Kamala Harris' San Francisco credentials may not fly in rest of state

In Kamala Harris' successful, hard-fought campaign for San Francisco district attorney in 2003, the Democrat and her two rivals found rare common ground on the nationally hypercharged issue of the death penalty. All three adamantly opposed it.

Doing otherwise would have meant almost certain political excommunication in a city where House Speaker Nancy Pelosi once faced catcalls for not being liberal enough. San Francisco, after all, is where wedding bells rang loudest for same-sex couples before California voters banned gay marriage and where Democrats currently outnumber Republicans six to one.

"Labels are relative here. Our conservative is L.A.'s liberal," said David Lee, a political science professor at San Francisco State and director of the nonpartisan Chinese American Voters Education Committee. "San Francisco voters poll so much more to the left than the rest of California that politicians have to adjust."

The question now facing Harris, the Democratic nominee for state attorney general, is whether her formula for success in the cutthroat world of San Francisco politics will be as attractive to voters statewide. An early test may come Tuesday as Harris and Republican nominee Steve Cooley, the Los Angeles County district attorney, meet in their first, and potentially only, debate at the UC Davis School of Law.

California's more moderate electorate runs counter to San Francisco on core political issues such as the death penalty, immigration and gay marriage, as Cooley is happy to point out. He calls Harris' politics "radical," epitomized, he says, by her decision in 2004 not to seek the death penalty for a cop killer.

Harris, who was reelected in 2007, casts herself as a veteran prosecutor and a "smart on crime" innovator raised in the land of Google, Apple and other high-tech visionaries. She derides Cooley as the "status quo" candidate who is too cozy with political donors and out of touch on the environment and other issues paramount to California voters.

Unlike Harris, Cooley is a strong proponent of the death penalty. He has sidestepped questions about his personal views on gay marriage, which Harris supports. Cooley said he would have vigorously defended Proposition 8 — the initiative approved by California voters to ban gay marriage — all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, and would do the same if voters legalized same-sex marriage in California. Harris said she would have refused to defend Proposition 8 in court.

Yet nothing personifies their differences more than an undercurrent of racial and gender politics at play in the race. If elected, Harris would become the first woman and first minority elected as attorney general, just as she was the first African American woman to serve as a D.A. in California. Cooley, on the other hand, possesses the gender chromosomes and racial profile shared by every attorney general elected in California since 1850: male and white.

"She's extremely articulate and, at the risk of sounding sexist, she is a very attractive candidate. You can't walk away from that political curb appeal," said Larry Gerston, a political scientist at San Jose State. "Yet also, when you're looking at the law-and-order office of attorney general, there sometimes is a perception — right or wrong — that women may be soft on crime."

Two Democratic Bay Area women — San Francisco's Dianne Feinstein and Marin County's Barbara Boxer — have repeatedly won elections to represent California in the U.S. Senate, fending off similar attacks from GOP rivals.

"It's not easy to win statewide office, especially as a woman," said Feinstein, who has endorsed Harris. "But the more female candidates we have, the more we push against the glass ceiling, the easier it becomes."

Harris dismisses the significance of race and gender in the campaign, saying strong political leadership and ideas will transcend all else. But she hasn't been shy about using her own experiences as the daughter of a father from Jamaica and mother from India to connect with voters.

During a recent campaign swing through Long Beach, Harris stopped by three churches Sunday morning to introduce herself to their African American congregations. Harris talked of her college days at Howard University, of being raised by parents who marched for civil rights in the 1960s and of how the work of Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall helped inspire her to study the law.

"They used to say we couldn't vote. Now they say we won't. Let's prove them wrong," Harris said to the packed pews at Grant AME church.

Harris also has basked in the warm glow of Oprah — whose O Magazine included Harris on the "2010 O Power List" of inspiring women — and media references to her as "the female Obama."

Bill Whalen, who has worked for former Republican Gov. Pete Wilson and also advised Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, said Harris' challenge isn't to overcome any possible voter bias against an African American woman from San Francisco, but to overcome her record as San Francisco district attorney.

"The reality is, if you look at her position on the death penalty and on sanctuary cities, you'll see when you compare it to the rest of the state that she's out of the mainstream," said Whalen, a research fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution.

In 2004, Harris made good on her promise to "never charge the death penalty" by pulling the option off the table against the man who killed San Francisco Police Officer Isaac Espinoza.

The decision created still-lingering animosity with local police and was harshly criticized by Feinstein and then-Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer, a Democrat who now serves as the state's treasurer. That tension was rekindled last year when Harris declined to seek the death penalty against an illegal immigrant and alleged gang member who gunned down a father and his two sons on a San Francisco street.

Harris said she stuck to her belief that capital punishment is both unjust and immoral, pointing to recent cases in which death-row inmates were exonerated. Nevertheless, she said that if elected attorney general, she would honor decisions by district attorneys across the state who pursue the death penalty and fully support the agency's role in defending death penalty sentences on appeal.

"Being a D.A., period, is a hard job," Harris said. "You have responsibility to make very important decisions, based on the worst of human behavior, based on what you truly believe is the right thing to do. And that's always a difficult job."

phil.willon@latimes.com

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