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What California Knows About Kamala Harris

Ben Christopher/ CALmatters
Kamala Harris surrounded by California legislators and other women at a Planned Parenthood event in downtown San Francisco on May 31, 2019.

More than any other presidential candidate, Kamala Harris’ biography is singularly Californian. 

Born and bussed to school in Berkeley, tested by San Francisco’s cut-throat municipal politics and propelled onto the national stage as the state’s top law enforcement officer and then its first female senator of color, Harris’ approach to politics and policymaking were honed here.

What most Americans are still just beginning to learn about California’s junior senator—the particulars of her political pedigree, her record on criminal justice, her reputation as (depending on your point of view) a pragmatic or an over-cautious political figure—we’ve seen it here for decades. 

Here are eight ways that California shaped Kamala Harris and that Harris has shaped California.

1. Harris was born and raised in the Golden State

In a state full of transplants, Harris is a lifelong Californian.

Harris was born in 1964 at Kaiser Permanente Medical Center in Oakland—a little over a mile from city hall where, more than half a century later, she would announce her bid for the presidency.  She spent her childhood in Berkeley during the city’s Free Speech Movement. Both of her parents were immigrants who met while getting their PhDs and protesting for civil rights at UC Berkeley. Harris’ father, Donald Harris, is from Jamaica and her mother, Shyamala Gopalan, was from India. The couple split when Harris was seven and Harris and her sister Maya were raised mostly by her mother. Gopalan died in 2009.

In the first Democratic presidential debate this year, Harris famously skewered former Vice President Joe Biden for his past opposition to federally-mandated busing to desegregate public schools. For Harris, she said, the issue was “personal.”

Specifically, Harris rode the “red rooster” from Berkeley’s working-class flatlands to Thousand Oaks Elementary School at the base of the affluent north Berkeley hills. 

This was 1969, just one year after Berkeley Unified introduced its “two-way” busing program across its elementary schools. Berkeley being Berkeley, unlike local integration plans across the country, the city had undertaken this one on its own accord. 

Traversing back and forth between different strata of society—black, white and Asian; well-off and working-class—is a familiar trope in Harris’ biography.

“It wasn’t a homogenous life,” said Debbie Mesloh, a friend who has also worked for Harris as a communication director and a consultant. “She’s a very resourceful person in that she can move in between these worlds.”

Harris spent her teenage years in Montreal, moving there with her sister and mother when Gopalan accepted a university research position there. She earned a political science and economics degree at Howard University in Washington D.C. but returned to California to get her law degree in 1989 at the University of California, Hastings in San Francisco.

She’s called California home ever since.

Fresh out of law school, she joined the Alameda County district attorney’s office in 1990, serving there eight years before crossing the bay to San Francisco. In 2003, she unexpectedly won election as San Francisco District Attorney, where she served two terms before her narrow election as state Attorney General in 2010. She was elected to the U.S. Senate in 2016.

2. The influence of San Francisco king (and queen) maker Willie Brown

Former state Assembly Speaker and San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown has helped accelerate many a successful political career in California (including that of current Gov. Gavin Newsom). Harris got a boost from Brown too.

In March 1994, San Francisco Chronicle’s legendary columnist Herb Caen described the scene at Brown’s surprise 60th birthday party. Clint Eastwood was there, wrote Caen, and he “spilled champagne on the Speaker’s new steady, Kamala Harris.” In his column, Caen described Harris, then a deputy district attorney of Alameda County, as “something new in Willie’s love life. She’s a woman, not a girl.” 

The relationship ended after two years, but her connection to Brown, three decades her senior, did have an outsized effect on her career.

“I would think it’s fair to say that most of the people in San Francisco met her through Willie,” John Burton, who used to be president pro tem of the state Senate, former chair of the California Democratic Party and a San Francisco political powerhouse in his own right, told Politico recently.

The Speaker gave Harris a couple plum positions on two state regulatory boards—the Unemployment Insurance Appeals Board and the California Medical Assistance Commission. “If you were asked to be on a board that regulated medical care, would you say no?” Harris told SFWeekly a few years later.

Harris’ connection to Brown also helped her make connections across San Francisco high-society and California political elite. In 1996, a year after Brown became mayor and Harris broke off the relationship, she joined the board of trustees at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. (Fun fact: a few years later, she dated the talk show host Montel Williams.)

When Harris ran for San Francisco district attorney nearly a decade later, her first contribution came from Elaine McKeon, chair of the museum’s board. More—much more—poured in from donors with last names like Fisher, Getty, Buell, Haas, and other noble houses of the Bay Area.

But from the beginning of her political career, Harris has seen her connection with Brown as a liability—a cudgel that opponents can use against her and, at worst, a tired, sexist trope used to question the legitimacy of her ascendant career. In the first run for office to become San Francisco’s District Attorney, Harris deliberately hired a campaign consultant known for working with clients outside the Brown political machine. During that same campaign, she described her past relationship with the former Speaker and Mayor as “an albatross hanging around my neck.”

3. A lack of clarity

You’re seeing it now in the presidential race. As the New York Times put it recently: “the content of her message remains a work in progress.” We saw it before in California.

While running the California Department of Justice, Harris was often loath to wade into the political battles taking place just a few blocks away in the state Legislature. 

There was the bill that would have required her office to investigate police shootings. She did not take a formal position (though she did tell a reporter it would be bad policy). The bill died. 

There was the proposal to force police departments to gather data on the ethnicity and race of the civilians they stop. Harris also declined to take a position. It passed anyway. 

And on the biggest criminal justice overhaul in California in a generation, Harris also kept mum. 

Prompted by a judicial decree that the state had to dramatically cut the population of its overcrowded prison system, “realignment” was a package of state policies passed in 2011 that shifted tens of thousands of inmates out of state custody and into county jails or onto the rolls of local probation systems. 

Despite in many ways reflecting the lessons described in her book Smart on Crime, which argued that non-violent criminals can be redirected into less punitive systems without jeopardizing public health, Harris, the state’s top law enforcement officer, was silent on the policy. 

That earned a rebuke from the Los Angeles Times Editorial Board, which wrote in its endorsement of her 2016 Senate candidacy that Harris “has been too cautious and unwilling to stake out a position on controversial issues, even when her voice would have been valuable to the debate.” 

What some critics call prevarication or flip-floppery, her supporters call pragmatism. Those are just two ways of describing the same quality, said Corey Cook, a political science professor at St. Mary’s College and a longtime observer of San Francisco politics.

“She’s not an ideologue,” he said, meaning rather than stake out the boldest, ideologically-coherent agenda, she tends to focus on individual fixes to specific problems. Hence the “3am agenda” of her presidential campaign, a collection of policy changes designed to address the problems that keep the average voter up at night.

“The idea that she would have consistent positions on issues informed by ideology isn’t who she is,” said Cook. Harris may appear to pick her battles, he said, because for her “the only lasting solutions are going to be the ones that are able to sustain a majority coalition of support.”

In an emailed statement, a spokesperson for Harris’ presidential campaign said that she “has spent her career fighting for reforms in the criminal justice system and pushing the envelope to keep everyone safer by bringing fairness and accountability.”

“Whether introducing an anti-recidivism program as San Francisco DA that has become a national model, implementing Open Justice, a first-of-its-kind criminal justice open data initiative, proposing a plan to the governor to implement independent investigations, or becoming the first state agency to require her agents to wear body cameras, Kamala has demonstrated a clear commitment to a transparent and progressive criminal justice system,” the statement said.

4. One place Harris left a mark: sex crimes, domestic violence and child abuse

Harris has never shied away from the “tough on crime” label when it comes to a certain class of criminals: domestic violence perpetrators, child abusers and sex traffickers.

After nearly a decade in Alameda County and a short stint as a deputy district attorney in San Francisco (she left, calling the leadership there “dysfunctional”), in 2000, Harris joined the San Francisco city attorney’s office under Louise Renne.

Renne said she was looking for someone to head the office’s Child and Family Service unit, which investigates child abuse cases. This was not considered a prestigious post. Prosecutors inside the unit had taken to calling it “kiddie law.”

Renne thought Harris, who had focused on child abuse and sexual exploitation cases in Alameda County, would be a good fit.

That instinct was confirmed on Harris’ first day on the job, Renne said, when a number of children who had been separated from their parents were formally adopted into new families.

“She comes into my office and says ‘Come on, Louise, we’ve got to go over to court. There are going to be adoptions today,’ and she had all these teddy bears,” Renne recalled. “She knew the occasion. She knew it was an important one and it should be celebrated.”

Harris’ focus on the victims of abuse and exploitation continued after she was elected as San Francisco’s District Attorney.

“’I don’t know what the term “teenage prostitute” means. I have never met a ‘teenage prostitute.’ I have met exploited kids,’” Mesloh, then Harris’ communications director, recalls her boss saying at her first all-staff meeting. Harris then ordered her prosecutors not to use the term in court. A year later, Harris sponsored a bill putting the crime of human trafficking into the state criminal code.

But using the full force of the law to penalize pimps, traffickers and other abusers has earned Harris some criticism from civil libertarians and from advocates for sex workers.

In one of her final acts as attorney general, Harris had the CEO of Backpage.com, Carl Ferrer, arrested on pimping charges. Backpage was an online classifieds site known for its “adult services” section, which prosecutors had long warned served as a market place for sex traffickers.

The arrest was based on a contentious legal argument that pit anti-trafficking fervor against the First Amendment. Since Backpage was merely a platform for ads, its lawyers argued, it was protected by the same law that protects Google from being held liable for illicit websites listed in its search results. A superior court judge agreedand threw out the case, though an amended charge, pursued by current Attorney General Xavier Becerra, led Ferrer to plead guilty to money laundering and conspiracy to facilitate prostitution and to the shuttering of the site.

5. “Smart on Crime”

One of the reasons Harris became known as a rising-star District Attorney was her focus on prevention, which she explained in her book, Smart on Crime, written in 2009, the year before she ran for attorney general. 

“Public health practitioners know that the most beneficial use of resources is to prevent an outbreak, not to treat it,” Harris wrote. “Instead of just reacting to a crime every time it is committed, we have to step back and figure out how to disrupt the routes of infection.”

Harris’ “Back on Track” program, considered the most successful implementation of this idea, redirected first-time, non-violent drug offenders into supervised education, job training courses, therapy sessions and life skills classes. It was a modest program, but a novel one compared to what most other big city law enforcement officers were doing in 2005. 

“In that time period, I think that she was a radical,” said Mesloh. The program has since been emulated by cities around the country. When Harris became attorney general, she launched a similar pilot program for Los Angeles County.

Harris’ focus on nipping crime in the bud prevention produced some of her key accomplishments as district attorney. But in the context of the presidential race, some of those same accomplishments have struck many critics as overly punitive.

The year after launching Back on Track, Harris introduced an anti-truancy initiative. Based on a statistical correlation that chronic class skippers are more likely to be both perpetrators and victims of homicide, Harris’ office begin threatening the parents of persistently absent students with prosecution. 

Harris has been quick to point out that the “stick” in this carrot and stick approach only came out after a series of escalating interventions, including mandatory meetings with school staff and social workers. No one went to jail under the program, though a handful of parents were fined. Within a few years, city truancy rates fell by a third and Harris took credit. 

In 2010, her office sponsored a bill to take the program statewide. But in the hands of other district attorneys, the statute was used in at least a handful of cases to put parents behind bars. Critics have said that the policy has been disproportionately wielded against poor parents of color.

In an interview, Harris said she regrets any “unintended consequences” of the state law.

6. Harris has (almost) always opposed capital punishment

Her opposition to the death penalty has been one of the boldest and most controversial stands in her career, but it’s also an example for those who criticize her lack of clarity.

On April 10, 2004, three months after her inauguration as San Francisco’s new district attorney, 29-year-old police officer Isaac Espinoza was gunned down by a 21-year-old with an AK-47. Three days later, Harris made good on a campaign promise and vowed not to seek the death penalty for the shooter. David Hill was later convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.

The decision engendered a predictably fierce backlash from the police union and rebukes from politicians. “This is not only the definition of tragedy,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein said at Espinoza’s funeral, “it’s the special circumstance called for by the death penalty law.” The assembled officers cheered while Harris remained seated. 

But some of Harris’ critics say she has wavered in tougher political circumstances.

In 2014, when a federal court judge ruled that California’s administration of the death penalty was unconstitutional, Harris appealed the decision as state attorney general, arguing thatit was “not supported by the law.” 

Harris later said that she was obligated to defend capital punishment as the legal representative of the state. Many have pointed out that she was happy not to defend a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage that voters passed in Proposition 8 when it was challenged a year earlier. Harris’ response: she was merely reflecting the position of her client, Gov. Jerry Brown’s administration.

She has also explained that the judge’s ruling, which held that the long delays between sentencing and execution in California amounted to “cruel and unusual punishment,” could be used to justify speeding up the state’s system of capital punishment.

7. Prosecutorial overreach controversies

Both as district attorney and as state attorney general, Harris led offices that criminal justice advocates say was overly aggressive in pursuing convictions and lacked transparency in a way that belies Harris’ brand as a “progressive prosecutor.”

In March 2010, just as Harris was campaigning to become California’s attorney general, San Francisco authorities shut down a police department crime lab in the city’s Hunters Point naval yard. A technician named Deborah Madden was accused of skimming drugs, raising broader questions about the lab’s ability to appropriately handle evidence in criminal cases. (Madden later pleaded guilty). 

Harris immediately dismissed 20 drug cases, but the number eventually grew to over 1,500 after documents showed that prosecutors within Harris’ office had known about Madden’s potential unreliability months before the lab was closed, but had neglected to tell defense attorneys. 

(When in the most recent Democratic debate, Joe Biden asked viewers to “Google ‘1,000 prisoners freed by Kamala Harris,’” this is what he was talking about).

A superior court judge later excoriated Harris’ office, writing that the violations infringed on the defendants’ “constitutional rights.” 

Afterward, Harris formed a unit to handle the sharing of evidence with criminal defense attorneys. She has also said that she did not know about the problems at the crime lab until after the scandal blew up.

But that hasn’t done much to assuage the concerns of critics who say Harris had a tendency toward prosecutorial overreach, which continued once Harris became the state’s attorney general.

In 2015, for example, lawyers for an inmate convicted of murder attempted to have the case thrown out after new evidence suggested that Riverside County prosecutors lied on the stand during the initial trial. Harris’ office, representing the state prison system, resisted, only backing down after footage of one of her https://youtu.be/2sCUrhgXjH4?t=962" style="box-sizing: border-box; background: 0px 0px; color: rgb(178, 34, 23); transition: background-color 0.1s ease-in-out 0s, color 0.1s ease-in-out 0s;">deputies being eviscerated by three federal judges went viral. 

A spokesperson for the campaign said Harris ordered her office to drop the challenge as soon as “she became aware” of the case.

Critics point to other examples. There was her office’s decision to defend a molestation conviction that local prosecutors had secured with a false confession.

Asked about that case, the campaign spokesperson said that it was “long-standing practice” for prosecutors within the Californian Department of Justice to file legal motions without the express approval of the Attorney General, implying that, again, Harris was not aware that her office was making the argument. But in this case, the spokesperson added, state prosecutors believed “the original case…was valid and that the victim in the case deserved justice.”

Another example: her office’s refusal to take over a 2011 Seal Beach mass shooting case after a judge recused the entire Orange County District Attorney’s office for widespread prosecutorial misconduct. Harris recently defended her decision: “it was being handled at the local level.”

Such a track record is to be expected of any prosecutor, said Sally Lieber, who worked with Harris on human trafficking legislation while representing Mountain View in the state Assembly.

“It is an adversarial system and so she was filling a particular role (as a prosecutor), but I think that she was able to do it in a very sophisticated, smart and responsive way,” she said.

8. Her biggest accomplishment as AG: being willing to walk away

Harris’ biggest accomplishment while California’s attorney general was to secure a financial settlement with some of the country’s largest banks accused of illegally foreclosing on homeowners.

In September 2011, Harris pulled out of ongoing negotiations between attorneys general from nearly every US state and the five banks, calling the proposed deal of $2-to-$4 billion “crumbs on the table.”

Harris was not the first attorney general to walk away, but the departure of the country’s largest state seemed to have its intended effect.

A few months later, with California back in the mix, a new deal was struck. This time, California got $20.2 billion in debt reductions and direct financial assistance.

Still, some consumer groups and outside experts were critical of the deal, arguing that the banks would have been forced to write off much of that bad debt eventually. “All sizzle, no steak,” is how Georgetown law professor Adam Levitin put it. 

U.S. Senator Kamala Harris speaks during a launch rally for her first ever U.S. presidential campaign at Frank Ogawa Plaza in Oakland, Calif. on Sunday, Jan. 27, 2019. (Jose Carlos Fajardo/Bay Area News Group)

But Harris’ willingness to play hardball did result in a bigger settlement, said Rob McKenna, former Washington attorney general who was part of the negotiations.

“It’s possible for states to overstate the impact they had on the final settlement. The former New York Attorney General (Eric Schneiderman) would sometimes make claims about the settlement and improvements he had obtained,” he said. “But it’s fair to say that Attorney General Harris negotiated and obtained some improvement in the settlement for California.”

CalMatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.