Here are a few certainties about California's next U.S. senator. It will be a Democrat; no Republicans got enough votes in the state's top-two primary to advance to November's general election. And it will be a woman, who will be a historic addition to the U.S. Senate — either state Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris, whose parents are Indian and Jamaican, would become the first Indian American senator, or Rep. Loretta Sanchez would become the chamber's first Latina.
Harris and Sanchez are vying to replace another Democrat, retiring Sen. Barbara Boxer. It's the first open Senate seat for California in nearly a quarter of a century, so the stakes are high. But the race has been far too quiet and almost completely lacking in substance, which is disappointing because within the Democratic Party, there are real policy differences on issues such as free trade, military intervention abroad and environmental regulation. Harris and Sanchez agreed to participate in only one debate, which was held Wednesday in Los Angeles. That's hardly enough to push the candidates beyond platitudes and cheap shots.
In the absence of clear information on what Harris and Sanchez would do, Californians are left to judge them on what they've said and done so far in their career. In that comparison, Harris has shown she is the candidate who is more likely to be the persuasive, thoughtful and pragmatic lawmaker California needs.
A former district attorney of San Francisco, Harris narrowly won her race for attorney general in 2010 before cruising to reelection in 2014. As the state's top cop, Harris has shown that she is willing to fight against the powerful in support of the little guy. When other states reached a settlement with banks accused of improper mortgage foreclosures, Harris balked at what she saw as an unsatisfactory deal. She ultimately won greater debt reduction for homeowners and a larger award for damages. She also fought for a Homeowner Bill of Rights to ensure fair lending and borrowing practices, against strong opposition by banks.
On the down side, Harris has at times seemed more focused on her political career than on the job she was elected to do. She has been too cautious and unwilling to stake out a position on controversial issues, even when her voice would have been valuable to the debate. She was an early champion for criminal justice reform, but she chose to stay largely silent when Gov. Jerry Brown implemented "realignment," shifting low-level offenders from state prison to county jail, and when voters passed Proposition 47, which reduced certain drug, theft and other felonies to misdemeanors. Harris has said California needs bold leadership, but a bold leader can't sit out on significant decisions.
Sanchez, by comparison, has been willing to take positions and make tough votes. She voted against the Iraq war and the Patriot Act in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, difficult decisions that have proven to be wise judgments. But she hasn't stood out in Congress despite her 20-year tenure, and she is too often prone to gaffes and controversies.
California needs to fill Boxer's seat with a steady, serious representative. Despite her bouts of excessive caution, Harris has shown herself very capable of being that consistent, persuasive advocate for California. Voters should send her to the Senate.