California’s attorney general has responsibilities and powers second only to those of the governor, and the office’s occupant is always in position to climb the political ladder.
Virtually every attorney general of the post-World War II era has aspired to higher office, many successfully – including the current governor, Jerry Brown, and his father, Pat Brown.
There is, therefore, a constant tension between what the attorney general should do as a matter of duty, and what would be politically advantageous.
Dan Lungren, the last Republican to hold the office, faced that dilemma in the late 1990s as he ran for governor.
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A burning issue of the era was whether the state should allow casino gambling, and Lungren made comprehensive regulation a personal crusade.
Annually, he sponsored legislation that drew attention, usually hostile, from the embryonic gambling industry, which was spending heavily on lobbyists and campaign contributions.
He would personally walk the Capitol halls during the final hours of the annual legislative session, buttonholing legislators, trying to find a version that could pass.
Year after year, Lungren would come close, before facing defeat at the hands of legislative leaders who clearly wanted to keep the issue alive and milk more campaign money from gambling interests.
Eventually, via a ballot measure that Lungren opposed, Indian tribes won a casino gambling monopoly and Lungren lost his 1998 governorship bid.
Fast forward almost two decades. The attorney general is Kamala Harris and, true to form, she aspires to higher office – a U.S. Senate seat.
Harris’ tenure has been marked by politically correct, often superficial, actions (on Thursday she issued a warning about identity theft) and a reticence on tough issues that contain political risk – such as gambling.
The current version of our gambling debate is whether we should legalize websites on which players back their fantasy sports teams with money.
Attorneys general in other states have declared that the heavily advertised websites – which have drawn Silicon Valley investment – are, in fact, gambling.
If it’s gambling, it may take a state constitutional amendment to make it legal. Harris, however, has been conspicuously silent on efforts to legalize it and give her office regulatory power.
She declined to participate in a legislative hearing on Assembly Bill 1437, which passed the Assembly this week, and ignored a legislator’s request to opine on its constitutionality. Her office says she’s studying it.
Harris should, as Lungren did, consider gambling a bedrock issue – and her passivity raises a pithy question about what kind of senator she’d be.
Would she merely attach herself only to matters that are politically beneficial, or would she seriously deal with the weighty issues that confront the Senate?
Would she be a senatorial lightweight or a fully engaged and influential senator, a la Dianne Feinstein?