Editor’s Note: We are re-running this in-depth profile on Kamala Harris to mark her pick as Joe Biden’s VP. We originally ran it two years ago as part of a series on female candidates for president. But we’re happy to see her on the second slot as well.
Putting aside the sad spectacle of the Senate hearings about Brett Kavanaugh’s alleged sexual assault of Christine Blasey Ford, can we instead recall a magnificent moment from the pre-Ford confirmation hearings? It came courtesy of the junior senator from California, Kamala Harris, who asked the nominee what is arguably the fundamental question concerning women’s reproductive rights: “Can you think of any laws that give government the power to make decisions about the male body?” Kavanaugh’s face went blank, taking on what Americans would soon recognize as his trademark “stumped” expression, as he jockeyed for time. He hemmed, he hawed, he asked her to be more specific. He stuttered something about medical procedures. She repeated the question and finally he was forced to throw in the towel. “I’m not thinking of any right now, Senator,” Kavanaugh admitted.
Of course, Harris, like any good lawyer, knew the answer to the question going in, but posing it in just that way was so … clarifying. Suddenly, all the buzz about her running for president in 2020 after a mere year and a half in the Senate began to make sense, even to the skeptics. For better or worse, this shiny new star of the Democratic party is a politician with skills.
The Obama Brouhaha
Most Americans first became aware, if dimly, of Harris back in 2013, when President Barack Obama, at a Democratic National Committee fundraising lunch in California, called the then-attorney general of California “by far the best-looking attorney general in America.” (For the record, the president preceded that remark with a description of her as “brilliant,” “dedicated,” and “tough.”) When the crowd laughed nervously, the president countered, “It’s true—come on!”
Obama called her ‘by far the best-looking attorney general in America.’
A brouhaha ensued, with pundits right, left, and center chastising Obama for his faux pas and for setting back feminism. “On what planet,” tweeted journalist and New York magazine columnist Rebecca Traister, “did he think that sounded like the right thing to say?”
Can we pause a moment here to mourn the loss of our innocence? Granted, this was one of Obama’s clumsier moves, but in a era of presidential pussy-grabbing, porn-star payoffs, and blasting women as “dogs,” what wouldn’t we give for a chief executive whose worst offense in the realm of sexual politics—let alone every other kind—was to call a patently good-looking woman (see above photograph) “good looking”?
As for the object of Obama’s ill-advised praise: Harris took that mini-controversy in stride, as befits a woman who has been labeled “the female Obama,” and, five years later, as the junior senator from California, she is on fire. Thanks in large part to the boatloads of media she’s received for her fierce interrogations of witnesses, like Kavanaugh, who’ve come before the high-profile Senate committees on which she sits, including both judiciary and intelligence, Harris has quickly carved out a major national profile. Within hours of her election to the senate, Mother Jones put her on a list of “11 Democrats Who Could Defeat President Trump in 2020,” and her name has appeared on virtually every other shortlist since then.
Going a step further, Brides.com even ran an article in mid-2017 (just eight months into her Senate tenure) citing “7 Reasons Sen. Kamala Harris’s Husband, Douglas Emhoff, Would Make a Great First Man.” Among the virtues ascribed to Emhoff, a prominent attorney and father of two grown children (to whom Harris is a doting “S-Momala”): his ease at meeting new people (after all, he and Harris met on a blind date in 2013 and married a year and a half later); his deep belief in philanthropy (attested to in his and Harris’s released—hear that, Donald Trump?—2015 tax returns, which show charitable contributions of nearly $33,000); and, most important, the fact that he’s married to Kamala Harris
Rising in the West
Harris won the Senate seat vacated by Barbara Boxer (a four-term Democrat who retired in 2017), sailing to victory over a more moderate Democrat, U.S. Representative Loretta Sanchez, in an election that made history because it was the first time an African-American woman and a Latina woman have run against each other in a major contest. It was also the first California senatorial race in more than a century without a Republican on the ballot. (You gotta love California—its “top-two” rule stipulates that the two candidates with the most votes in the primary face off in the general election, even if they’re from the same party.)
Later on election night, Kamala could be found huddled at home on her couch with a jumbo bag of Nacho Cheese Doritos (‘my go-to stress food’).
That Senate seat was the culmination of years of hard work, and Harris’s victory was sweet. But there was a wee fly in the ointment: On the very night, November 8, 2016, that Harris was planning to deliver a victory speech in Los Angeles about how exciting it would be to work in Congress alongside America’s first woman president, back in New York, a certain Donald J. Trump was putting the kibosh on that sunny scenario. So instead, Harris (whose younger sister, Maya, was a key campaign advisor to Hillary Clinton), gave a different, shorter speech. “When our ideas and fundamental ideals are being attacked, do we retreat or do we fight?” she said. “I say we fight!” Later that night, she told Vogue, she could be found huddled at home on her couch with a jumbo bag of Nacho Cheese Doritos (“my go-to stress food”), muttering, “This. Can’t. Be. Happening.”
But true to her word, Harris picked herself up and has come out swinging. From Day One she’s been outspoken in her opposition to the president; she was, for instance, among the first to label his “Executive Order Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States,” issued a week after the inauguration, a “Muslim ban.” And she’s taken strong, progressive stances, particularly on immigration and DACA. Her “no” vote in 2017 on a bill that would have given Trump his wall in exchange for a path to citizenship for Dreamers drew gasps from her colleagues, but California is home to 220,000 Dreamers, more than any other state, and she feared “those billions of dollars may also be used to implement this Administration’s anti-immigrant agenda.” She’s also all-in on that Democratic litmus test, healthcare reform. Last year, she announced her intention to cosponsor Bernie Sanders’ “Medicare for All” bill, tweeting “it’s just the right thing to do.” She’s also a firm defender of Planned Parenthood and, more recently, called for ICE to be overhauled, though not abolished, as some of her colleagues have urged.
And then there are those televised committee hearings. Last June, she made an indelible impression when she grilled U.S. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein about the independence of the Mueller investigation, prompting an interruption from Senator John McCain, followed by an admonishment from the committee chair, Senator Richard Burr, for Harris to show more “courtesy”—a form of sexist “silencing” that instantly lit up the Twitterverse. A week later came her rapid-fire questioning of Jeff Sessions over his role in the Trump campaign and its meetings with various Russians. When Sessions whined that she was rushing him, which “makes me nervous,” McCain again intervened out of turn and asked her to back off.
Eyes on the Bigger Prize
Naturally, such a figure is going to be divisive, but the intense reactions Harris generates do not break down strictly along the usual left/right lines. Is she a poised and charismatic former prosecutor who asks tough questions and won’t back down—or a bullying showboat? Discuss among yourselves. But both camps agree that she has her eyes on a bigger prize.
The prospect of a President Kamala Devi Harris is undeniably tantalizing. She’d be the first black woman (not to mention the first woman period) and the first person of South Asian descent ever to ascend to the office—the same three barriers she broke when she was elected California’s Attorney General in 2010. (Harris’s late mother, Shyamala Gopalan, was a Tamil Indian from the Chennai region of India who immigrated to the US in 1960, and her father, Donald Harris, was a Jamaican who came to this country in 1961.) Born in 1964 in Oakland—both parents earned PhDs at nearby UC Berkeley—young Kamala juggled both Baptist and Hindu traditions as she accompanied her activist parents to civil rights marches. Donald, who became an economics professor at Stanford, and Shyamala, a breast cancer researcher at universities in the U.S., Europe, and Canada, divorced when Kamala was seven.
Law was a natural career choice for her, she says, because her childhood heroes—’the architects of the Civil Rights movement’—were all lawyers.
After graduating from Howard University, Harris enrolled at UC Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco. Although she flunked the bar on her first try, she passed on her second and got a job as a prosecutor in the Alameda County District Attorney’s office in Oakland, where her focus was child sexual abuse cases. Law was a natural career choice for her, she says, because her childhood heroes—“the architects of the Civil Rights movement”—were all lawyers.
First Steps in Politics
Her first foray into electoral politics was in 2003 when she ran for district attorney of San Francisco, positioning herself to the right of the Democratic incumbent—her former boss—and adopting a tough-on-crime stance, to which even ultra-liberal Bay Area residents, tired of the area’s chronically low conviction rates, were receptive. After coming in second in the general election, she prevailed in a runoff.
The race also exposed her private life to public scrutiny: In the 1990s, Harris had been in a relationship with the married (though long separated) and three-decades-older mayor of San Francisco, Willie Brown, and she had to field charges that she’d benefitted from their closeness both politically and financially. As speaker of the California Assembly, Brown had appointed her to two highly remunerative patronage positions in state government.
“Willie Brown is not going to be around,” she told SF Weekly at the time, in a reference to both his term-limited mayorship, which ended in 2004, and his age, then 69 (ouch!). “He’s gone—hello people, move on.” Yet Brown deployed his broad network of party connections to raise a $1 million war chest for that campaign, and even today, though he no longer holds public office, he remains a visible presence in Golden State political circles.
Supporters and detractors alike have been baffled by some of the policies she oversaw as district attorney in San Francisco and later as attorney general.
The decidedly centrist position that secured Harris’s first win and guided her tenure as district attorney, where she succeeded in boosting felony conviction rates from 52 to 67 percent in three years, may seem at odds with her current image as a progressive aligned with the Elizabeth Warren/Bernie Sanders wing of the Democratic party, but it’s the one that defined most of her pre-Senate career.
That’s not to say that she doesn’t possess some rock-solid progressive bona fides. Just four months into her tenure as district attorney, Harris courageously refused to capitulate to demands for the death penalty in the case of the shooting death of a police officer, despite pressure from the San Francisco Police Officers Association and both California senators, Boxer and Dianne Feinstein. And her office launched successful criminal justice reforms that targeted reducing recidivism among California’s prison population through education, counseling, and job training programs—an example of her signature “smart on crime” philosophy, which she elucidated in a 2009 book with that title. She was a staunch proponent of same-sex marriage, and as district attorney she created a Hate Crimes unit that emphasized protecting the rights of LGBT teenagers.
At the same time, however, supporters and detractors alike have been baffled by some of the decisions and policies she oversaw as district attorney in San Francisco and later as attorney general. For all her opposition to capital punishment, for example, when a federal court in California struck it down as unconstitutional in 2015, she appealed the decision. The seemingly out-of-character move went a long way toward restoring the good will of state law enforcement groups, which had despised her since the police shooting case, and helped seal her reelection as attorney general in 2014.
And to the chagrin of liberals, she declined to seriously go after California’s notorious “three strike” rule, which automatically put previous felons convicted of even relatively mild third offenses behind bars for life. Nor did she back a bill to do away with solitary confinement in the state, insisting, “There is no solitary confinement here.” Similarly, her bedrock belief in the primacy of education resulted in the rather odd policy position, unveiled nationally to Matt Lauer in 2009 on The Today Show, that parents be held criminally liable for their children’s elementary-school truancy. Interestingly, the New York Times reported that well-heeled San Francisco voters tended to view this policy as unfair to working-class and minority parents, while black audiences elsewhere in the state usually responded with “approving murmurs.”
In the aftermath of the housing crisis, Harris got a lot of credit for holding out for a bigger settlement from the big banks: California ended with more than $20 billion in relief instead of the initial $8 billion it was offered, which Harris dismissed as “crumbs on the table.” But she has been dogged by questions about why, when a secret 2013 Justice Department memo (leaked in January 2017) urged her office to prosecute OneWest, a Pasadena, California-based bank whose CEO was now-Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, for egregious violations of foreclosure laws, she opted not to pursue the matter. Mnuchin donated $2,000 to Harris’s 2016 senate campaign, his only contribution to a Democrat—though Harris did vote “no” for Mnuchin as treasury secretary.
But the accusation that brings out her critics’ sharpest knives—and they’re mostly coming at her from the left—is that as both district attorney and attorney general, Harris tolerated what the Los Angeles Times called an “epidemic” of prosecutorial misconduct, likely arising from her determination to maintain high conviction rates. In a wide range of criminal cases that undermined the rights of defendants as well as victims, these critics charge that the district attorney’s and attorney general’s offices consistently looked the other way as prosecutors committed perjury, used illegal prison informants, and coerced witnesses, among other irregularities—a claim substantiated by the Northern California Innocence Project, which found 700 cases of prosecutorial misconduct in 11 years, with 80 percent of the convictions nonetheless upheld. In one high-profile scandal that threatened to derail Harris’s campaign for attorney general, a judge ruled that the district attorney’s office had failed to disclose the theft of drug samples by a disgruntled crime lab worker, thus violating the rights of hundreds of defendants whose cases wound up being dismissed.
For every naysayer who claims she is two-faced, a lefty-come-lately, there’s a passionate defender who says she’s made a graceful and inspiring transition into a new role.
It can be argued, of course, that the primary job of a district attorney or an attorney general is to oversee the justice system in that jurisdiction; it is not necessarily to intervene in individual cases. Now, as senator, Harris has the opportunity to show us who she really is. For every naysayer who claims she is two-faced, a lefty-come-lately who has adapted her positions to the prevailing political winds of her party, there’s a passionate defender who will reply that she has made a graceful and inspiring transition into a new role—one that has allowed her, yes, to not only display the prosecutorial skills she honed in her past career, but also to move onto a larger stage where she can make a difference in policy areas that weren’t part of her previous purview.
Furthermore, her fans argue, if she’s not as far left as would-be competitors such as Warren or Sanders, so what? Harris has long touted the idea of fixing the system from within; she likes being “at the table where the decisions are made,” as she told the New York Times. That could be a good thing for the Democrats, assuming they’d like to experience victory for a change. On the campaign trail, Harris demonstrates an ability to connect with wildly disparate groups of voters that inspires something like awe in journalists who’ve covered her.
Unlike other major Democratic contenders, she might actually be able to stitch together a winning coalition of voters across the currently deeply divided racial, ethnic, gender, and economic spectrum in a way that brings to mind that other highly gifted African-American politician to whom she is so often compared. For now, Harris–who’s proving to be one of the Democratic Party’s most formidable fundraisers (a single email from her generated $400,000 in contributions in 24 hours to the coffers of embattled North Dakota Senator Heidi Heitkamp)—says she hasn’t made up her mind about a presidential bid and is “focused on 2018,” but the announcement in July of a memoir to be published in early 2019 is perhaps the surest sign yet that her demurrals should be taken with several shakers of salt.
The “real” Kamala Harris may be up for grabs, but whichever of her two faces Americans choose to see, it’s a safe bet that they’ll be seeing a lot more of it.
Lorraine Glennon, a Brooklyn-based editor and writer, was the editor-in-chief of Our Times: An Illustrated History of the Twentieth Century.