Kamala Harris promises reform during first news conference as AG-elect

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AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes

California Attorney General Kamala Harris gives her first news conference in Los Angeles on Tuesday, Nov. 30, 2010. Republican Steve Cooley conceded the California attorney general's race to Democrat Harris last week, giving Democrats a sweep of all statewide offices and ushering in the first woman and first minority elected to the post.

California Attorney General-elect Kamala Harris held a news conference on Tuesday, her first since the election. She announced a high-powered transition team and promised to follow through on her campaign promises to reform the criminal justice system.

Harris chose the ornate Emerald Ballroom at the Biltmore Hotel in downtown L.A. for her first official appearance. More than 100 cheering supporters greeted her.

"O.K. sit, you must sit," Harris implored as she smiled broadly and laughed. "Everyone must sit and behave yourselves, please."

It was the first time Harris publicly expressed her joy over winning one of the closest statewide elections in history. Only last week — three weeks after the election — did it become clear that the Democrat had beaten L.A. District Attorney Steve Cooley by less than 1 percent.

Harris acknowledged Cooley, and said she looked forward to working with him.

She also reiterated her campaign promise to reform California’s criminal justice system.

“The work that we will do going forward will be the work of rejecting false choices, of accepting the fact that we can for example be tough on crime and be smart on crime," Harris said.

Harris has said that inmates coming out of prison need more help to stop them from committing new crimes. The notion won Harris a lot of support, even if rehabilitation programs might cost money the state doesn’t have right now.

During the campaign, she said she would not fight a federal judge’s order to improve prison healthcare by reducing the state’s inmate population, even though she said she opposed early releases.

At the news conference though, Harris sidestepped a question about whether she supported the state’s challenge to the order before the U.S. Supreme Court.

“I have not read the briefs to know what exactly I would do," she said.

As California attorney general, Harris immediately becomes a national figure who can set trends on policies from environmental law to consumer protection. But before she does that, Harris has some work to do with the state’s local law enforcement leaders.

“She has to, I think, make up some ground there because many of them supported Steve in this last race," said John Van de Kamp, a former state attorney general and supporter.

Harris’ friends and supporters are elated at her narrow win.

“I think California is ready for an innovative approach to public safety and law enforcement," said
Los Angeles-based filmmaker Reggie Hudlin.

He also echoed the sentiment of many political analysts who say Harris is one of the Democratic Party’s brightest new stars.

“I know she likes to downplay that kind of conversation but I was at the Democratic National Convention and pretty consistently people looked at her as one of the important voices on a national level," said Hudlin.

At her first news conference, Harris projected the air of someone on the way up. She stood at a lectern in front of a giant California flag, with a half dozen more California and American flags behind her. She named a transition team that included two former US secretaries of state — Warren Christopher and George Shultz — and former LAPD Chief Bill Bratton.

Harris will become the first woman, first black and first Indian-American California attorney general. While she never went into detail about that, she did speak about her roots.

“Growing up in Berkeley public schools, the daughter of two parents who met when they were active in the civil rights movement as graduate students at U.C. Berkeley," she said, "I was part of the second class to integrate Berkeley public schools.”

Harris also took note that she enters the attorney general’s office in the steps of Edmund G. Brown and Earl Warren, both of whom became governor of California, and one of whom went on to become chief justice of the United States.

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