"Female Obama" Wins in California

The inside scoop on California’s first major African-American and Asian-American candidate

By Karen Breslau
Kamala Harris from MORE’s July/August 2008 issue
Photograph: Photo by: Joe Pugliese

Now in her second term as DA, Harris is poised to break onto the national stage this year, both as an adviser to Obama’s campaign and as a platform committee member at the Democratic convention in August, helping to reframe the party’s message on the critical issue of crime. And she’s positioning herself for whatever comes next, whether it is a statewide office in California or a post in Washington, D.C., if Obama is elected. High-profile law enforcement has proved an effective launching pad for other ambitious, crusading women: Three state attorneys general — Arizona’s Janet Napolitano, Washington’s Chris Gregoire, and Michigan’s Jennifer Granholm — are all now governors. "Harris is one of the first Democrats in the country to check the toughness box but also the progressive box," says Democratic strategist Chris Lehane, who supported Hillary Clinton in the primaries.

Law-and-Order Liberal

As a leader of a growing group of law-and-order liberals, Harris wants to redefine criminal justice and keep her party’s nominee from falling into the usual traps. "Democrats often give the impression that we just want to open the jailhouse door and let everybody out," says Harris, who learned this the hard way from a death penalty controversy in her first term. "The public wants to know that we can keep them safe. If it’s always the Republicans or conservatives who come up with the plan, we will lose the debate. The old paradigm isn’t working: ‘Are you soft on crime or hard on crime?’ We should be asking, ‘Are you smart on crime?’"

Several weeks after helping Obama score his Iowa victory, Harris is back in her San Francisco office, located in one of the few ugly buildings in this picture-postcard city. The Hall of Justice, a seven-story gray hulk overlooking I-80, houses police headquarters as well as the DA’s office and courtrooms, making it the one-stop shop for anyone in trouble with the law. Visitors walk through metal detectors and past armed guards into the cavernous lobby. Dim lighting and dingy green corridors give the building a Soviet-era ambience.

One of the first things Harris did after being elected was have the hallway leading to her office suite painted a warm peach. Then she invited local art students to use the walls as gallery space. Near the courtrooms, where children who witnessed — or endured — domestic violence were usually left to fidget in hard plastic chairs, Harris set up a "teddy bear room," staffed with therapists trained to comfort traumatized kids. Both changes signaled Harris’s rejection of the DA’s traditional role. Instead of focusing solely on incarceration, she wants her office to be a center for community service. And it needs to feel like a sanctuary and haven to crime victims — often poor people and minorities who are afraid or suspicious of law enforcement — so that they will cooperate with prosecutors trying to take predators out of urban neighborhoods.

Harris sees no contradiction in thinking like a prosecutor and a social worker. Lateefah Simon, a community activist and MacArthur Fellowship recipient, saw both sides in action when she invited the DA to her Center for Young Women’s Development, which works with teenage girls involved in the sex and drug trades. Though her clients were deeply skeptical of anyone in law enforcement, Simon says, "Kamala just came in and sat on the floor with them — all these 15-, 16-, and 17-year-old girls who were selling crack, being pimped. She asked, ‘How many of you have been in a position where you had no power, where people took your body, took your spirit? I am holding them accountable for you.’ These kids think Kamala is Super Fly."

A Black Woman "Stirring the Waters"

Harris’s own office is painted industrial white, but softened with a vase of orchids. One bookshelf is filled with awards from civic organizations, another with titles reflecting her grimmest cases — Battered Wives, Triple Homicide, Child Abuse and Neglect — though it’s a non-judicial title, Black Women Stirring the Waters, that may best sum up her mission. A big bowl of tangerines sits on a corner of her imposing burlwood desk.

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