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Harman: A Focus for Her Ambitions

CAMPAIGN CLOSE-UP / THE RACE FOR GOVERNOR

Congresswoman dreamed of 'unlimited possibilities' as a girl. To realize them, she has driven herself hard and seized opportunities.

May 05, 1998|JODI WILGOREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — When Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein opted out of the governor's race, Rep. Jane Harman was quick to respond to a reporter's query for reaction.

"It's a great opportunity for a woman," she said provocatively over the car phone.

The announcement would wait a few weeks, but she was in.

For someone who left the Golden State after high school and didn't return full time until a surprise bid for Congress three decades later, Harman's last-minute entry into the gubernatorial primary seemed a left turn without a signal. But she had always planned on greatness--it was just a question of when, where and what.

Now, with a Rolodex of A-list Democrats and her husband's bottomless bank account behind her, there was little to lose for this political moderate, a self-dubbed "pro-choice mother of four."

With gender as her passport in the first state to elect a pair of women to the U.S. Senate, Harman proffers herself as a consensus-builder with a can-do approach rather than a ream of position papers. After 15 years each in government and the private sector, she hopes to trump her Democratic opponents--Sacramento veteran Lt. Gov. Gray Davis and outsider Al Checchi, a maverick businessman whose vast wealth exceeds even her own.

Frustrated as a member of the House minority, with a cross-country commute and bruising biennial campaigns to keep her seat, Harman the gubernatorial candidate has everything to gain.

Her platform is spreading California's prosperity to all its corners, ending the divisiveness she blames on decades of Republican rule. But the longshot bid is equally about Harman's intense ambition: Worst case, she boosts her profile as a future candidate for top-tier political posts.

In a 1994 commencement speech at Smith College, Harman named "timing" and "courage" as leadership's key ingredients. This consummate seizer of the day molds herself to the opportunity at hand.

Possessed with a boundless sense of her own abilities, she was a klutzy kid who remade herself into a skilled athlete nicknamed GI Jane. Terrified of skiing, she hurls herself down the slopes anyway, perhaps just to tell herself she'll make it.

Prone to quick--some say impulsive--life-changing decisions, she married the wrong man when her parents nixed a beau who wasn't Jewish. They divorced after a decade, sharing custody of two small children; she promptly married a millionaire nearly twice her age and had two more.

And when a redrawing of the congressional map left an open seat in 1991, Harman moved to a South Bay district that pundits said favored Republicans--and won on an abortion-rights platform. Back inside the Beltway, she exploited decades-old connections to land a spot on the Armed Services Committee and soon became an expert on the aerospace concerns crucial to her Torrance-based district.

But California's governorship never graced the radar. She is a creature of Washington's power elite, a hostess of senators and Supreme Court justices who never joined the California bar and, to this day, has cars registered in D.C., not the Golden State.

Sacramento?

With a wry smile and blue eyes blazing, the 52-year-old Harman is so fond of repeating her mother's mantra, "Life has chapters," that husband Sidney cringes at the phrase. Her five years in Congress, where she is respected for bipartisan work on defense issues but rarely occupies the spotlight, are the longest she's held any job.

"To me, the answer to why she sought this is the man and the mountain," said Rep. Howard Berman (D-Mission Hills), who met Harman nearly four decades ago in the Young Democrats on the Westside. "It's there."

'Unlimited Possibilities'

For goodness' sakes, vote for Lakes

Janie's got what it takes!

*

Jane Margaret Lakes Frank Harman lost her first election, for junior high treasurer. She also bombed at cheerleader tryouts. But sitting under the redwoods at summer camp in Santa Cruz, she "dreamed a life of pretty unlimited possibilities."

"I was encouraged to dream that way by my own mother," she explained. "She never said, 'Janie, someday when you grow up, maybe you'll be governor of California.' But if she were alive today, she'd be damn proud that I'm trying to do that."

If Mom was an inspiration, Dad was a role model. Adolph Lakes achieved the nearly unfathomable, finishing medical school in Germany before fleeing the Nazis for New York in 1935.

Janie Lakes bought the American dream, predicting in her little brother's yearbook that she would be president (and he a janitor).

The political spark was ignited when Harman's University High School boyfriend, Justy Frank (not the Frank she would eventually marry), got floor passes for the 1960 Democratic Convention in Los Angeles.

Later, she went to Smith--where her mother had been denied a scholarship--planning to major in physics and be a doctor like Dad. But she soon switched to government, bringing Hubert Humphrey to campus and summering as a Washington intern. While housemates played bridge, Jane volunteered on campaigns.

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