"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

Delivering a eulogy at Espinoza’s funeral, Senator Dianne Feinstein, who had supported Harris during her run, criticized her refusal to seek the death penalty. Hundreds of police in dress uniforms rose in the pews to applaud Feinstein, while Harris sat in their midst, staring furiously at the senator. Gary Delagnes, president of the San Francisco Police Officers Association, says, "The rank and file will never, ever forgive her for how she dug in on her philosophy about the death penalty before the officer was even buried. They thought, could you put this kid in the ground first?" The uproar continued for months, while the state attorney general investigated and found that Harris had acted quickly but within her authority. She eventually sought — and won — a life sentence without parole for the murderer.

Four years later, Harris bristles when asked about the Espinoza case and doesn’t admit having made a mistake. Being publicly chastised at the funeral, she allows, was "awful." She speaks for several minutes about the tragedy, about the burden of proving that she was not, like her predecessor, hostile to the police. She says that the entire episode taught her "to have faith that you can correct misperceptions" with a lot of time and effort. She has worked deliberately to demonstrate that she is a career prosecutor, with listening tours at station houses and visits to injured police officers in the hospital. Delagnes gives her credit for hiring top-notch staff and stepping up prosecution of gun and drug cases. She has also cleared a backlog of homicide cases left by her predecessor.

And Harris has won fans outside San Francisco. She speaks around the country about the Back on Track program. Fewer than 10 percent of its graduates have committed new offenses so far, a recidivism rate one-seventh that of nonviolent offenders coming out of prison. The Harris program is a small one, but the results are encouraging. Back on Track costs $5,000 per offender, compared with $35,000 per year in the county jail. The Republican-dominated National District Attorneys Association has endorsed the program as a model. When Harris won a second term last year, Feinstein, who still disagrees with her on capital punishment, swore her in.

Harris’s rising profile and affiliation with the Obama campaign have led to the inevitable what-next questions. He has adopted much of her "smart on crime" rhetoric, and there’s speculation that if Obama should win, she might be tapped to serve in his justice department, perhaps in the civil rights division. Party insiders say, though, that she would rather position herself to run for attorney general of California in 2010, and perhaps later for governor. Her friends have even bigger dreams. "I’d love to see Kamala in the White House," says Vanessa Getty, a close friend who belongs to one of San Francisco’s wealthiest and most prominent families.

But Harris could have a hard time getting votes in more conservative regions of California, such as Orange County or San Diego. "San Francisco likes to have very dynamic elected officials," says Susan Kennedy, a Democrat who is California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s chief of staff. "It doesn’t always play as well in the rest of the state."

Even in the tight, clubby world of San Francisco politics, some regard Harris as a diva. Her relationship with Mayor Gavin Newsom has been tense at times. The two are close in age, share Feinstein as a mentor, travel in similar social (and fund-raising) circles, and appear at times, say city hall sources, like rivalrous siblings. Early in his first term, Newsom annoyed her by showing up at murder scenes; he says he just wanted to express concern and make sure the police had the resources they needed. There were rumors that Harris had sent an underling to wait for a meeting with Newsom, because she refused to be kept waiting herself. Harris adamantly denies the tale. Advisers to both politicians say they are more comfortable working together now, especially since their ambitions have diverged — he is gearing up to run for governor in the near term, and she has no interest in running for mayor.

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