Politics

If Kamala Harris wins the U.S. Senate race, the governor has a rare chance to pick a new attorney general

California Gov. Jerry Brown
Gov. Jerry Brown would have to fill one of the state’s most powerful and influential positions if California Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris wins the race for the U.S. Senate.
(Randy Pench / MCT)

For Californians who have had enough political intrigue this year, there might not be much of a respite even after Nov. 8 if Kamala Harris wins the race for the U.S. Senate, as most polling suggests.

Harris’ current post as California attorney general would become vacant, leaving open one of the state’s most powerful and influential positions for Gov. Jerry Brown to fill through the end of her term in 2018.

Brown could jump-start the 2018 campaign by giving his selection a head start to run as an incumbent. Or he could choose someone to serve as a caretaker until voters have the chance to weigh in on a successor.

“I would think that the governor would make less of a political decision and more of a decision of who could step in and run the office and hit the ground running on day one,” said Katie Merrill, a Democratic strategist.

Merrill said Brown, who rose from attorney general to governor in 2010, understands the job and therefore expects he would want someone who would run the office like a lawyer instead of using it as a political launching pad. 

Gubernatorial appointments to statewide office are rare. Brown’s predecessor, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, made two big ones: Bruce McPherson as secretary of state in 2005 and Abel Maldonado as lieutenant governor in 2010.

But neither of those jobs compares to the responsibilities held by the attorney general, who serves as the state’s top lawyer and law enforcement official. The late Gov. Pat Brown, the governor’s father, filled the last attorney general vacancy in 1964.

Under the state Constitution, if an appointment is needed, Brown will make a selection subject to majority approval by both houses of the Legislature. The timing for any decision is an open question. It’s unclear when Harris would resign her current job should she be elected — new United States senators don’t take office until January. After that, Brown can take as long as he wants. In the interim, the chief deputy attorney general would oversee the more than 4,500 employees in the office. Currently, the chief deputy is Nathan Barankin, a Harris political appointee who previously served as a top staffer in the state Senate.  

Brown’s office declined to discuss any factors he might be considering.

“Any discussion regarding a potential vacancy is premature at this point,” spokesman Evan Westrup said.

Both Brown’s wife, Anne Gust Brown, and top advisor, Nancy McFadden, have been mentioned as possibilities, but Brown has thrown cold water on the idea of Gust Brown filling the role.

“My wife is fully employed,” he told reporters this week at an event in San Francisco.

A number of other names have been floated as possible selections. In a column in the San Francisco Chronicle, former Assembly Speaker Willie Brown listed: Bay Area attorney and Democratic donor Joe Cotchett, Los Angeles City Atty. Michael Feuer, California appeals court Justice Jim Humes, Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey and Alameda County Dist. Atty. Nancy O’Malley.

Regardless of whom Brown might choose to fill the potential vacancy, the 2018 race for attorney general could be one of the premier campaigns on the ballot. Seven people, including five current or former state legislators, have already opened campaign accounts for the position, but candidates often drop out before the formal filing season begins.

Democrats who are fundraising are: former state Sen. Ellen Corbett of Fremont, former assemblymen Lou Correa of Santa Ana and Dario Frommer of La Cañada Flintridge and state Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones. Correa is also a current candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives. Republicans who are fundraising are: San Bernardino Dist. Atty. Mike Ramos, victims rights lawyer Nina Salarno and outgoing Assemblyman Don Wagner of Irvine.

liam.dillon@latimes.com

Follow me at @dillonliam on Twitter

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