Kamala Harris: the 'female Obama' plots her course on the road to Washington
The attorney general is the odds-on favourite to become the next senator from California – and perhaps the nation’s next progressive star in the making
Kamala Devi Harris
Born of an Indian mother and Jamaican father
She has been dubbed the female Obama. She cooks. She goes to the gym in a hoodie. She views lawyers as heroes and takes on mortgage companies the way Elizabeth Warren takes on Wall Street. She may soon have as many enemies on the other side of the aisle.
She may have made it to the national stage when Barack Obama called her “the best looking attorney general in the country”, but Kamala Harris is now the odds-on favourite to become the next senator from California – and perhaps the nation’s next progressive star in the making.
On Tuesday, following a week of speculation that the 50-year-old California attorney general would make the leap from cool-headed attorney to friend of Obama to potential Washington power player, Harris announced she will run for Barbara Boxer’s Senate seat in 2016. “Your support has been crucial to me every step of the way,” Harris wrote in an email to supporters, “and I’m asking you to help me build a grassroots campaign that reaches every community of California.”
Her campaign in the making began by – how else? – starting to solicit contributions of $2,600 for a race in which the stiffest challenge may not be the general election but winning the Democratic nomination. Potential primary contenders include the former Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and billionaire environmental activist Tom Steyer – both fierce liberals with nationwide notoriety of their own, and both of whom are said to be considering a run.
By jumping in before anyone else, though, Harris may intimidate the competition from entering the first high-profile Senate contest of 2016. Such is the power of her brand: if California is in its post-Schwarzenegger political era, Harris may be its next liberal franchise.
The state attorney general has found herself in the midst of controversies over the years, but mostly she has climbed California’s political ladder by a careful strategy – perhaps “too cautious”, according to the Los Angeles Times editorial board – to establish her credentials for higher office.
Even before the burgeoning Senate bid, some giddy commentators predicted Harris might eventually run for the White House – the Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza once floated a theory that she could elbow aside Hillary Clinton to run for the top job in 2016.
Harris was born in Oakland, a progressive crucible, to high-flying, brainy parents: Donald Harris, a Jamaican American Stanford university economics professor, and Shyamala Gopalan, and India-born breast cancer specialist who taught at McGill University.
Harris lived for a while in Montreal, where her mother worked, and studied law at Howard University in Washington. Lawyers were her heroes growing up, Harris told the San Francisco Chronicle in 2009.
“They were the architects of the civil rights movement. I thought that that was the way you do good things and serve and achieve justice.”
While serving two terms as San Francisco’s district attorney, Harris angered a police union by seeking life without parole, rather than execution, for a convicted cop killer, David Hill.
Charm and pragmatism helped her repair relationships with police groups – a valuable dexterity in the post-Ferguson era that other local-turned-national political figures such as the New York City mayor, Bill de Blasio, among others, may envy.
Harris still opposes capital punishment and favours gun control.
In 2010, supported by farm workers and public sector unions, Harris squeaked past a strong Republican rival to become the first woman of colour to serve as the state’s attorney general.
After campaigning for Warren ahead of her own blowout re-election win last year, Harris championed consumer protection and privacy, helped negotiate a settlement with mortgage lenders and targeted human trafficking, recidivism and school truancy.
Civil rights activists, however, have criticised the Harris record on California’s notorious prison overcrowding. Her office argued against the release of eligible nonviolent prisoners because the state wanted to keep them as a labour force. When informed, Harris declared herself “shocked” and “troubled”.
Frustrated progressives also pushed back when Harris resisted demands for an independent prosecutor to investigate police brutality and ducked marijuana legalisation, leaving California’s drug policy in a legal limbo.
Harris, who has told interviewers she’s something of a chef and turns off the hip-hop, reggae and jazz for CNN and MTV with 35 minutes on the treadmill (she’s“not a morning person”), has been dubbed the “female Obama”.
That is certainly a simplification – and she has reportedly been consulting the likes of potential Hillary Clinton campaign manager Stephanie Schriock – but when the Democratic party gave her a national platform with a speech at the 2012 nomination convention, she flubbed it.
Tasked with touting Obama’s housing record – “that’s leadership!” – her delivery at the convention was widely panned as somewhat snooze-inducing, the lowlight being a Freudian slip when she called the opposing candidate “Miss Romney”, which woke up Twitter.
The president bungled himself during a 2013 fundraiser in California when he called her the “best-looking attorney general in the country”, an off-the-cuff remark for which Obama later apologised and the White House explained away as the two having“been friends for many years”.
Foes pounced on the chance to embarrass Obama and his protege. “Not awkward and perfectly fine for him to say, right?” tweeted the Republican National Committee.
Stumbles notwithstanding, Harris was dubbed a frontrunner nearly as soon as Boxer announced she would not run in this deep blue state again in 2016.
Harris’s statement on Tuesday sought to channel the outgoing senator’s pugilistic reputation. “I will be a fighter for middle class families who are feeling the pinch of stagnant wages and diminishing opportunity. I will be a fighter for our children who deserve a world-class education, and for students burdened by predatory lenders and skyrocketing tuition. And I will fight relentlessly to protect our coast, our immigrant communities and our seniors.”
Steyer and Villaraigosa are expected to announce soon whether they will take on Harris for the nomination – a battle royal, if they do.
Another potential rival, Gavin Newsom, the lieutenant governor, ruled himself out on Monday. The dual announcement prompted suspicion of a pact between him and Harris because the telegenic Newsom could run for governor in 2018. The duo could create the kind of star power not seen in the Sacramento statehouse since Arnold Schwarzenegger occupied it.