"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

Lately, Harris has had to answer inquiries about an audit showing that federal funds may have been handled improperly by various San Francisco city agencies, including the DA’s office. Harris quickly launched her own investigation. At press time, it was unclear whether her office might be found culpable for any misuse of funds. But the headlines, fair or not, could undercut her reputation for managerial competence.

A Chameleon in Tough Settings

Like any politician, Harris deflects questions about her ambitions in a way that only stokes speculation. "I don’t plot and plan very far in advance," she protests. "That would be a bad use of time when there are so many things I could spend time doing that would be relevant for today and tomorrow."

Harris clearly wrestles with her public image. "At every stage of your career, you have to prove yourself," she says. "You cannot ever be resentful of that. It’s the very nature of growth and success." But, as she and her mother have agreed, she says, "You have to build into your life safe places, zones where you can be yourself. Where you can call friends, family, whoever, at midnight and laugh hysterically or cry or curse."

And she has carefully created those zones. Friends and family are protective, partly out of concern and partly out of fear of angering her. Even those who brim with stories of her generosity and humor acknowledge that she has a hot temper, and they don’t try her patience with nosy questions. For example, Harris hasn’t been publicly linked with anyone since Brown, but friends say they don’t ask. "If there’s someone important, she’ll tell me," says one.

But whether she is hitting the city’s high-class social circuit, sitting on the floor of a rehab center with crack dealers, or buttonholing voters in Des Moines, Harris shows a remarkable comfort with herself — and a chameleon-like ability to fit into her surroundings. "That’s the conundrum of Kamala," says her friend Amy Resner, who worked with Harris when both were young prosecutors. "You can easily imagine her leading a partners conference, making a million dollars a year, but she’s always chosen to work in these nitty-gritty settings."

One of Harris’s favorite settings is the graduation ceremonies for Back on Track. Decked out in caps and gowns, in the presence of friends and family members bearing balloons and flowers, each graduate receives a diploma from Harris and an invitation to speak about what he or she has learned. Then, with a ceremonial flourish, her eyes misty with pride, the DA asks a superior court judge to dismiss the felony charges and seal the record. Afterward, there are cheers, hugs, and refreshments. Watching Harris pose for pictures with her charges, it would be easy to mistake her for their beaming godmother instead of someone who might have thrown them in jail a few months earlier.

Harris has a ready response for anyone who misunderstands her compassion. "I don’t think there’s any question that I’m tough," she says. "Maybe that’s because I put people in jail every day. I look murderers in the eye and say, ‘You’re going in forever!’ I don’t have to act tough — it’s part of the job."

In her office, I ask Harris about a large silver sword behind her desk, a gift from an official visiting from Thailand. Suddenly Sinbad, she whips the sharp blade out of its scabbard. When she tries to sheathe the weapon again, it jams. Harris laughs, running her finger like a pirate over the sliver of exposed metal. "You know,’‘ she says, "I like it like that." She’s showing just enough edge and no more, in true Kamala Harris style.

Karen Breslau is Newsweek‘s San Francisco bureau chief. She writes frequently about women and leadership, and covered Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.

Originally published in MORE magazine, July/August 2008.

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