"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.

Now in her second term as DA, Harris is poised to break onto the national stage this year, both as an adviser to Obama’s campaign and as a platform committee member at the Democratic convention in August, helping to reframe the party’s message on the critical issue of crime. And she’s positioning herself for whatever comes next, whether it is a statewide office in California or a post in Washington, D.C., if Obama is elected. High-profile law enforcement has proved an effective launching pad for other ambitious, crusading women: Three state attorneys general — Arizona’s Janet Napolitano, Washington’s Chris Gregoire, and Michigan’s Jennifer Granholm — are all now governors. "Harris is one of the first Democrats in the country to check the toughness box but also the progressive box," says Democratic strategist Chris Lehane, who supported Hillary Clinton in the primaries.

Law-and-Order Liberal

As a leader of a growing group of law-and-order liberals, Harris wants to redefine criminal justice and keep her party’s nominee from falling into the usual traps. "Democrats often give the impression that we just want to open the jailhouse door and let everybody out," says Harris, who learned this the hard way from a death penalty controversy in her first term. "The public wants to know that we can keep them safe. If it’s always the Republicans or conservatives who come up with the plan, we will lose the debate. The old paradigm isn’t working: ‘Are you soft on crime or hard on crime?’ We should be asking, ‘Are you smart on crime?’"

Several weeks after helping Obama score his Iowa victory, Harris is back in her San Francisco office, located in one of the few ugly buildings in this picture-postcard city. The Hall of Justice, a seven-story gray hulk overlooking I-80, houses police headquarters as well as the DA’s office and courtrooms, making it the one-stop shop for anyone in trouble with the law. Visitors walk through metal detectors and past armed guards into the cavernous lobby. Dim lighting and dingy green corridors give the building a Soviet-era ambience.

One of the first things Harris did after being elected was have the hallway leading to her office suite painted a warm peach. Then she invited local art students to use the walls as gallery space. Near the courtrooms, where children who witnessed — or endured — domestic violence were usually left to fidget in hard plastic chairs, Harris set up a "teddy bear room," staffed with therapists trained to comfort traumatized kids. Both changes signaled Harris’s rejection of the DA’s traditional role. Instead of focusing solely on incarceration, she wants her office to be a center for community service. And it needs to feel like a sanctuary and haven to crime victims — often poor people and minorities who are afraid or suspicious of law enforcement — so that they will cooperate with prosecutors trying to take predators out of urban neighborhoods.

Harris sees no contradiction in thinking like a prosecutor and a social worker. Lateefah Simon, a community activist and MacArthur Fellowship recipient, saw both sides in action when she invited the DA to her Center for Young Women’s Development, which works with teenage girls involved in the sex and drug trades. Though her clients were deeply skeptical of anyone in law enforcement, Simon says, "Kamala just came in and sat on the floor with them — all these 15-, 16-, and 17-year-old girls who were selling crack, being pimped. She asked, ‘How many of you have been in a position where you had no power, where people took your body, took your spirit? I am holding them accountable for you.’ These kids think Kamala is Super Fly."

A Black Woman "Stirring the Waters"

Harris’s own office is painted industrial white, but softened with a vase of orchids. One bookshelf is filled with awards from civic organizations, another with titles reflecting her grimmest cases — Battered Wives, Triple Homicide, Child Abuse and Neglect — though it’s a non-judicial title, Black Women Stirring the Waters, that may best sum up her mission. A big bowl of tangerines sits on a corner of her imposing burlwood desk.

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

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.

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.

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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First Published Mon, 2009-04-06 18:14

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