The Kamala Dilemma—California Style

Sherry Bebitch Jeffe
Former Senior Fellow at the Sol Price School of Public Policy at the University of Southern California and Political Reporter for NBC Los Angeles

It was 2:30 pm on a busy Saturday afternoon at the California Democratic Party Endorsing Convention—just a couple of hours away from a roll-out of myriad candidates for the party’s Presidential nomination. Some were taking a brief detour from the Golden State money trail; all were seeking to claim a California primary victory.

In the Exhibit Hall candidate booths were abuzz. All except one: Kamala Harris’.

It sat empty, except for one lone Harris sign on a table that was listlessly chaperoned by a non-attentive volunteer.

Was all the political paraphernalia gobbled up earlier? Could be.

But, as political pros put it, the optics were lousy—particularly in the wake of Harris’ serious slide in the polls and some hyper-negative media analysis of the mechanics of her campaign and of her lackluster fund-raising (although she’s still got the largest share of Hollywood donors).

According to the most recent PPIC survey of California Democratic primary likely voters (Democrats and independent voters who say they will vote in the Democratic primary), “support for Joe Biden (24%), Elizabeth Warren (23%), and Bernie Sanders (17%) is much higher than support for Kamala Harris (8%),” So much for home field advantage. 

The national media has been focusing—almost gleefully—on Harris’ falling star. “’No discipline. No plan. No strategy.’: Kamala Harris campaign in meltdown,” headlined Politico.

That’s the national take. But her weak standing in California is also owed to other undercurrents. Why aren’t Golden State Democrats giving Harris that badly needed and clearly expected primary boost? Let me count the ways.

Harris was looked at as a giantkiller when she defeated three-term L.A. County District Attorney, Steve Cooley, for California Attorney General. Cooley was a Republican elected and reelected in a vote-rich, increasingly Democratic area. She was San Francisco D.A., little known outside the Bay area.

But—the AG election was the first in which Cooley’s name on the ballot was followed by an “R.” The L.A. County D.A. race is nominally non-partisan. And in the state race, he was up against a candidate with a big blue “D” next to her name.

Even then, the race was close, with Harris eking out a victory over Cooley of less than one percent.

Harris remains lesser known in Southern California, even though, before she put down stakes in Iowa, she shifted her Golden State focus to the South.

She’s used her time as San Francisco D.A. and California A.G. to sell herself as a tough prosecutor—the candidate most able to take down Donald Trump. She successfully showed off those prosecutorial skills in the Justice Kavanaugh confirmation hearings but stumbled using them on “Uncle Joe” Biden in the first Democratic debate.

Anyway, now there is a slew of prosecutors—legal and political—who are going after Trump, as impeachment continues to suck the political oxygen out of Washington and the campaign trail. Who needs one more?

Indeed, it wasn’t Harris, but another prosecutor–and a fellow Californian—who earned the loudest, longest cheers at the state’s Democratic Convention. Delegates gave Congressman Adam Schiff, Chair of the House Intelligence Committee, what one observer described as “rock star treatment.”

The late California Assembly Speaker Jess Unruh talked of the “Streetcar Theory of Politics:” To be successful, a politician must be on the right corner, at the right time, with the right change, and the streetcar must be going in the right direction.

Kamala Harris has snagged that streetcar before in her political career. However, it appears that this time Harris won’t catch the bus that is already careening toward the White House.

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