Practically everyone expects California Attorney General Kamala Harris to win re-election handily in November. The Democrat won 53 percent of the vote in a crowded June primary. A rising star expected to ascend someday to the governorship, perhaps a U.S. Senate seat, Harris has won the endorsement of major newspapers in the state. She's such an attractive candidate that even though it was true, President Barack Obama had to apologize last year for calling her "by far the best-looking attorney general in the country."
Yet Harris faces two unusual obstacles in the November runoff. One is Ron Gold, a never-elected Republican attorney from Los Angeles who is running for office on a shoestring. (As of Sept. 30, the Harris campaign had $3.6 million in the bank; Gold had $17,601.98.) The other hurdle is the fact that Gold supports legalizing marijuana for recreational use, whereas Harris has been opposed.
According to a March Public Policy Institute of California poll, 53 percent of likely state voters favor marijuana legalization; 44 percent oppose it.
Thus, Gold brings a little mischief to the election scene in this bluest of states. He surprised the GOP establishment when he hauled in 12 percent of the vote and beat former GOP state lawmaker Phil Wyman. Before June, many party insiders had never heard of him. When I clicked "political experience" on a voter information site to learn about him, it said: "Not Applicable." Gold credits his win in June to his lean campaign operation -- 14 volunteers, 10 of them Democrats. "We won because we worked it hard," said Gold. He bought ads on a Los Angeles radio station, and his campaign sent out 10 million emails, he told the San Francisco Chronicle editorial board.
He's used to being underestimated.
How did he beat Wyman? I asked political consultant Kevin Spillane. "He had the best ballot designation," Spillane mused. "Former state prosecutor."
Now, the 69-year-old lawyer acknowledges, some wags call him "Acapulco Gold."
Harris seems, if anything, annoyed at the notion that marijuana is an election issue this year. In 2010, as she was running to be the state's top cop, Harris signed a ballot argument against Proposition 19, which would have legalized recreational use of marijuana. In August, when KCRA reporter Mike Luery asked Harris for her reaction about Gold's support for legalizing marijuana, Harris said, "He is entitled to his opinion." Then she laughed.
Marijuana Majority Chairman Tom Angell was so angry that he sent out a link to the KCRA story with a statement that faulted the "progressive rising star" for treating a policy that leads to racially disparate arrest rates and drug cartel violence like "a Cheech and Chong joke."
Where does Harris stand on legalizing recreational use of marijuana today? Harris campaign manager Brian Brokaw told me that Harris has been a longtime supporter of medical marijuana but that she doesn't like framing the issue as if it's a yes-or-no thing. The incumbent doesn't want to be "pinned down to three words," but if necessary, they would be "watch and analyze." Let's see what happens in Colorado and Washington, where voters legalized recreational marijuana, and then maybe she'll have an actual position, he said. Maybe.
For his part, Gold wants law enforcement to concentrate on serious crimes and violent offenders. Better to legalize, tax and regulate marijuana, he argues, as marijuana "has never killed anybody." He added that the "marijuana community" supported Harris over her GOP rival Steve Cooley in 2010, but now she is "playing it way too safe."
"It is significant to have a Republican candidate for statewide office way out ahead (on recreational marijuana) of the Democrat," Angell observed.
Will Gold's support for legalizing, taxing and regulating marijuana siphon some young and single-issue voters away from the up-and-coming Democrat? If not, maybe it makes sense for top Democrats to treat supporters like Cheech and Chong. If, on the other hand, Gold were to manage to attract a fresh set of voters, the GOP establishment might see a big opportunity in this small-government remedy.
To Angell, Harris' position -- whatever it is -- is not a smart move for the long game. In 2010, not one of today's Democratic statewide officeholders endorsed Proposition 19. Last year, after Colorado and Washington acted, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom repented. He now says that he supports legalization.
Newsom is the other Bay Area politician expected to run for governor or U.S. Senate in the next four years. If public opinion moves inexorably toward an end to prohibition, Harris could be in a pickle. "If it doesn't hurt her in this election," Angell pondered, it's likely to hurt her if she runs against Newsom in two or four years.
As for Gold, he dismisses the notion that his support for legalization is courageous: "It's a common-sense approach to solving problems."