"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

Behind it, elegant in a charcoal pantsuit and understated but perfect jewelry, Harris is grilling a half-dozen deputies on some urgent criminal cases as well as various stir-the-waters programs. She runs the meeting with the same calibrated intensity she brought to the hunt for voters in Iowa, asking intimidating questions one minute, disarming with humor the next. In a short break before the next appointment, she takes a call from a Los Angeles city council member who wants advice on cutting back on crimes committed by kids with guns. "Send prosecutors into high schools," she says. "Have them talk about the trajectory of a bullet through the body. Frankly, scare the shit out of them."

Waking up at-risk students may sound like a job for police officers or social workers. But for Harris, remaking the criminal justice system means holding it accountable not just for reacting to a rape or murder but also for preventing those things from happening in the first place. The standard prescription, she argues, has been to lock people up for as long as possible. In 1994, California voters approved the "three strikes" rule, which mandated minimum sentences of 25 years to life for three-time felons. The state’s prison population soared to record levels (contributing to the U.S. incarceration rate, one of the world’s highest), but crime stats in many cities remain stubbornly high. Playing politics on sentencing, Harris says, does nothing to address the recidivism rate, which in California is catastrophic: Some 70 percent of those released from prison in a given year will commit a new offense within three years. "If you had a company where 70 percent of the product was defective," Harris scoffs, "everybody would say, ‘Shut the place down!’"

The best way to treat an epidemic of crime, she argues, is early intervention. "The least effective and most costly way is to treat it after it’s already a full-blown problem," she says. Harris has attracted national attention with her program, Back on Track, which is aimed at keeping first-time nonviolent drug offenders from spending their lives in the criminal justice system. Participants, ages 18 to 30, are required to plead guilty, agree to a "personal responsibility plan," and enroll in what amounts to a boot camp in life skills: job training, remedial education, anger management, parenting, and personal finance. They’re given assistance with childcare and housing. Those who don’t meet their goals or who are arrested again go directly to prison.

Harris is relaxed and authoritative as she ticks off the results of the program, her pride and joy. But when the conversation veers from her agenda, she shifts into prosecutor mode: Arms folded across her chest, her jaw firm and head slightly tilted, she fixes me with her almond-shaped, light-brown eyes. I’m the one posing the questions, but I have the sensation that I’m on the witness stand. Harris waits, coiled, for the most benign question, then pauses, filleting my words to answer that part of the question that suits her purpose. When I persist in asking about her friend Obama, whose campaign in California she co-chairs, she laughs. "Now is this going to be about Barack or me? There’s nothing I would love discussing more. But I want to know." She has that great political skill: responding with a broad smile, apparent warmth, and a room-filling laugh — which she dispenses, I’ve noticed, not only when she’s amused but also when she wants to establish control.

Her No-Nonsense Reputation

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