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Kamala Harris’ Moment

The California senator is rising fast in the polls — will her past as a prosecutor sink her campaign or be her biggest strength as she makes her case against Trump?

Kamala Harris (D-Calif.)

Kamala Harris (D-Calif.)

Noah Berger/AFP/Getty Images

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Manny’s, a popular restaurant and community space in San Francisco’s Mission District, is packed on Pride Weekend, just two days after the first Democratic debates. A perspiring crowd pours out of the doors and bay windows, buzzing about the homecoming of a Bay Area daughter who triumphed on the debate stage and is suddenly the talk of the political world. But the guest of honor is making them wait. She’s huddled with the owner of the place, Manny Yekutiel, in an office that literally used to be a broom closet — not the most picturesque setting for a heart-to-heart with a potential future president of the United States.

Sen. Kamala Harris listens to Yekutiel, the son of a Brooklyn-born lawyer and an Afghan Orthodox Jewish rabbi, as he tells his story about how his family reacted to his coming out.

“She held my hand, and we had a very powerful moment,” Yekutiel tells me later. “Like a lot of politicians, real emotional connection is what fuels her. Selfies and stump speeches, that’s not what gives them energy. What does is being in a broom closet with a small-business owner who is disowned by his father, and being able to look him in the eye and say, ‘I got you. I’m Kamala Harris, I’m running for president. I’m one of the most powerful women in politics, but I’m here for you.’ ” Since the first Democratic debate, something different is happening with Harris.

After months of a campaign that was stagnating in the polls, her performance on the Miami stage edged her into the top tier. For an electorate rightfully obsessed with defeating Donald Trump, Harris made herself look like the best person to stand opposite him — and she did so by weakening the front-runner, Joe Biden, in an unforgettable exchange about his opposition to school busing in the Seventies.

“And you know,” Harris said as the former vice president looked away from her, “there was a little girl in California who was part of the second class to integrate her public schools, and she was bused to school every day, and that little girl was me.” Biden’s head snapped toward her. The entire primary had changed.

“There are people who have come up to me, almost like it’s a secret society, [saying], ‘I was bused. I know what that was like. I’m glad that you said that,’ ” Harris says later during Pride Weekend as we drive through San Francisco. “There are a lot of young women who are saying that they’ve not seen an image of a woman of color on a stage like that with a certain level of confidence.”

Harris’ life experience and political skill may give her the unique ability to pull together the broadest possible Democratic constituencies — the fabled multiracial Obama coalition that seeks both progress and pragmatism, and a far left that has moved beyond “hope and change” to focus on bold and concrete policy goals. But almost immediately after her triumph over Biden, she faced a series of birther-style character assassinations from bots and conservatives that echoed what President Obama faced from Trump during his administration. (Donald Trump Jr. briefly took part in this racist rumormongering, sharing, then deleting, a tweet that falsely claimed Harris isn’t an “American Black” because she’s “half Indian and half Jamaican.”)

But Harris, 54, may have to overcome an even bigger obstacle, one that also happens to be one of the central selling points of her candidacy: her career in the criminal-justice system. Her decades as a prosecutor — including seven years as district attorney of San Francisco and six as the state’s attorney general — arguably make her the perfect person to take on our lawless president and restore order. Nobody that has seen her grilling the likes of William Barr or Brett Kavanaugh in Senate hearings can deny her ability to outmaneuver an adversary. But that she is a black woman who chose to work within a system that’s proved time and again to be biased against African Americans means she needs to earn the trust of black and progressive voters. It’s a compelling quandary that no other candidate faces, and decisions she made around wrongful convictions, truancy, and sex work are now being given a hard look by voters.

LOS ANGELES, CA - MAY 17: California Attorney General Kamala Harris speaks at a news conference on May 17, 2013 at the Los Angeles Civic Center in Los Angeles, California. Harris hosted a meeting of the state's district attorneys to develop recommendations on reducing gun violance. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

She served as attorney general of California for six years: “I believe people want to know that when you have that kind of power, you are respectful of it.”

It was impossible to learn of Harris expressing empathy for a gay man’s struggle and not consider one of the first apologies she issued after launching her campaign. During her time as California’s attorney general, from 2011 to 2017, Harris argued that she was beholden to write multiple legal briefs opposing court-ordered surgeries for incarcerated trans women. “There are, unfortunately, situations that occurred where my clients took positions that were contrary to my beliefs,” she said in January. ACLU staff attorney Chase Strangio argued in Out magazine that he isn’t ready to trust Harris, since she “has contributed to some of the most violent conditions faced by trans people, particularly trans women of color, in California and across the country. It is going to take a lot to undo that damage.”

Now, she is asking the Democratic electorate — increasingly swayed by an activist base that feels constantly let down or even targeted by that system — to send her to the White House. To let her fix the flaws from inside the Oval Office.

It is a fascinating sell, and a difficult one. From her very first speech of the campaign, in front of 20,000 strong in her native Oakland, Harris has emphasized that not only does the nation need a wholesale change at the top, but it needs a prosecutor in the White House to properly revamp the system in the wake of Trump. A candidate who actually believes in law and order — which she undoubtedly does — rather than just using it as a marketing slogan.

“The outcome of November 2016 has led a lot of people to question the premise of everything they took for granted,” Harris tells me. “Over the past two and a half years, people have been throwing things at that inanimate object called television and going through individual and group therapy. But let’s remember that the founders crafted a beautiful, beautiful design for our democracy: three independent, co-equal branches of government, and a free and independent press. And they presupposed there would be a moment when an executive might abuse his authority.”

A few weeks earlier, we sit inside a Los Angeles law office, where her campaign had set up a temporary headquarters. She and her husband, entertainment lawyer Douglas Emhoff, live in the area, so that meant nights in her own bed and waking up knowing which city she’s in, for once. And she’d get to pick through her herb garden in preparation for the thing that brings her the most joy: Sunday dinner. “I start planning dinner days in advance,” says Harris, who is an accomplished cook. “I love putting my day into it — and putting my foot into it,” she adds with a laugh.

Running for president is exhausting, and all the more so when you face steep odds along a narrow path to victory. To win the nomination in 2020, Harris has to win or place high in Iowa and New Hampshire before likely winning or placing second on February 29th in South Carolina, where she has spent more time than any other candidate. Danielle Vinson, a professor of politics and international affairs at Furman University, believes that Harris has been using her time in the state wisely. “She’s probably doing the right thing by spending time in the part of the state where she’s campaigning,” Vinson says, pointing to areas like Orangeburg and Richland counties, heavily populated by African Americans and known for some of the highest turnouts in the Democratic primary. “If she can catch on, word will travel. It’s not a big state, so you don’t have to hit all parts of it to be engaged.”

The all-important Super Tuesday, with 1,321 delegates up for grabs, is only a few days after South Carolina. And this time it includes California, which moved up its primary in 2017, ensuring that the state that hosts the fifth-largest economy in the world and 40 million people will play a bigger role in deciding who the Democratic nominee will be. (As of press time, even after her debate surge, the highest Harris has polled nationally is third. But in a July 17 Quinnipiac poll, Harris took the top position in California by 2 percentage points.)

“I’m not taking it for granted,” Harris says of her home state’s primary. “You know, it’s funny — I always tell people who are not from California that their perception of California is usually off, and I will remind them California voters voted for [Proposition] 187. California voters voted for the most draconian criminal-justice law ever, which was Three Strikes. California voters voted for Prop 8. California produced Ronald Reagan and Nixon, right? So let’s be clear about the history.”

Harris was raised along with a younger sister by her mom in Berkeley. “They got that political ire-and-fire from following their mother to campaigns on campus,” says a family friend.

Harris was first confronted with how conservative parts of California are when she was in college, on her way to a court hearing. “My cousin was getting married in L.A.,” she recounts. “We were all living in Oakland. He needed to take a bunch of stuff for the wedding, and he said, ‘Kamala, come drive with me.’ And I rented this car. You remember the Beretta? It went really fast.”

The young Harris figured: Why should it take seven hours to go from one part of the state to another? Vroom. “So I’m driving, and I got stopped in the Grapevine in Kern County doing 115,” she says, able to laugh about it now. “And when they pulled me over, the CHP officers were like, ‘We been chasing you for miles.’ ”

On the way to her mandated court appearance in the middle of the state, she says, “I remember seeing all these Confederate flags. I’ll never forget it.” It’s still true today: Anyone who drives the 5 freeway north from Los Angeles to San Francisco or Sacramento will see their share of Trump signs, anti-abortion propaganda, and such alongside the road. Harris knows that to win such a vast state she needs broad appeal. “Californians are going to pay attention to the issues,” she says. “And they’re going to make their decisions based on a number of things that are not just about where you were born.”

For Harris, it’s her record that could be an issue. She has been under fire for policies that she championed during her time as San Francisco DA, and later, as California’s attorney general. The state law, which went into effect in 2011, made parents liable for a $2,000 fine or up to a year in jail for their children’s truancy. She saw the role of prosecutor, and of governance, in an activist light. “When I took on an issue like truancy, I’m going to tell you why,” Harris says matter-of-factly. “Because there are a bunch of black and brown babies who are being neglected by a system because nobody expects anything from them anyway. Children are missing 50, 60, up to 80 days of a 180-day school year. Beautiful, smart children with great capacity. If that had been in some rich neighborhood, the alarms would’ve been going off. So I decided to take the issue on, because I know what those babies are capable of.”

Eight years after the fact, the senator still feels that the law, though it went awry, was rooted in noble purpose. “It was all about putting the attention on the system,” she continues. “Not one parent went to jail. I would’ve never let that happen. It was about saying that these children going without an education is tantamount to a crime being committed by the whole system and society. I’m not going to stand by and just watch something like that happen. If all those other people were so interested in saving those children, why weren’t they helping to save those children? Don’t come at me now and talk to me about that. Where were you then? And where are you now? Are you looking and paying attention to what’s going on in communities around this country?”

The complications for Harris arise when she notes that even as she tried to use the system to change things for the better, her inability to control that system led to negative consequences. People were arrested, folks did go to jail, and Harris later offered a mea culpa for those jurisdictions in which district attorneys have criminalized parents, telling CNN that it “was never the intention.” But what matters more: intent, or effect?

University of San Francisco law professor Lara Bazelon wrote a damning critique in a New York Times op-ed published just days before the Harris campaign launched in January, accusing Harris of hiding a regressive record on wrongful-conviction cases under her “progressive prosecutor” image. (Harris says that Bazelon “never contacted us” prior to publishing the op-ed. “It was my opinion,” the professor tells Rolling Stone. “Harris has not been able to factually refute a single claim in my piece. That’s because what I wrote is true.”) However, Bazelon’s specific critique was soon -buried under the reductive cries of “Kamala is a cop!” and other similar phrases and headlines that erupted thereafter. As much as Harris’ record should be examined, it should be noted that outrage itself can be exploited for political gain by the opportunistic.

But what if the white middle-class voters who Biden would so desperately like to secure would actually like a former prosecutor behind the Resolute Desk? And what if Democrats trust Harris with the job? Maybe even because her argument proves to be fundamentally correct: The American system of jurisprudence — and, perhaps more broadly, our society — was built to undermine people who look like Kamala Harris, and it would be best to have someone who has her experience in charge of changing it.

Lateefah Simon, an Oakland community organizer and self-described radical, was a Kamala Harris skeptic who “had spent my whole career fighting the DA.” Simon met Harris at the start of the senator’s prosecutorial career in Alameda County, “which was notorious for doing all the wrong things with our people.” Black people, young women, folks who were marginalized. If Simon was us, Harris was them.

That is why it surprises some to learn that Simon came to work alongside Harris for years in the San Francisco district attorney’s office in 2005, helping create Back on Track, a nationally recognized program that offered an alternative to incarceration for low-level, nonviolent drug offenders.

Now a Bay Area Rapid Transit board member and the president of the Akonadi Foundation — an organization that supports social-change movements — Simon says Harris convinced her what good a prosecutor could do within the criminal-justice apparatus. “ ‘The DA is not the devil. What we can do in here is try to make some structural change,’ ” she recalls Harris telling her early on. “I know what we changed in the office, I know what we couldn’t change. And still, to this day with my policy-activism credentials, I ride with her because she knows, more than anybody, the dualities of wrong and right and racialized strife.”

Harris attended historically black Howard University in Washington, D.C., where she protested South African apartheid almost every weekend of her freshman year.

Harris has embraced her blackness in a conspicuous way that candidates running for any office, let alone the presidency, do not often do. A proud alum of the historically black Howard University and an Alpha Kappa Alpha soror, Harris is greeted with frequent chants of “H-U!” and “skee-wee!” at her events. File “presidential candidate enters a convention hall advanced by a fully decked-out drum line” under things I thought I’d never see. But that is precisely what Harris does in late June at the South Carolina Democratic Convention, before letting loose a message that dramatically departs from her prosecutorial rhetoric and ties civil-rights progress to the fortunes of the United States as a whole.

“We have in this White House a president who says he wants to make America great again,” Harris told the crowd in South Carolina. “Well, what does that mean? Does that mean he wants to take us back to before schools were integrated? Does that mean he wants to take us back to before the Voting Rights Act was enacted? Does that mean he wants to take us back before the Civil Rights Act was enacted? Does he mean he wants to take us back before Roe v. Wade was enacted? Because we’re not going back. We’re not going back!”

When I ask Harris about the new rhetoric, she says, “It’s about: We’re not going to go back to a state of mind, for example, that says that certain things can’t be done or certain people can’t do it.”

One of the reasons Harris’ debate performance resonated is it was something that we hadn’t ever seen before. No other black presidential candidate, not even Obama, experienced busing the way that Harris did. We hadn’t seen someone who had been subjected as a child to the federal remedies for systemic racism confronting a white legislator who implemented — or in Biden’s case, opposed — those remedies. During the debates, as Biden was making his cases against busing in the 1970s, how could he have ever imagined that a little girl who got bused to Berkeley’s Thousand Oaks Elementary would grow up to challenge him for the office that he has always wanted?

Simon, who has the practical experience of working with Harris, believes she can be a transformational figure as president, even though Simon agrees it’s a major ask to get black folks to believe that in the Trump era. “You don’t need somebody to give you permission to be your brilliant self,” Simon says, noting that it was Harris who pushed her to go to college. “And I feel that’s why she decided to run for president. Nobody is going to give permission for a black woman who wants to make incremental change in this country.”

Harris was raised by strong women, and pragmatism ruled the day. Her “second mother,” as Harris still calls the late Regina Shelton, came to Berkeley from Louisiana. Shelton was running a child-care business in the early 1970s. Dr. Shyamala Gopalan, a cancer researcher, and her two little girls, Kamala and Maya Harris, lived just two doors down from the Sheltons, in the apartment above the child-care center. (Harris’ father, Donald, emigrated from Jamaica to do his graduate studies in economics at Cal. The couple divorced when Kamala was seven years old, and Gopalan was granted custody of the girls. Kamala and Donald are not close.) Until Kamala was 12, when Gopalan moved the girls to Montreal after accepting research and teaching positions there, the two mothers were fast friends and bonded over their local activism.

“They got that political ire-and-fire from following their mother to campaigns on campus,” says Sharon McGaffie, Shelton’s daughter, of Kamala and Maya, who went on to become a civil-rights attorney in her own right. (Maya’s daughter, Meena, is now an attorney, activist, and entrepreneur, who credits her grandmother for showing her, her mother, and her aunt Kamala how to be diligent. “I don’t know anything else but to work my ass off, to know that I have an obligation and a duty to do good in the world,” Meena says.)

That appears to be a value Harris picked up as well. “People over the years have learned to trust that what I say will be well thought out, well reasoned, accurate — and that it will be practical,” the senator says. “And this is where sometimes people on my communications team get upset with me, because I’m like, ‘I’m not going to just say that because somebody came up with a talking point for me. What does that mean? Has anyone done the research on this? What are the unintended consequences?’ Because when I say something, I know that there are people who are trusting me.”

That “heavy burden,” as Harris puts it, is one she knows from experience. “Look, you have to understand that when I hold a microphone in front of me, I am acutely aware of the power that I have,” she says, locking eyes, her demeanor serious. “From the day I became a prosecutor in my early twenties, I learned that with the swipe of my pen, if I charge someone with a misdemeanor, they could be arrested. They could sit in jail for 48 hours. They’d be embarrassed in their community, in their family. They might lose their job. All because I charged them with a crime.

“So I do believe that people want to know that when you have that kind of power, you are respectful of it and you are appreciative of the fact it will have an impact on real people.”

Harris speaks about these responsibilities in a slow and solemn cadence. “My perspective was, ‘Let’s go on the inside, where we have the ability to be at the table, where the decisions are being made.’ It’s one of the reasons I ran for district attorney, because I know I’m not so good at asking for permission.” Harris laughs to herself. But she still isn’t kidding. “I’m just not. I’m not.”

The very existence of Kamala Harris as a candidate isn’t an incremental change; one can only hope that her policies wouldn’t be, either. Thus far, Harris has stayed inside the bounds of Washington politics while still pushing innovative ideas that have a chance of realization. “She’s not a progressive,” says Vinson, the Furman professor. “She is very squarely in the mainstream of the Democratic Party. And that’s something that will appeal to South Carolina voters because there are a lot who don’t want the progressive wing to prevail.”

At the Essence Festival in New Orleans, Harris teased a forthcoming slate of policies focusing on black uplift while introducing a $100 billion plan to help communities affected by the racist practice of redlining that shut out potential black homeowners from building equity in their own communities.

Harris also joined forces in July with first-year Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on a bill that would change eviction and screening policies to help people with criminal records apply for housing assistance. While some observers claim Harris is latching on to Ocasio-Cortez for progressive cred, this bill actually hearkens back to her own work with the Back on Track program in San Francisco.

Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), a Democratic presidential hopeful, at the West Des Moines Democrats 4th of July Summer Picnic event in Legion Park in West Des Moines, Iowa, July 3, 2019. Harris and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) have surged since the debate, challenging the male front-runners. (Hilary Swift/The New York Times)

Harris campaigning in Iowa, making her case that she’s best able to prosecute Trump. “The founders presupposed there would be a moment when an executive might abuse his authority,” she says.

Harris also promises to continue fighting for the LIFT the Middle Class Act, the basic-income-style bill she proposed last fall that offers, with income restrictions, $250 to singles and $500 to married couples monthly. In May, as Republican states were trying to outdo one another for the cruelest piece of anti-abortion legislation, Harris presented one of the smartest policy proposals yet offered by a Democratic candidate: modeling a reproductive-rights bill on the Voting Rights Act. Her idea would mandate that states with a history of restrictive anti-abortion laws get federal permission before enacting new ones.

“Go back to Bobby Kennedy, when he understood the power of law enforcement through the Department of Justice to enforce civil rights. Remember when he sent those U.S. marshals down?” Harris says, referencing James Meredith’s integration of the University of Mississippi. “It’s about the checks and balances, and knowing the power within these institutions to create that. We don’t only have to be on the outside. I guess the point is, and maybe this is a theme of how I have approached issues and my career — I prefer to be on the offensive.”

It’s an attitude that Harris has had since her earliest days of retail politics, when she ran for San Francisco DA in 2003. “I would campaign with my ironing board,” she says. “I would grab it out of my house — and a roll of duct tape, my posters, my literature, and my handouts. And I would put them all in my car and drive to a grocery store.”

Then Harris would get out, open up shop in front of the store, and begin selling her candidacy to whomever passed by. “The ironing board makes a great standing desk,” she says. “I’d tape my posters on one side, flap them over. And I would require people to talk to me as they walked in and out of the grocery store.” Require? “Oh, some would not. But I was not going to be denied — without really being too forceful. That’s how I campaigned.” We drive past bus stops in San Francisco’s Chinatown, street corners that Harris recognizes readily. “I would campaign at these bus stops starting at six in the morning until 8:00 at night,” she says.

At one point, I tell Harris that she is asking for a lot of trust when she asks black people and other Americans who have been marginalized to believe she can change the system. “You’re totally right,” she says, noting that she tries to address this in her stump speeches. “One of the most important ingredients in trust is truth, but speaking truth can often make people quite uncomfortable, right? Often, at least a few of those truths that I speak, people are not prepared to hear, but they do not deny it. Nobody wants a leader who’s walking around selling dope.”

Walking in San Francisco’s Pride parade down Market Street alongside the Harris car, a red convertible Ford Mustang only outshined by the senator’s rainbow-bejeweled denim jacket, I suddenly find myself walking next to Emhoff, her husband.

The Brooklyn native is fairly experienced at campaigning by now, having been in every Pride parade with Harris since he married her in 2014, after a year’s courtship that began with a blind date. “I’ve had a good, unique view over the past several years to see her in action,” Emhoff says. “And I’m impressed to see how she’s evolved and how really good she’s gotten at communicating — the substance, but also the personal. And now you’re seeing the convergence of who she is: who I fell in love with, and who I get to see every day.”

Like her hero, Shirley Chisholm, Harris is staging a presidential run as a woman unafraid to be herself. She is an educated black woman who carries an unflinching belief in law and order and the American project, however flawed. Fortunately for her, in this race, you don’t get much more anti-Trump than that. She now has the momentum. It is time for her to make her case, fascinating and complicated though it may be.

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