Kamala Harris became just the second African-American woman ever elected to the U.S. Senate when she won a fiercely contested Congressional race in California in 2016. A former prosecuting attorney twice elected to her state's top law-enforcement post as attorney general, the rising star in the Democratic Party swiftly established herself as a forceful advocate for progressive policies during her first year on Capitol Hill.
Harris was born in Oakland, California, in 1964 as the eldest of two daughters of Shyamala Gopalan Harris, who had come to the Berkeley campus of the University of California a few years earlier to earn a Ph.D. in nutrition and endocrinology. Harris' mother went on to have a notable career in oncology medicine with a research focus on breast cancer, and returned every two years to her hometown of Chennai, India, with Harris and her younger sister Maya.
Inspired by Neighbor
Harris's Jamaican-born father, Donald Harris, also had an illustrious academic career. After earning his degree in economics from the University of California--Berkeley, he joined the faculty of Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, in the early 1970s. He and Shyamala were divorced around this same period and their daughters' primary residence was with their mother in the Berkeley Flats section of the city, a predominantly African-American neighborhood. They were close to their neighbor Regina Shelton, a woman who had left the Deep South for the more progressive-minded Bay Area and ran a preschool at her address. "Mrs. Shelton was one of the smartest people I've ever known," Harris recalled in a 2007 interview with Nina Martin for San Francisco Magazine. "She was always taking people in and supporting them, including a lot of foster kids." Harris explained to Martin that Shelton's example imbued in her the importance "of seeing the potential in people without stereotyping them, investing in them with the expectation that they can be great."
In the mid-1970s Harris' mother accepted a job offer at McGill University in Montreal, Quebec, and moved there with Harris and her younger sister. Harris graduated from Westmount High School and went on to Howard University, the historically black school in Washington, D.C. that was a choice pick for some of her cousins on her Jamaican-heritage side. As a political science and economics major, she was active in student government and the debate society, and her internships included a stint in the office of U.S. Senator Alan Cranston, a California Democrat.
Years later, Harris recalled those undergraduate years at Howard in early 1980s as a formative period of her life. "There's an area on campus called The Yard, about the size of a city block. It's where everyone goes on Friday afternoons to socialize," she told Doreen St. Félix, who interviewed her for the online publication Lenny Letter in 2015. Harris remembered these end-of-week meet-ups for the diverse attire her classmates sported, from dance leotards to boardroom-ready business suits. "At Howard, you had the ability--if you hadn't known before--to know you can do whatever you want," she explained to St. Félix. "Everyone's perspective of themselves and others is based on the limitations of their exposure. When you expand your ability to see, you understand that there are a lot of false choices being offered. I could do all of my activities at Howard because it was an environment that had essentially rid the ideology of false choices that I feel absolutely constricts young black students."
Became Prosecuting Attorney
After graduating with a B.A. from Howard University in 1986, Harris returned to the San Francisco Bay area to begin classes at the Hastings College of the Law at the University of California. She earned her J.D. in 1989 and went to work for the Alameda County prosecutor's office as a deputy district attorney. After eight years as a prosecuting attorney based in Oakland--the Alameda County seat that was also her birthplace--she took a job with the San Francisco District Attorney's Office, remaining there two years until she switched over to the City Attorney's office, whose legal team had a narrower jurisdiction.
For a few years Harris served as head of the Family and Children Services division in the San Francisco municipal courts. She continued to work inside the system to end institutional biases that target minorities and the disadvantaged. "I remember being in my office and hearing a group of my colleagues outside my door talking about whether to bring a gang enhancement," she recalled in a New York Times Magazine profile by Emily Bazelon, referring to a prosecutor's pursuit of more punitive measures if a suspect is tagged as being a member of a defined group of peers; the enhancement provisions can add years to a custodial sentence and remain a subject of controversy for lawmakers and ethicists. "They were talking about how these young people were dressed, what corner they were hanging out on and the music they were listening to. I remember saying: 'Hey, guys, you know what? Members of my family dress that way. I grew up with people who live on that corner.'"
Miffed by Misogynist Reporting
In 2003, Harris made her first run for elected office in San Francisco, seeking to unseat her former boss, San Francisco District Attorney Terence Hallinan, in that year's municipal contest. The campaign descended into sordid rumor when an opposing camp attempted to link Harris' rise in Bay Area Democratic Party politics to a brief off-duty relationship with a state lawmaker in the early 1990s. That California State Assembly member was Willie Brown, who in 1996 was sworn into office as the first elected African-American mayor of San Francisco. "My opponents chose to tell a story that was salacious and made it sound like I didn't do anything of my own merit, that I was a creation of somebody," Harris said of this episode a few years later, speaking with Los Angeles Times journalist Michael Finnegan. "The women's community got really upset about that stuff. There's no question that men and women are judged differently."
Harris won the 2003 race to oust Hallinan, the incumbent, and in early 2004 took the oath of office as district attorney (DA) for San Francisco and its eponymous county. She was the first woman ever to hold that job, the first African American, and the first of South Asian heritage, too. Like many Democratic Party supporters in California, she was opposed to the death penalty and had spoken publicly during her 2003 campaign in favor of a renewed effort to abolish it. Three months into her new job, Harris faced an onslaught of criticism when a 29-year-old San Francisco police officer was slain on patrol by a man wielding an AK-47 assault rifle. When she affirmed that the DA's office would not seek the death penalty in the case, she was rebuked by the victim's family and peers in the law-enforcement community. Even U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein, the former San Francisco mayor, reproached the DA's judgment. Over the next four years, Harris worked assiduously to repair relations with the Bay Area law enforcement community and her political support base. She ran unopposed in 2007 and was elected to a second term.
Targeted At-Risk First Offenders
During her six years as San Francisco DA, Harris sympathized with the prosecutors to whose ranks she once belonged and directed resources toward a herculean initiative to computerize and streamline her office's administrative workload. Reaching out to community organizers, she won praise for the county's new Back on Track program, an alternative to incarceration that offered General Educational Development (GED), job training, and other self-sufficiency tools for young first-time offenders. San Francisco's Back on Track initiative produced measurably excellent results, was touted by California's Republican governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, and adopted by other county prosecutors in other states. Harris provided a more in-depth analysis in her first book, Smart on Crime: A Career Prosecutor's Plan to Make Us Safer, published in October of 2009.
Harris was by then in the throes of a major political campaign, her first for statewide office, to become California attorney general. She secured Democratic Party support around the Bay Area and then in Southern California to handily win the party primary contest in June of 2010, then prevailed over Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley in the November election. Her narrow victory over Cooley, a Republican contender, gave her another list of historic "firsts" to be added to her career summary: Harris was the first woman to become California attorney general (AG), the first African American to hold that job, and the first person of Asian American heritage to become a state attorney general in the United States. Her predecessors as California's AG include some notable political figures, among them four governors and a Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. Harris' name was even mentioned as a potential Supreme Court pick during the second term of U.S. President Barack Obama.
Reelected in 2014, Harris entered the ring for one of California's two seats in the U.S. Senate just two months later when veteran Congresswoman Barbara Boxer announced she would not seek a fifth term in the 2016 election. Boxer had succeeded Senator Cranston, the Democrat for whom Harris had interned back in the early 1980s, in the 1992 Senate race. That historic election year also gave the aforementioned Feinstein her first six-year term in the Senate, where she joined Illinois Democrat Carol Moseley Braun, the first African-American woman ever elected to the U.S. Senate.
"Shushed" in Senate Hearings
California is one of a handful of states in which the two top vote-getters in early primary races compete against one another in the November election, regardless of party affiliation. Harris and another Democrat, U.S. House of Representatives member Loretta Sanchez, competed in the final weeks of the 2016 election cycle. Harris took an early lead over Sanchez and remained there, winning her Senate seat with 62 percent of the vote. She was the first African-American woman to serve in the U.S. Senate since the end of Braun's single term in 1999, and when she was sworn into office on January 3, 2017, by U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, she became the first member of the U.S. Senate of either gender with South Asian roots.
Harris' younger sister Maya Harris also went on to a distinguished career in public policy after earning a law degree. The younger Harris was a senior advisor for Hillary Clinton's 2016 presidential campaign and officiated at the 2014 marriage of Harris to Douglas Emhoff, an attorney. During her first months in Washington, the junior senator from California garnered national media attention when she was interrupted multiple times and even rebuked by Republican lawmakers during Senate committee hearings convened to question potential cabinet members. "As a woman of color admonished, chastised, hushed, and scolded for not falling into line, Harris confirmed an infuriating narrative about who wields power in Washington and how that power gets deployed to silence those who dare to speak out," reflected Katy Waldman, who covers the Congressional beat for the online publication Slate. "While Harris may not have asked for the symbolic mantle she now wears, it has already hastened her political rise. The progressive cause needs fierce, avenging angels. Harris, outspoken and scrappy, filled the available vacancy."
Born Kamala Devi Harris, October 20, 1964, in Oakland, CA; daughter of Donald Harris (an economist) and Shyamala Gopalan Harris (a research scientist); married Douglas Emhoff (an attorney), August 22, 2014. Education: Howard University, B.A., 1986; University of California, Hastings College of the Law, J.D., 1989. Addresses: Home--Los Angeles, CA; Washington, DC. Office--112 Hart Senate Office Bldg., Washington, DC 20510. Web site--http://www.twitter.com/kamalaharris.
Deputy district attorney, Office of the Alameda County District Attorney, 1990-98; managing attorney, Career Criminal Unit, Office of the San Francisco District Attorney, 1998-2000; chief attorney, Community and Neighborhood Division, Office of the San Francisco City Attorney, 2000-03; elected San Francisco (County) District Attorney, 2003, 2007; elected California attorney general, 2010, 2014; elected to the U.S. Senate, 2016.
- Smart on Crime: A Career Prosecutor's Plan to Make Us Safer, Chronicle Books (San Francisco, CA), 2009.
- Los Angeles Times, September 30, 2015.
- New York Times Magazine, May 25, 2016.
- San Francisco Magazine, August 2007.
- "The Lenny Interview: Kamala Harris," Lenny Letter, http://lennyletter.tumblr.com/post/136833901811/the-lenny-interview-kamala-harris-senate-hopeful (August 26, 2017).
- "Senator, Interrupted," Slate, http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/politics/2017/06/kamala_harris_got_shushed_and_became_a_hero_do_liberals_want_to_hear_what.html (August 26, 2017).