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The Unstoppable Rise of Kamala Harris

How a local star rocketed her way into the national firmament.


“I am not a big...” Kamala Devi Harris’s voice trails off, and she starts her sentence anew. “I don’t admire grand gestures.” It’s getting toward 6 on a Friday evening in October, and the California attorney general’s tone over the phone is one of exquisitely calibrated caution. She is trying to lay out her political worldview in a manner that sets her apart from her more flamboyant fellow San Francisco politicians without causing them undue offense. It’s a needle that Harris has long been adept at threading. “I admire goal achievement,” she says, explaining her distaste for legislative moon shots and partisan touchdowns. The former San Francisco district attorney modestly claims to crave neither credit nor recognition—only “outcomes that have impact.”

At the dawn of another presidential election year, Harris has already had an outsize impact on the national political scene. When she confirmed her candidacy for Barbara Boxer’s soon-to-be-vacant United States Senate seat in January 2015, she instantly became the front-runner. Her announcement freed Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom to train his sights on the 2018 governor’s race, and it relegated potential rivals like former Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer to the sidelines. She received an early shout-out from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, as well as endorsements from Emily’s List, a bevy of unions, and nearly a dozen law enforcement outfits. As of October, she had amassed $6 million, six times the total of her closest Democratic rival, Orange County congressperson Loretta Sanchez.

That heap of money underscores a larger truth professed by many in California’s political class: Harris has Boxer’s seat “wired.” While national Republicans clamor for a return to the pre-Obama past, Harris—the Oakland-born daughter of an Indian doctor and an African-American economics professor—is touted as the face of the post-Obama future. She’s the chosen candidate of a raft of state political eminences, from Willie Brown to John Burton to Jerry Brown; she counts tech billionaires like Sean Parker and Laurene Powell Jobs among her pals; she’s on good terms with Elizabeth Warren, Hillary Clinton, and Barack Obama himself—the latter a personal friend to whom she has long been likened politically.

Like the president, and unlike many survivors of the crucible of San Francisco politics, she ascended to her lofty perch without cavalierly butting too many heads or stepping on too many toes. She may not be universally loved, but it’s hard to find many in California politics who strongly dislike her, let alone a cohort vindictive enough to scare up the mountains of cash it’ll take to derail her quest for the Senate. “That woman’s gonna be president,” one former associate says when asked about potential lines of attack on Harris. “I’m not gonna antagonize her.”

Harris’s anointed status, however, is not entirely based on the strength of her record. While her campaign staff can point to any number of goals attained during her two terms as San Francisco’s DA and her term and a half as California’s AG, they don’t constitute typical highlight-reel material. Asked to name her proudest accomplishments as DA, the first thing Harris mentions is an office filing system—“if you can believe that.” Another milestone came in 2004, when she brought email to the DA’s Office (seven years before it reached the San Francisco Police Department!). But while these are certainly “outcomes with impact,” they are not the sort of success that elicits big-deal endorsements or big-bucks donations.

Rather, something far less tangible is working in Kamala Harris’s favor: In the parlance of Hollywood producers, Harris has “it.” Even before her upset election to DA in 2003, the young prosecutor had been labeled as a political star. Her ascent since then has been rapid and steady. But, as is the case with so many bright, shiny things, her luminescence is all that you see: Any troubling material on the periphery is lost in the glare. Her main assets as a senatorial candidate, according to a recent poll of probable voters, are three: She has created “a very vague, broad positive feeling” about herself; she has “done a decent-to-good job” as attorney general; and she is a Democrat.

That faint, superficial praise has been voiced loudly before: In 2013, Obama saw fit to refer to Harris as America’s “best-looking attorney general,” even doubling down to note that she was “by far” the hottest AG in all the realm. The president’s turn as leering construction-worker-in-chief may have been embarrassing, but it was not without its benefits for a politician once described by an impressed (and vanquished) rival as “properly ambitious.” Thanks to Obama, Harris became the face that launched a million Google searches. And, like so many voters before them, people liked what they saw.

To a San Franciscan in the 1990s
, talk of a senatorial (not to mention presidential) future for Kamala Harris would have seemed ludicrously far-fetched. She was introduced to the public via a 1994 Herb Caen column tabbing her as “the Speaker’s new steady”; how her romance with then–ayatollah of the assembly Willie Brown concluded was, and is, a matter of contention. “He won the mayor’s race,” says a longtime Harris supporter, “and he didn’t need this beautiful woman anymore.” Another city wag insists that it was Harris, put off by Brown’s incessant womanizing, who gave him the boot. It took years (and multiple elections) for the AG to cleanse herself of the stench of Brown patronage, but the aroma seems to have abated. According to city hall scuttlebutt, Da Mayor—who did not return messages—was none too pleased to learn of Harris’s 2014 marriage to Los Angeles attorney Douglas Emhoff like everyone else: by reading the newspaper.

Unlike Brown-related baggage, the most potentially debilitating development in Harris’s career was undeniably self-inflicted. On April 13, 2004, only three days after a handsome and highly regarded young police officer named Isaac Espinoza had been gunned down in the Bayview, Harris announced that she would not seek the death penalty for his killer, a 21-year-old gang member by the name of David Hill—holding to the pledge she’d made during the DA’s race one year prior. On April 16, she joined thousands of mourners at St. Mary’s Cathedral for the funeral. When Senator Dianne Feinstein called for the death penalty for Espinoza’s murderer, a sea of blue-clad officers rose with a primal roar. The district attorney remained seated.

The wrenchingly awkward moment can be seen as the culmination of a number of missteps by Harris (not to mention a rare instance in which a politician was excoriated for not breaking a campaign promise). Her announcement that she would not seek the death penalty was perhaps unnecessary and premature—uncharacteristically, she had not met with the victim’s family; and by pulling the death penalty from her arsenal, she potentially weakened her ability to negotiate a deal. On the other hand, notes a longtime political strategist unaffiliated with Harris, there was something “consistent and brave” about her unwavering, if politically unwieldy, stance. Harris made amends to the cops the only way she could: by putting her best homicide prosecutor, Harry Dorfman, on the case. “I never remember seeing her so nervous as about the outcome of that trial,” recalls then-supervisor Aaron Peskin, who first met Harris when they attended grade school together in Berkeley. In 2007, Hill was found guilty of murder and sentenced to life without parole. 

A year after Espinoza’s death, Harris astutely installed former police union boss Chris Cunnie as head of the district attorney’s investigatory branch—simultaneously reinvigorating that outfit and gaining an influential emissary to stillseething local and state law enforcement agencies. As AG, her relationship with the state’s cops had thawed to the point that in February 2011, she led a delegation of California law enforcement officials to the nation’s capital, where she mined her Rolodex of contacts to set up meetings that would lead to millions of federal dollars flowing into the coffers of law enforcement agencies throughout California.

Harris’s hot-and-cold relationship with local law enforcement presaged a later battle with influential friends. In 2007, then-DA Harris (whose brother-in-law, Tony West, would go on to become the third-ranking official in Obama’s Justice Department) became the first California elected official to endorse Obama’s presidential candidacy. So it was especially noteworthy when, in 2011, AG Harris rejected a $2 billion settlement from the country’s major banks—a deal brokered by Obama’s Justice Department—for their role in the mortgage meltdown of 2008. It was a risky move for Harris, both personally and professionally. “The Los Angeles Times had an editorial saying I should take the deal,” she recalls. “I got calls from elected leaders in California saying, ‘I hope you know what you’re doing.’”

Attorneys on the 80-person team that Harris assembled to address the issue remember being “locked into” the 14th floor of San Francisco’s DOJ building for weeks. The negotiations regularly pushed into the wee hours—on weekends, Harris would order a spread from Don Ramon’s, paying for it out of her own pocket. But she did more than treat for dinner: “She was usually the one in the room who’d say, ‘No. We haven’t gotten all we can get,’” says Brian Nelson, the AG’s former general counsel.

In the end, Harris’s risk taking has been amply rewarded, her tough stances vindicated. Years after she kept her promise not to seek the death penalty despite popular opinion, a growing number of Americans (and Supreme Court justices) are questioning the inequities of capital punishment; none other than Pope Francis denounced the practice during his recent visit to the United States. The mortgage settlement brought more than $20 billion in relief to California—an order of magnitude more than the amount the Obama administration had hoped to settle for. Asked if any of the naysaying leaders have called her back to admit that she knew what she was doing after all, Harris laughs good and hard. “You know how people are: They don’t do that!”

As a sophomore at Howard University
in the 1980s, Harris interned for Barbara Boxer’s predecessor, Senator Alan Cranston. She was drawn to his environmentalism, she says, and admired his demand for divestment from apartheid-era South Africa. Cranston’s career ended poorly—he was later implicated in the Charles Keating savings and loan scandal—but his down-to-earth advice to his interns apparently stuck with Harris: “Make as many friends as you can on the way up,” he’d tell them. “You’ll need them on the way down.” 

Many years later, in 2000, San Francisco lawyer John Shanley was hosting a fête at the United Irish Cultural Center to kick off his campaign for District 4 supervisor. And he was doomed: Irish-American candidates holding events at Irish enclaves do not fare well in the heavily Chinese Sunset, especially when pitted against established Chinese opponents (Leland Yee in this case, years before he was convicted of corruption).

So Shanley was surprised when Harris, with whom he had worked at both the District Attorney’s and the City Attorney’s Offices, ambled into the room. “People say, ‘She’s an opportunist! She’s a climber!’” Shanley says with a laugh. “Well, supporting me for supervisor was not a great career move.” Her gesture, he recalls, was deeply meaningful to him—at the time, he was coping with his mother’s recent death and his father’s terminal illness. “That went a long way with me,” he says and then laughs again: “Maybe she was smart enough to know that Leland was a lying sack of shit!”

Harris’s altruism isn’t limited to friends and allies in need of cultivation. In 2009, attorney and serial DA candidate Bill Fazio answered his office phone; it was Harris. “How can I help you?” Fazio recalls asking guardedly. He and Harris weren’t—and still aren’t—close: During the 2003 race, Fazio and incumbent Terence Hallinan had pilloried the political naïf Harris, dismissing her as a creation of Willie Brown. In the intervening six years, Harris had won a second term as DA, Brown had become the city’s preeminent influence peddler, and Hallinan and Fazio had been relegated to private practice.

When she reached out to Fazio, Harris was mourning the death of her mother, the Indian-born cancer researcher Dr. Shyamala Gopalan—and she was aware that Fazio’s wife had died recently (tragically, Fazio would soon lose his son, too). The two lawyer-politicians talked for 45 minutes, Fazio recalls, on subjects that had nothing to do with law or politics. “It was just our personal lives,” he says. “It was totally unnecessary—to this day I have no doubt it was pure sincerity on her part. This woman is way more compassionate and understanding than people give her credit for.”

It’s not difficult to unearth stories like this about Harris—friends and former colleagues remember watching her fret late into the night, far from any camera or microphone, over the plight of the less fortunate. “She really gives a shit about victims, and a lot of prosecutors lose sight of that,” says a longtime city prosecutor who has worked under multiple DAs. “She would meet with all the victims. She would meet with the families. A lot of DAs really don’t want to touch the flesh of the victim. They don’t want to talk to the family, who may be upset that their kid, who may have been a gangbanger, whatever, got killed. Kamala has a lot of balls that way. People see her out at lunch and think ‘Oh, what a life!’ They have no idea how hard she works.”

That hard work accelerated in 2004, when Harris took over as San Francisco’s district attorney. Her predecessor, Hallinan, was a former juvenile delinquent and Golden Gloves boxer whose keen intelligence, according to former colleagues, was routinely underestimated. But nobody defends his management of the DA’s Office. Veteran attorneys describe a dysfunctional system in which criminal punishments varied depending on the prosecutor’s relationship with the cop on the case (“Inspector So-and-So? He’s in my parish! He’s a great guy. Better charge this one as a felony.”). There was, as Harris stresses, no filing system. There were no metrics to speak of. One of Harris’s early orders was to dispatch a subordinate to Walgreens to buy desk phones.

Getting phones was a nice first step—and Harris went on to overhaul many archaic and counterproductive practices. However, her tenure as the city’s lead prosecutor was far from drama-free. She had to drop more than 1,000 drug cases after it came to light that a technician in the police department crime lab had been snorting the evidence. The city’s DNA lab was slammed as negligent and sloppy. Harris’s office faced repeated accusations of padding its conviction stats with plea bargains while pushing dubious cases to trial. The office failed to disclose to defense attorneys that more than 80 police officers it had called to testify in a bevy of cases had criminal histories or records of misconduct. In one particularly embarrassing incident, the city was made to repay the Department of Justice $5.4 million that, rather nonsensically, had been earmarked for the prosecution of border-related crimes (even more nonsensically, San Francisco, which sits more than 500 miles from the Mexican border, had received more such money than any other jurisdiction in the nation). But somehow, Harris survived it all. And got promoted. 

In 2010, all of these damning facts
were laid at the feet of Harris’s Republican opponent in the attorney general’s race, former Los Angeles County DA Steve Cooley. But Cooley chose not to make any of them the crux of his campaign. Harris is a driven and disciplined politician, a relationship builder, and a tireless fundraiser, but as Cooley’s strategic misstep demonstrates, it never hurts to be lucky too. While Harris portrayed herself as the protector who would shield voters from consumer fraud and big bank malfeasance, Cooley sold himself as Mr. Law and Order, the one candidate who had no qualms about putting criminals to death. “He ran a campaign that would have been great in 1990,” sums up one statewide political consultant, “but not in 2010.”

In her upcoming contest against Sanchez and a handful of other contenders (former state GOP chair Tom Del Beccaro and Assemblymember Rocky Chávez are the leading Republicans), Harris once again has formidable consultant Ace Smith running her campaign, along with ample advantages in the categories of money, endorsements, and exposure. What’s more, she enjoys an attribute that another political front-runner, Hillary Clinton, so sorely lacks: authenticity. She appears to be concerned about crime victims and exploited children, say longtime associates, because she truly is concerned. “I have been an open book about what I care about,” she declares.

And yet, like Clinton, Harris is to a degree unknowable. Her public presence is a supremely managed one: She wears a sand-colored pantsuit everywhere she goes, guards her privacy jealously, and is not one for glib, effusive talk. She makes herself accessible to the media but is plainly uncomfortable communicating with reporters: Former colleagues describe her as “super-guarded” with journalists, taking a “prosecutor’s approach” to ensure “not ever saying the wrong thing.” (And when she finds the “right” thing, she tends to stick with it: Portions of her conversation with me parallel her words in long-ago interviews; one line was recycled from her 2011 inauguration speech.)

The formula is clearly working for Harris. Being authentic but unknowable mitigates judgments based on actual performance—and allows for that “very vague, broad positive feeling.” But Harris’s greatest strength may be the way that she has triangulated power. She is allied with San Francisco’s ascendant tech elite: She attended a 2014 Ron Conway–hosted fundraiser at Airbnb headquarters; she was a guest at Sean Parker’s Middle-earth faerie wedding; and she’s very tight with Laurene Powell Jobs, the widow of Steve Jobs. Harris’s sister, former law school dean and ACLU director Maya Harris, is a senior Hillary Clinton adviser—meaning that Kamala, who got in on the ground floor with Team Obama, is now only one degree removed from Hillary-land. In today’s Democratic party, that’s an almost Olympian achievement.

But that doesn’t even begin to reveal her true potential value to the Democratic party. Harris, who would be the first Indian American in the Senate, is a fierce party loyalist and fundraising workhorse who’s beloved by African-American donors nationwide. Should she matriculate to D.C., it’s easy to see her being deployed around the nation to make the Democratic case and pass the hat. “You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure out who’ll be on Meet the Press in spring of 2017,” suggests a Harris ally.

Asked what she would like to accomplish in the Senate, Harris pauses a moment and then launches into a sermon on the need for government to become technologically proficient, pointing to an open-data system that her AG office pioneered. She says that she’d love to join New Jersey senator Cory Booker in advancing criminal justice reforms on a federal level. “We need more people like that in the Senate, who define the job as getting things done as opposed to grand gestures and speeches,” she says. It’s well into Friday evening when she tells me this. After hanging up the phone, she will head off to a campaign event. Her approach to holding public office—and running for higher and higher public offices—brings to mind a New Yorker cartoon in which a man walks through his colleague’s door and says, “Everybody’s getting together after work to do more work—you in?”

For Harris, there’s always work. And after work, she and her supporters get together to do more work. So far, this M.O. has won her countless allies and secured a political future without a ceiling. You in?

Originally published in the December issue of
San Francisco

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