"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

Perhaps the most interesting victor in yesterday’s primaries is Kamala Devi Harris, the popular (stiletto-elbowed) district attorney of San Francisco. A law-and-order liberal, she is now, by virtue of her primary victory, on course to become the first African-American and Asian-American woman elected attorney general in California. Here’s our in-depth report on Harris, published in 2008 when she was campaigning for her old friend, Barack Obama.

Kamala Harris skitters up an icy walkway, plants herself on the porch of a modest wood-frame house, and raps firmly on the door. An elderly black woman opens it without unhooking the chain, eyeing Harris through a narrow opening. "Are you going to vote for Barack Obama tonight?" Then, seeing that the door is about to close, Harris switches gears. "I’m very persuasive," she coos in a voice suddenly soft and sugary. "I’m the first African-American district attorney elected in California. I came a long way to talk to you." The woman hesitates, just long enough for Harris to slip some campaign literature through the door, along with a phone number in case this voter needs a ride to the polling place. "You call me, now," Harris says, at once deferential and familiar, like a dutiful daughter checking on her ailing mother. Ticking off the woman’s name on her clipboard, Harris navigates her way back down the sidewalk, where she spots a young man scraping his windshield. In a split second she locks on her new target. "Hey, you going to vote?"

We are in a predominantly black neighborhood on the east side of Des Moines on a frigid Tuesday afternoon, hours before the Iowa caucus. Harris is moving as though she’s got a fire to put out. When the windshield guy mumbles something about being too busy, she raises her eyebrows in mock disapproval and puts one mittened hand on her hip, pointing her clipboard with the other. "I got things to do too," she teases, effortlessly dialing up the street in her cadence as she slips into scolding-auntie mode. "You think I don’t have enough things to do as district attorney of San Francisco?" The young man, grinning sheepishly, is by now getting into his car, escaping from this petite, down-coated stranger. But Harris manages to get in a last word. "It’s one night in a lifetime," she calls through his window. "People fought and died for the right to vote, you know?"

All that chutzpah, charm, and relentlessness have propelled Harris, 43, through an impressive legal career and into the rising-star ranks of the national Democratic party. Like Barack Obama, a close friend from law school circles, Kamala Harris has an irresistible, superlative-laced narrative that’s all about defying conventions.

The daughter of Berkeley civil rights activists, Harris was raised by a forceful single mother and bucked her family’s liberal sensibilities to become a prosecutor. In her first run at elective office, the 2003 race for DA, she thumped her former boss, a man almost 30 years her senior, to become the first female, the first African-American, and the first Indian-American chief law enforcement officer in the most liberal city of the most populous state. She has displayed intellect, charisma, and biracial glamour (her mother emigrated from India as a young woman; her father, from Jamaica) as well as an appetite for risk and the strength to withstand flak.

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