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Democrats leap at chance for Jane Harman's House seat

The Venice Democrat says she will probably resign to head a Washington think tank. Councilwoman Janice Hahn says she will run for the post. Others are debating it.

February 07, 2011|By Jean Merl and Richard Simon, Los Angeles Times
  • Rep. Jane Harman won reelection to her House seat in November, but says she'll likely resign to run a Washington think tank.
Rep. Jane Harman won reelection to her House seat in November, but says she'll… (Gary Friedman / Los Angeles…)

Reporting from Los Angeles and Washington — Los Angeles-area Democrats scrambled for the chance to fill a rare open seat in Congress after veteran Rep. Jane Harman (D-Venice) announced Monday that she would probably resign to run a Washington think tank.

Within hours, Los Angeles City Councilwoman Janice Hahn said she would be a candidate. California Secretary of State Debra Bowen, who represented much of the district in the Legislature, let it be known that she was "seriously considering" the idea. Activist Marcy Winograd, who mounted a strong but unsuccessful challenge to the moderate Harman from the left in last year's primary, said she was "exploring the possibility."

And Republican Mattie Fein, who lost to Harman in November, 60% to 35%, said she might run again.

"There will be a lot of people who will be quite interested in this congressional seat," said Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Beverly Hills).

Harman's announcement came three months after her reelection. She told constituents in an e-mail that she had been in discussions to become president and chief executive of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and the center's decision was imminent. An official announcement was expected Tuesday.

"I have always believed that the best solutions to tough problems require a bipartisan approach, and bipartisanship is the center's 'brand,' " she said in the e-mail.

If she got the job, she said, she would stay in Congress "for some weeks" to ensure an orderly transition.

Once the seat becomes vacant, Gov. Jerry Brown will have 14 days to call a special election. It is likely to be held in June, when Brown also hopes to ask voters to renew $9 billion in higher sales, income and vehicle taxes.

The race to replace Harman, 65, will be among the first tests of California's new election system, which voters approved in June. If no candidate receives a majority, the top two vote-getters meet in a runoff — even if they are members of the same party.

"This is the first road test for an election system that could dramatically change the way candidates are selected," said Dan Schnur, director of USC's Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics.

Given the Democratic leanings of Harman's district — registered Democrats outnumber Republicans 45% to 28%, and Barack Obama carried it by 30 percentage points in the 2008 presidential election — the seat is likely to remain in Democratic hands.

"If there is going to be a battle, it will be a battle between two top-flight Democrats," said Eric Bauman, chairman of the Los Angeles County Democratic Party.

But the race could become a "battle for the soul" of the party between the "progressive left and more conventional liberal Democrats," said Allan Hoffenblum, a former GOP consultant and publisher of the Target Book, which handicaps legislative races.

Harman is a member of the "blue dogs," a group of moderate and conservative Democrats whose diminished ranks in the Republican-controlled House have pushed the Democratic caucus further to the left. The Almanac of American Politics calls Harman the most conservative Democrat from Los Angeles.

USC political scientist Sherry Bebitch Jeffe noted that Harman has long been attacked from the left. "But one of the reasons she has held onto the seat is that she is a moderate Democrat," Jeffe said.

Harman's 36th Congressional District hugs much of the Los Angeles County coast, beginning with the Harbor-area communities of San Pedro and Wilmington and moving north and west through part of Carson, Lomita, Torrance and the coastal cities of Redondo Beach, Hermosa Beach, Manhattan Beach and El Segundo. It includes Marina del Rey and Harman's home, Venice, as well as Mar Vista and Palms.

UC Berkeley political scientist Bruce Cain said Harman's departure could foreshadow more retirements by veteran California House Democrats frustrated by life in the minority and anxious about the uncertainty over new district boundaries, which will be drawn by a citizens' panel using 2010 census data.

Jeffe said the redistricting process could limit interest in the race, especially for politicians not facing term limits in the near future. "Whoever wins and runs [in the special election] doesn't know what the district will be under the new lines. That's a risk some people won't want to take," she said.

Harman, the former top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, gained national attention as a leading voice on national security issues. She is married to Sidney Harman, the stereo industry magnate who recently bought Newsweek.

After her party won a majority in 2006, she was passed over for the chairmanship of the Intelligence Committee because of her strained relationship with Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco). In addition, some members of her party considered her too moderate.

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