California Attorney General Kamala Harris on Tuesday became the first Democrat to enter the high-stakes, high-dollar race to replace Barbara Boxer in the U.S. Senate.
The decision by Harris marked the opening of what promises to be a wide-open contest that ranks among the most expensive Senate campaigns of 2016.
Harris' decision — just five days after Boxer's announcement that she would leave the Senate at the end of her term — appeared designed to discourage potential challengers and give her a head start on fundraising.
Billionaire environmental activist Tom Steyer, another Democrat, said he planned to decide shortly if he would become a candidate. Meanwhile, another prominent Democrat, former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, was consulting with advisers in preparation for a possible run.
Allan Hoffenblum, publisher of the California Target Book, a political almanac, said Harris remains relatively unknown in parts of California, and he expects someone from the Hispanic community and the business sector to seek the office.
"There's just too many egos and ambitions out there," Hoffenblum said. "If Kamala Harris does clear the field, I wouldn't be surprised if the business community, which doesn't really want another Barbara Boxer going to Washington, looks for somebody who would run as (an independent) candidate."
The 50-year-old Harris, the first woman and first minority to serve as California's top prosecutor, launched her campaign with a statement on her website. She called herself a fighter — echoing a mantra often used by the liberal Boxer during her campaigns.
"I will be a fighter for middle class families who are feeling the pinch of stagnant wages and diminishing opportunity," Harris said. "I will be a fighter for our children who deserve a world-class education, and for students burdened by predatory lenders and skyrocketing tuition. And I will fight relentlessly to protect our coast, our immigrant communities and our seniors."
Her online announcement came with a box that supporters could click if they wanted to donate to her campaign.
Steyer, a 57-year-old former hedge fund manager, said in a statement on his blog on The Huffington Post that Washington needs "climate champions" who will fight for the next generation.
"California Democrats are blessed to have a deep bench of talent and I will decide soon" on the race, Steyer said.
Boxer and fellow Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., were first elected in 1992 and have held the seats for a generation. Their long tenures created a logjam among ambitious, younger politicians eager to seek the coveted jobs.
Democrats are well-positioned to retain the Senate seat in the state where the party controls every statewide office and both chambers in the Legislature.
A crowded contest could set off geographic, as well as political, infighting.
Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de Leon, a Los Angeles Democrat who is close to Villaraigosa, said the contest should reflect the state's diversity and Southern California "has to be part of this equation."
The names of at least a dozen other Democrats were circulating as possible candidates. Democratic congresswoman Loretta Sanchez reiterated that she was exploring a bid.
"Californians deserve a strong voice in Washington and I have never been afraid to speak up," she said.
Tom Del Beccaro and Duf Sundheim, two former chairmen of the California Republican Party, are also considering runs for the office.
Harris is a friend of President Barack Obama and attracted national attention when she helped negotiate a settlement with major mortgage lenders and secured extra funding for California.
The daughter of an Indian mother and black father, Harris was elected California attorney general in 2010. Her announcement came a day after a potential rival, former San Francisco mayor and current California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, said he would not run for the open seat created by Boxer's retirement next year.
As the state's chief law enforcement officer, Harris has focused her crime-fighting efforts on cross-border gangs that she says are increasingly engaged in high-tech crimes such as digital piracy and computer hacking to target businesses and financial institutions.
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