The upset for the California state attorney general’s office is a fait accompli as San Francisco district attorney, Kamala Harris, claimed victory over the purported favorite, Los Angeles District Attorney Steve Cooley, last week in one of the closest statewide elections in California history.
The Secretary of State had Harris ahead by 71,566 votes as of this past Monday. Harris claimed victory on Tuesday. Cooley, seeing the writing on the wall, conceded last week after prematurely “claiming victory” on election night. This was not just a doofus moment for Cooley … it put an exclamation point on Harris’ history making run.
Harris is now, officially, the first African-American and the first woman to hold the office of California attorney general. The attorney general has the second highest profile of all the statewide offices. It is a very strategic position in carrying out the state’s public safety agenda, but it is also the foremost training ground for leadership. It serves as a primary pathway to the governorship.
In the last 30 years, there actually have been more attorney generals elected governor of California than lieutenant governors, so it presents a special opportunity for the right person.
Without getting ahead of ourselves, Harris is definitely the right person. Now she has an opportunity to demonstrate it. Harris’ election represents a continuum of a national change agenda in California, despite what the rest of the country did. Her election cannot be taken for granted, but it also must be analyzed in its truest context.
There were a lot of reasons Harris won–a strong Democratic Party turnout to hold Barbara Boxer’s Senate seat; a strong party push to make what was once the state’s youngest governor, the state’s oldest governor by returning Jerry Brown to the governorship.
But the two foremost reasons were a visionary approach to public safety on the part of Harris and public disdain for her opponent.
As San Francisco district attorney, Kamala Harris did some extremely creative things; she did not just lock people up.
California is the nation’s largest jailer with more than 165,000 people in state prisons. The number is closer to 180,000 when you include those awaiting trial throughout the state.
The United States Supreme Court actually began deliberations on a federal court appeal to release 40,000 inmates to ease California’s prison overcrowding problem. The Bear Flag state is the crown jewel of the nation’s prison industrial complex; it has built 23 new prisons since 1985, while it has built only one new state university.
Clearly, California made a commitment to the prison industrial complex by tracking juveniles and basing their prison development and future inmate population projections on fourth-grade public education test scores to forecast dropout rates and thus, future prisoners.
California hit “gold” for the second time in 100 years, but this time it was human capital that could be paid seven cents an hour to compete with cheap foreign labor in the production of goods and products here in the United States.
Harris’ theme that we have to be “smart on crime” looked at the truancy rates and dropout rates and held parents responsible for their child’s school attendance in an effort to reverse dropout rates and divert youth away from the criminal justice system.
It’s looking at crime with fresh eyes that got the people’s attention around Harris’ candidacy.
The other major factor was the public’s disdain for Steve Cooley.
Cooley was the favorite, because he was expected to win Southern California, including Los Angeles County.
Harris beat Steve Cooley in his own backyard, and she “whupped” him badly. It just wasn’t the “double dipping” issue and the overprosecuting that came out in the campaign. It was a personality issue with voters across the board. They just didn’t like Steve Cooley. Even Republicans didn’t like him, and that played to Harris’ favor.
It’s not the last time you will see voter backlash in Los Angeles in the upcoming year. It just showed that voters pay more attention than so-called “favorites” think. Cooley found out, though.
Harris’ number-one issue will be the improper foreclosures that are taking place throughout the state, but particularly in Los Angeles. Some folks in banking are engaging in improper behavior by taking people’s homes and need to be criminally charged for circumventing default procedures.
Jail overcrowding will be handled by the court, but Harris’ smart approach to diverting young people out of the system will help.
Congratulations to Harris on making history. Congratulations to the voters for being smart on who should handle crime in California.
Anthony Asadullah Samad, Ph.D., is a national columnist, managing director of the Urban Issues Forum and author of the upcoming book, “Real Eyez: Race, Reality and Politics in 21st Century Popular Culture. “He can be reached at www.AnthonySamad.com.
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