Kamala Harris Courted the Bay Area’s Elite to Fund Her Rise in Politics

From Gettys to Schwabs, the former D.A. cultivated an impressive list of donors on her way to the top

Although Senator Kamala Harris often touts her pride in being “a child of Oakland,” it was the scions and socialites of Pacific Heights and other wealthy San Francisco zip codes that first brought Harris to prominence, Politico reports.

Harris first made the papers in 1994 when, at 29, she was a deputy D.A. in Alameda County, and the girlfriend of then-Assembly Speaker Willie Brown. San Francisco Chronicle gossip Herb Caen introduced the striking young prosecutor as “something new in Willie’s love life,” at the time. “She’s a woman, not a girl,” he added. “And she’s black…”

By 1999, Harris was a boldface name in her own right when, a year and a half into her job at the San Francisco D.A.’s office, the Chronicle noted that she “cruised through the reception” at the Napa Valley wedding of Vanessa Jarman and oil heir Billy Getty.

Mark Buell, husband of major Democratic donor Susie Tompkins Buell, thought Harris was “a socialite with a law degree” when she approached him to help her run for San Francisco District Attorney in 2002 (she met him through his stepdaughter, Summer Tompkins Walker). But Buell was soon won over and signed on as Harris’s finance chair.

“So we put together a finance committee that primarily was young socialite ladies,” he recalls. “I said, ‘No one has ever raised more than $150,000 for a D.A.’s race, totally. I want this group to raise $100,000 by the first reporting period.’”

Harris’s donors soon included Billy and Vanessa Getty, Susan Swig, Steven Swig, Darian Swig, Mary Swig, Marjorie Swig, Roselyne “Cissie” Swig, Herb Caen’s widow Ann Moller Caen, Trevor Traina, toy tycoon John Bowes, Frances Bowes, Ann Getty, Peter Getty, George and Charlotte Mailliard Shultz—and “a slate of Fishers (founders of the Gap) and Schwabs (as in Charles).”

“A lot of people think, ‘Those people are too rich for me, I can’t be part of their world—they’re out of my fucking league,’” a Harris friend later told San Francisco magazine. “She just kept showing up.”

Harris went on to win that race, of course, and those same rarified circles helped elect her California Attorney General in 2011, but her supporters are quick to point out that all the moneyed pals in the world wouldn’t have mattered if there wasn’t something special about Kamala.

“Kamala Harris was plenty capable of impressing anyone she met…all on her own,” says San Francisco political consultant and former Brown press secretary P.J. Johnson, “and did so frequently.”

RELATED: Kamala Harris Wants to Stop ICE Detention—and This L.A. Org Has Her Back

Stay on top of the latest in L.A. food and culture. Sign up for our newsletters today.