party triggered a campaign backlash, echoing liberal disappointment with her backing of the B-2 bomber and welfare reform.

It is the give-and-take of legislation--working both sides of the aisle as she did in 1994 to boost the purchase of C-17s manufactured by McDonnell-Douglas--that makes her veins pump.

"She relishes the process--she's not issue-driven," explains Jack Watson, secretary to President Carter's Cabinet. As Watson's deputy in 1977 and 1978, Harman summed up Cabinet meetings and was a White House liaison to various departments.

"Just like a sponge," Carter recalled. "Jane has . . . the ability to listen to a lot of voices, to encapsulate and consolidate their opinions and to make a firm decision, and then to carry it out with a most intense commitment."

One of just 37 women in her Harvard Law class of 562, Harman has the legalistic, businesslike approach of the powerful, parsing words and quickly becoming expert in the intricacies of any subject necessary. Back in the 1970s, Tunney recalled, she joined the boys puffing cigars after dinner in her Georgetown home.

On the campaign trail, handshakes are firm, niceties brief. Harman doesn't do the feel-your-pain thing.

An AIDS patient at a San Francisco clinic says his disability benefits can't cover his contribution to Medi-Cal and rent. "We'll have to revisit those thresholds," she says matter-of-factly.

In Eureka, a woman in a wheelchair worries that her caregiver might quit so she can qualify for dental benefits. "Obviously people shouldn't have to choose between dental care and work," Harman responds. Next question.

"When somebody tells her about a problem, her first inclination is to figure out how to solve it, not to hug them," explains political consultant Roy Behr, noting Harman's support of small businesses and job-creating initiatives such as defense conversion in her district.

Paul Ambrosino, who designed her political mail in 1996, attributes the chilly manner to a lifetime in elite schools and fancy ZIP codes. "She's not been around many people who live a typical, ordinary existence," he said. "She doesn't really know how to talk to them."

Struggling With Her Juggling Act

Heads, I'm a rotten employee, tails I'm a rotten parent.

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The framed comic strip on Harman's office bookshelf offers the impossible choice between finishing a budget and attending a daughter's softball game. Throughout the room, family portraits mingle with models of military aircraft like the C-17, which Harman has called her fifth child.

"There is no magic way to do it--I don't do any part of it as well as I could," she says of the struggle to balance parenting and politics. "Every day I renegotiate."

Harman met her first husband, Richard Frank, during a job interview at Harvard. When they divorced in 1979, he kept the house; she got, among other things, a stereo made by Harman-Kardon, the company whose founder she would marry a year later.

"I am bored, and why should I spend the rest of my life like that?" Adolph Lakes recalled Jane announcing the split. "She didn't cry. . . . She just said it's done, let's try again."

Sidney Harman, who has a daughter older than Jane, was deputy secretary of Commerce--Dick Frank's boss--when the couple met in the White House. Now he heads a Fortune 500 electronics company, and she is among the richest members of Congress.

Hungry for life's next chapter, Harman last fall helped fuel Beltway buzz about her prospects as a potential Army secretary, and hoped that if Feinstein became governor, she might appoint Harman to her Senate seat.

Then Feinstein bowed out.

Her father, brother and many old friends pronounced the race a crazy thing for a three-term congresswoman with scant name recognition. But the politicos wanted a woman, and Sidney, for one, was gung ho.

"I've seen what Janie is like fulfilled, I've seen Janie unfulfilled," he said in his conference room, with its perfect view of the Washington monument. "Fulfilled is better."

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Profile: Jane Harman

Political Party: Democrat

Born: June 28, 1945, New York

Residence: Rolling Hills and Washington

Education: University High in West Los Angeles, 1962; bachelor's degree in government, Smith College, 1966; law degree, Harvard Law School, 1969.

Family: Married to Sidney Harman, owner of Harman International; four children: Brian, 24, and Hilary, 22, from first marriage and Daniel (Guy), 15, and Justine, 13, from second; four stepchildren and five stepgrandchildren.

Background: Legislative aide to U.S. Sen. John Tunney (D-Calif.), 1972-73; chief counsel to two Senate subcommittees, 1973-77; deputy secretary to President Jimmy Carter's cabinet, 1977-78; special counsel, Defense Department, 1979; corporate lawyer, lobbyist and Democratic activist, 1979-92; congresswoman, 1993-present.

Career highlights: Representing a district whose voter registration is almost evenly split between Republicans and Democrats, she has carved out a middle-of-the-road record--conservative on fiscal issues and progressive on social questions--and has served on the science, armed services and intelligence committees crucial to her aerospace and high-technology constituents. Was among first women to run a Senate subcommittee and has cultivated close relationships with key Democrats since the 1970s. Before running for office, co-chaired a $2.2-million party fund-raiser and headed a lawyers committee that, among other things, dug up dirt on President George Bush.

Strategy: In a campaign launched late, after Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) chose not to enter the race, Harman markets herself as a "pro-choice mother of four" and is hoping to exploit a perceived gender gap among Democratic voters. She has been slammed for providing few specifics on key issues in the race, instead focusing on leadership style. Attacked in television ads by opponents, Harman insists she will not resort to negative campaigning--and has been falling in the polls.

Quote: "I don't have all the answers, but I have a lot of smart friends, enormous engergy and an idea how to lead that doesn't depend on knowing all the answers."

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