With California Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris moving to the U.S. Senate in January, it will be Gov. Jerry Brown's job to nominate a replacement to serve the remaining two years of her term, and the Legislature's to decide whether to confirm the nominee. It's rare that a governor gets such a big appointment, and no doubt the selection weighs heavily on his mind.
But that is probably not for a lack of capable, experienced candidates. The number of potential appointees being bruited about in state political circles is considerable. And it's heartening that the prospects are more or less equally divided between men and women — all of whom have heavyweight resumes.
That is remarkable in light of the shrinking ranks of women, already underrepresented, in state and local elected positions in recent years (the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors notwithstanding). Only about a quarter of state lawmakers are women, and that percentage will drop slightly when the new crop of legislators is sworn in next month. Harris was one of two women elected to major state government positions (that is, to fill state constitutional offices). State Controller Betty Yee is the other. This is a troubling trend because government works best when its leadership reflects the diversity of the population it serves.
The problem is not due to the lack of talented women doing policy and political work in California. The candidates for attorney general illustrate that point quite well. Among those considered potential appointees are Alameda County Dist. Atty. Nancy O'Malley, Federal Elections Commissioner (and former president of the California Fair Political Practices Commission) Ann Ravel, retired federal judge Katherine Feinstein (Sen. Dianne Feinstein's daughter), Los Angeles Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey, San Diego Dist. Atty. Bonnie Dumanis, Kern County Supervisor Leticia Perez (a member of the Board of State and Community Corrections), Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Hillsborough) and Nancy McFadden, Brown's right-hand woman. The governor's wife, Anne Gust Brown, is also considered a possible candidate for the appointment, though such nepotism would be impolitic to say the least.
That's an impressive array. Of course, there are as many worthy male candidates discussed, including Los Angeles City Atty. Mike Feuer, San Francisco Dist. Atty. George Gascon, Los Angeles Assemblyman Mike Gatto, former Assemblyman Dario Frommer, Santa Clara County Dist. Atty. Jeff Rosen, U.S. Atty. Phillip A. Talbert in Sacramento and Joe Cotchett, a prominent Bay Area trial attorney. State Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones has announced plans to run for the position in 2018, but his sparring with the governor in the past may effectively cut him out of consideration for the appointment.
Man or woman, there's no shortage of candidates for the job. The interest in the post is understandable, given that Brown's appointee will have a substantial leg up over the other candidates in the 2018 race, particularly if that person takes on high-profile fights. And the attorney general's job itself as been a stepping stone to higher office. Before Harris had the job, it was held by Brown. Three other California governors in recent memory — Earl Warren, Brown's father, Pat Brown, and George Deukmejian — also ran the AG's office before running the state.
Ultimately, the gender of the state's top lawyer and law enforcer shouldn't matter. What does matter is that the next attorney general be a strong and decisive defender of the state's laws and values, someone who is equally versed in criminal justice and public policy and a leader on desperately needed public safety reform.
This is no time for a caretaker until the 2018 election, given the possibility of high-stakes clashes between this progressively liberal state and the new Trump administration over immigration, Medicaid, climate change and other major policies. And as the head of the Department of Justice, the attorney general sets the state's criminal justice priorities by deciding which cases to pursue, which criminal justice issues to champion and which initiatives in the Legislature to support. Harris, for example, put human trafficking, cyber crime, truancy and mortgage relief at the top of her list of priorities.
There's no reason this appointment has to be a woman, but there's no reason it couldn't be, either. And that is reason enough to be hopeful that the picture of future state leadership will look more like the state itself.