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California and the West

Harman Says Her Campaign Won't Focus on Specifics

Politics: Gubernatorial candidate says voters are more interested in approach to leadership. Critics say she is trying to avoid tough calls.

April 17, 1998|JODI WILGOREN and CATHLEEN DECKER | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

When Rep. Jane Harman announced her surprise bid for California's Democratic gubernatorial nomination in February, she said she was not ready to offer specifics on how to solve the state's problems.

Now, the three-term South Bay congresswoman says she never will. At least not before the election.

"I hope it's about who is this human being who's running for governor. . . . What kind of a leader would they be?" Harman said this week in a campaign swing that took her from a San Francisco AIDS clinic north to Eureka and Redding, then wound up at a downtown Los Angeles senior citizens center Thursday.

"I could have position papers on all the issues but, No. 1, they wouldn't work--policy in government is not made that way, from the top down--and second, you can't anticipate all the issues," she told business leaders over coffee and croissants in Eureka on Wednesday morning. "It doesn't work in a business; it doesn't work in a family."

Harman said she sticks with broad brush strokes because she wants voters to choose her based on her approach to leadership. But critics say she is trying to avoid the tough calls that make enemies.

They cite her absence at a labor-sponsored rally last weekend at which her main rivals, businessman Al Checchi and Lt. Gov. Gray Davis, shared a stage. And although she says repeatedly that she wants to debate her opponents, she is not planning to appear with the two men this weekend at another political event.

Rather than outline proposals in pamphlets and speeches, Harman focuses on bipartisan consensus-building in Congress, promising a more inclusive government. She offers platitudes about her priorities--sharing California's prosperity with everyone through better public schools, safer streets and expanded health care--but avoids follow-up questions that parse the issues.

Particularly unorthodox, this politician is not afraid to shrug her shoulders.

"I can't tell you all the answers now," she said Tuesday evening, responding to a query about disability benefits and food stamps at a wine and cheese event with the Democratic Women of Humboldt County.

"That's an important question--I don't know the answer to it," she told an AIDS patient challenging the logic of people losing Medi-Cal coverage if they go back to work. "Thank you for asking. I'll have to look into that."

On delays in approving plans for coastal development: "I can't tell you . . . how to fix this yet, but my mind-set is, it's fixable."

On the controversy involving a fiberglass company in timber country: "I'm just watching the issue; I don't have a final answer."

And on how she might change the state budget process: "I don't know how to answer that yet. A lot of it depends on the relationships with the people."

Harman's lack of specificity is in stark contrast to the detailed wish list spun out by one of her opponents, Checchi, who recently said, "We are going to be as specific as humanly possible."

It is also an about-face from the 1990s trend toward concrete, detailed platforms. Bill Clinton, Ross Perot and Paul Tsongas all published books during the 1992 presidential campaign. The last Democratic gubernatorial nominee, Kathleen Brown, had a 63-page booklet; in his first campaign, in 1993, Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan's topped 50 pages.

"I think voters want specifics, especially on education," said Barbara O'Connor, director of the Institute for the Study of Politics and Media at Cal State Sacramento. "They really want specific plans; they are tired of writing blank checks."

With a cadre of public policy graduate students on his issues team, Checchi has cranked out position papers earlier and more often than most traditional candidates for public office. He says he will put 10,000 more police officers on the streets, raise teachers' salaries, sentence serial rapists to death and provide intensive language study for 3- and 4-year-olds.

Some observers have criticized Checchi as offering pie-in-the-sky proposals popular with voters but impossible to implement. At the state Democratic convention last month, Harman slammed Checchi for being too specific.

"Leadership is not about providing a laundry list of responses to a set of predictable questions," she said. "It's about providing a point of view, a mind-set, a perspective about how you'll solve problems that can't possibly be predicted now."

But critics say they just want to know what Harman thinks about today's problems, such as education, water, Indian gaming and how to fix the broken health care and welfare systems.

On the road this week, Harman did speak generally about what she is for and against.

She wants to strike a balance between economic development and environmental protection. She wants to save Social Security, but says the program needs adjustment to be viable in the future. She often frets over the fact that 25% of Californians lack heath insurance, but won't comment much on what should be done about it, except to say the private sector is key to the solution.

"Bilingual education needs fixing," she says of one of the most vexing questions of the campaign season, "but we don't need a one-size-fits-all strategy that will hurt a lot of communities."

Over and over again this week, Harman was asked about Gov. Pete Wilson's recent attempts to negotiate a gaming agreement with California Indian tribes. Over and over, she criticized the process, saying she would have met, openly, with the sovereigns of each tribe--but did not address the heart of the issue.

"Some people are for gaming, and some are against it," she said. Herself? Silence.

"If you don't listen, you can't get to the right answers--they're not all in your head," she told a crowd at Redding Mall, mentioning that she plans to convene forums--before the June 2 primary--on health care and how to return more tax money to cities and counties. "You're not born instantaneous geniuses about every policy problem."

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