In Harris’s early years, not many would have predicted a law enforcement career for her. Born in Oakland in 1964 to graduate students active in the civil rights movement, Harris was indoctrinated at an early age. "I would take her along to a march in her stroller,’‘ says her mother, Shyamala Harris, PhD, now a noted expert in breast biology at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory at the University of California. "When we chanted ‘What do we want?’ she would say ‘Fweedom!’" After her parents divorced (her father became an economist and professor at Stanford), Kamala and her sister, Maya, were raised by their adventurous, iconoclastic mother. By her own description, Dr. Harris was a demanding parent. "Kamala will say, ‘I grew up with a mother to whom I had to justify every single thing,’" she says.
Her mother was also determined to make her daughters comfortable in any environment, whether in their thriving black community in Berkeley or among Shyamala’s family in India. Unlike Obama, who has written of his biracial coming-of-age struggle, Harris appears to have suffered little self-doubt. "I grew up as an African-American woman with an experience that was very rich and nurturing," she says. "It’s more difficult for other people to figure out than it is for me," she adds, laughing. "This is my life.’‘
As a student at historically black Howard University in Washington, D.C., Harris spent weekends protesting apartheid and then got a taste of working inside the political system for former California Senator Alan Cranston and pollster Peter Hart. Back in San Francisco, she became president of the black law students association at Hastings College of Law and volunteered for Jesse Jackson’s 1988 campaign.
Harris’s background forms the perfect resume; for a public defender or perhaps an ACLU attorney, which is exactly the career path that her younger sister chose. Harris, instead, took a job as a deputy district attorney in Alameda County, where she built a reputation as a solid, no-nonsense prosecutor on one of the toughest beats, sex crimes against children. At the same time, she made the gossip pages as the girlfriend of former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, then speaker of the California Assembly. (The two broke up but remain friends.) In 1998, Harris crossed the bay and went to work in the city for DA Terence Hallinan. An almost stereotypical San Francisco character, Hallinan wanted to legalize prostitution and medical marijuana and was a gleeful foe of the police force. He once indicted the chief in a bizarre scandal that started when three off-duty officers scuffled with pedestrians over a bag of Mexican food, a fiasco dubbed Fajita-gate by the San Francisco Chronicle.
Harris quit her job in disgust after two years and went to work for the city attorney, Louise Renne. In 2003, at 39, she ran for DA against Hallinan, mocking her former boss’s claim of being America’s most progressive district attorney and portraying him as a lawless lefty. One of her mailers, featuring a chalk outline from a crime scene, was titled An Outline for Disaster, suggesting that Hallinan endangered the city. She trounced him.
But the new DA was barely installed in office when she stumbled, badly. On the night before Easter in 2004, a young undercover officer was shot to death in one of the roughest city neighborhoods. Isaac Espinoza, 29, was a much-loved figure in the police department. But within days, and without consulting either the police chief or the slain officer’s family, Harris decided — and announced — that she wouldn’t seek the death penalty against his accused killer. True, she had opposed capital punishment in her campaign. And the 21-year-old defendant had no prior adult convictions, making him an unlikely candidate for execution, especially with a San Francisco jury. But police officers were outraged. Even some of Harris’s allies took aim.