It’s hard to say exactly when California turned its back on Kamala Harris’s presidential ambitions, but historians could do worse than point to October 3, 2019. A poll released that morning showed Harris with single-digit support among California primary voters, placing her well behind Senators Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Bernie Sanders of Vermont and former Vice President Joe Biden—all of whom had built their reputations thousands of miles away. At the time, Warren was surging while South Bend, Indiana, mayor Pete Buttigieg was peeling off some of Harris’s early supporters. Meanwhile, billionaire Michael Bloomberg was preparing to jump into a ridiculously crowded field and drop hundreds of millions of his own money to vacuum up any available airtime in California. Just a few months earlier, Harris held a hefty lead in her delegate-rich state, where she’d served as attorney general, and junior U.S. senator and was a staple of San Francisco’s political scene for two decades. It was clear by October, however, that the candidate dubbed “the female Obama” was staring down a fourth- or fifth-place finish in her primary. Eight weeks later, she dropped out.
As the bluest state in the nation, California is in lockstep with the Democratic Party, so its lukewarm support of a home-grown star—and a woman of color no less—speaks to the complexity of Harris’s political appeal.
“Everyone was so eager to get their daggers out with ‘the rise and fall of Kamala’ narrative,” says Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti. Much of that ill will was drained on August 11, when Biden selected Harris to be his running mate, effectively anointing her as the future leader of the party.
In choosing Harris, Biden seems to have tossed out the traditional playbook. She wasn’t picked for geographic reasons; California and its 55 electoral votes were always a lock for Biden regardless of whom he selected. It’s also not clear what Harris brings demographically. There’s powerful symbolism in having the first Black and South Asian American woman appear on a major party’s national ticket. But the reality is Black women aren’t uniformly enthusiastic about Harris, and Biden performed much better among the demographic during the primaries, as evidenced by his blowout 30-point victory in South Carolina. Furthermore, a number of Biden supporters never forgave Harris for her attack on Biden during the first debate, when she called him out for his opposition to federally mandated school busing with her now iconic “That little girl was me.” The exchange went viral, and Biden supporters worried that Harris, as vice president, wouldn’t play nice.
Interviews with prominent donors, strategists, and elected officials close to the vetting process—a number of whom played crucial roles in Harris’s resurrection—reveal that despite a drawn-out process and a formidable list of candidates, the job was always Harris’s to lose. Just 55 years old, she brings relative youth and energy to the ticket. Unlike some of the lesser-known candidates on Biden’s short list, Harris had been vetted on the national stage during her own presidential bid and so passed what’s known as the “do no harm” test (which aims to ensure nothing in a running mate’s past could come back to hurt the ticket). She had a personal connection to Biden from her earlier friendship with his late son, Beau, and as a crack fundraiser, she brings an impressive Rolodex of donors in Silicon Valley and the entertainment industry. Her fundraising prowess is already paying dividends. On September 2, the Biden-Harris campaign announced that it had raised $364.5 million in August, setting a new monthly record for presidential fundraising. That figure includes 1.5 million new donors, according to the campaign. Immediately after her selection, and in the days leading up to the Democratic National Convention, Harris’s name on the ticket seemed to unify the party.
It wasn’t all smooth sailing. Her supporters had to beat back a late surge by Obama national security adviser Susan Rice and California congresswoman Karen Bass, who, as a longtime activist from South L.A., had her own coterie of die-hard supporters advocating on her behalf. There was also a not-so-subtle cameo from former San Francisco mayor Willie Brown, who penned an editorial urging Harris to turn down the job, which inadvertently reminded everyone of Harris’s complicated history with Brown. All the while, Harris clung to a strategy that belied her killer political instincts: she sat back and let the job come to her.
By far the most loaded issues that emerged during the vice-presidential search were race and police reform, and if the Trump campaign has its way, the remaining month before November 3 will be a referendum on those explosive issues. Harris’s stints as district attorney of San Francisco, and later as California attorney general, saddled her with a tough-on-crime legacy that left her out of step with where California and the progressive wing of the party have been heading on criminal justice reform. The legacy came to haunt her during the presidential primary, most famously in a tense exchange Harris had on the debate stage with Hawaii congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard over her record as a prosecutor.
Harris’s backstory as a tough-on-crime prosecutor could be Biden’s secret weapon if deployed adroitly.
But with President Trump desperately pivoting to a law-and-order message in the final weeks of the campaign, insiders say Harris’s backstory as a tough-on-crime prosecutor, once seen as a negative, could be the ticket’s secret weapon if deployed adroitly. “How do you respond to what’s been happening in communities of color, and have the conversation with law enforcement so their perspective is reflected and understood?” asks a source close to the Biden campaign. “I think she is unique in that she has experiences on both sides. She now has a platform to help educate white Americans while also defusing Trump’s law-and-order message.”
It’s widely acknowledged that after the murder of George Floyd and the ensuing Black Lives Matter protests, Biden’s calculus regarding Harris changed. The cultural winds had shifted dramatically, and it was no longer enough to have a female vice president, a pledge Biden made during a nationally televised debate months earlier. His selection would now also need to be a person of color. That mandate winnowed his list of candidates. In addition to Harris, Rice, and Bass, there were activist and Georgia gubernatorial nominee Stacey Abrams; Illinois senator Tammy Duckworth, an Iraq War veteran and Purple Heart recipient; Atlanta mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms; and Florida congresswoman Val Demings. (Warren and Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer, while not women of color, reportedly remained in contention.)
“It was an excruciating decision for [Biden], because each one of these women could’ve been an exceptional vice president,” says Garcetti, who had an insider’s perch during the vice-presidential sweepstakes. Garcetti was one of four people tapped by Biden to vet the short-listed candidates, along with former Connecticut senator Chris Dodd; Delaware congresswoman Lisa Blunt Rochester; and Cynthia Hogan, a former Apple VP and Biden counsel. As the sole elected official from California on the committee who harbors his own national ambitions, Garcetti was in a unique, if not awkward position: Harris, Governor Gavin Newsom, and Garcetti have long been considered the up-and-coming Democratic stars from California, and now Garcetti was being asked a give a rival a potential leg up.
It can be argued that Harris was simply the right person for the moment. Her origin story dovetailed neatly with the historic protests that seized the country after Floyd’s murder, and she could speak eloquently and from the heart about America’s legacy on race relations. At the first Democratic primary debate in June 2019, she was widely acknowledged to have won the night by uttering the “little girl” zinger after flaying Biden for being chummy with segregationist senators and opposing the federal busing program that enabled her to attend an integrated school. Harris won plaudits for showing her Jedi-like ability to ruthlessly pin her opponents with rhetorical flare, but the lingering resentment it inspired among Biden loyalists would complicate her vice-presidential bid a year later.
Strictly speaking, Harris is an Angeleno. She and her husband, entertainment attorney Douglas Emhoff, own a home in Brentwood. Emhoff, a partner at DLA Piper, and Harris married in 2014 after being set up on a blind date and, by all accounts, share a happy and stable marriage. Though he was born in Brooklyn, according to one of his friends, Emhoff is very much an L.A. guy, having graduated from California State University, Northridge, and earning his law degree from the University of Southern California’s Gould School of Law. An avid Lakers fan, Emhoff has two children from a previous marriage who call Harris “Momala.” Both got warm shout-outs from Harris during her VP acceptance speech, along with her sister, Maya, and niece, Meena, who are her closest confidantes.
But Harris is very much a product of the Bay Area. She was born in Oakland and raised in and around Berkeley by politically active immigrant parents. Her mother was a cancer researcher from India; her father, an economist from Jamaica. During her childhood, the Bay Area was a hotbed of civil rights activity, and her parents didn’t shy away from involving themselves and their daughters. While stumping, Harris often trotted out the line that her parents pushed her in a baby stroller at protests and marches.
Harris’s political style was forged in San Francisco’s cutthroat political scene, where politicians are required to debate policy differences in excruciating detail. The city has long been a political farm system, and it’s no coincidence that it fostered the careers of a stable of Democratic stars, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senator Dianne Feinstein, and Newsom. Harris got her start as a sex-crimes prosecutor in Alameda County in the 1990s and quickly moved up the ladder. Political observers would get their first glimpse of her ambition and fierce campaigning tactics in 2003, when, at 38, she ran for San Francisco’s district attorney seat against the incumbent, Terence Hallinan, a prosecutor and fixture in the Bay Area’s progressive firmament who happened to be her former boss. As district attorney, Hallinan made cracking down on misconduct within the San Francisco Police Department a centerpiece of his tenure; at one point he indicted the entire command staff of the SFPD.
Harris, sensing that she could turn Hallinan’s core mission into a liability, ran on a traditional “law and order” campaign and hammered Hallinan for his low conviction rate. Gary Delagnes, a former San Francisco police union official, told Politico that Harris approached him at an event and poked him in the chest, saying, “You better endorse me, you better endorse me. You get it?” Harris won the election with 56 percent of the vote, becoming California’s first district attorney of color.
Since Harris joined Biden on the presidential ticket, Trump and his surrogates have failed to define a coherent counterattack on her or her record.
Nathan Ballard, a top San Francisco political consultant, has known Harris for more than 20 years and worked with her in the district attorney’s office. “She re-professionalized the DA’s office and pulled it back into the mainstream,” says Ballard. “Anywhere else she would’ve been considered a progressive prosecutor, but by San Francisco standards, she was restoring a traditional ‘law and order’ office.”
Ballard recalls walking with Harris during grassroots outreach to the city’s precincts. “She’d come in with designer heels and jeans and then put on her walking shoes. She’d hand me her heels and say, ‘Put these somewhere safe,’” he says. “I always thought of her as a good grassroots politician. There’s no doubt she’s always been ambitious, but she also pitched in on her way up. She’s mentored a lot of young women.”
Anyone who pulls off a meteoric political rise like Harris makes enemies along the way. “She’s brilliant. She’s beautiful and immaculately dressed,” says Ballard. “The two leading players in San Francisco, politically, are Gavin and Kamala, and they both have a movie-star quality, which adds to their allure but also leads to a lot of resentment and jealousy. They’re both very lucky and have led, by and large, charmed lives, so there’s going to be some schadenfreude when they fail,” he says.
One L.A.-based Democratic consultant, who declined to speak on the record, was surprised by her selection. “Whenever there is Kamala pile-on, most of the negative incoming is from California,” says the consultant. “She’s not somebody who people feel has always had their backs. Look at the Clintons: As much as they love power and exercising it, there’s a sustained belief among those who have worked for them that they’re genuinely motivated by doing good and getting good policy in place. That’s not a sentiment that’s shared about Kamala.”
In 2008, Harris announced her candidacy for California attorney general, and two years later narrowly defeated former L.A. district attorney Steve Cooley, yet again making history, this time, as the first woman to win that office. Serving from 2011 to 2017, her tenure was marked by several controversies. In 2014, she had to walk back a memo written by attorneys in her office that argued against the early release of prisoners, citing the need for inmate labor. A year later, her office became the first statewide agency to adopt a body-camera program for police, but was criticized for not making the policy mandatory. In 2016, Harris announced her intention to run for the Senate seat vacated by Barbara Boxer and went on to win that race by a healthy margin.
Since Harris joined Biden on the presidential ticket, Trump and his surrogates have failed to define a coherent counterattack on her or her record. They’ve ping-ponged from calling her a stooge for the extreme left and reminding supporters of her tenure as attorney general. In a sign of how confused the messaging has become, the pro-Trump website The Federalist took the perplexing strategic step of selling T-shirts with a badge that simply says: “Kamala is a cop.”
By late July, California lieutenant governor Elena Kounalakis was getting nervous. During the long-running speculation over whom Biden would pick as his running mate, Kounalakis had read a string of stories in Politico in which unnamed sources questioned whether Harris, a longtime friend from the social scene in San Francisco, could be loyal to Biden and play second fiddle. “They characterized her as someone who was not a team player. They used the trope of the ‘ambitious woman’ that you couldn’t trust, and it was so far from the truth,” Kounalakis says. Harris—famous for leaving nothing to chance—had instructed her closest supporters not to lobby Biden’s camp on her behalf, hoping her record would speak for itself.
Then former San Francisco mayor and California Assembly Speaker Willie Brown published an editorial urging Harris to turn down the vice presidency and instead seek a cabinet position in a potential Biden administration. The editorial resurfaced long-held suspicions that Harris benefited from Brown’s political patronage when he appointed her to several state commissions early in her career. In the early 1990s, Brown reveled in playing a kingmaker in California politics and regularly doled out cushy committee appointments to up-and-comers who showed fealty and promise. Newsom was an early beneficiary.
Harris and Brown were romantically linked when Harris was a deputy district attorney and Brown was making his successful bid to become the first Black mayor of San Francisco. At the time, Brown was 31 years her senior and estranged from his wife, Blanche Brown, though they were still married. Harris would later appear to distance herself from Brown, calling their relationship an “albatross hanging around my neck.” But a source close to Brown says the reality is more complicated. “He and Kamala have been close over the years, and he wanted her to get that VP nomination,” says the source. Calling for Harris to abandon the sweep states, the source adds, was Brown’s way of “tweaking the narrative to keep her in the decision-makers’ consciousness—he really is a political genius.”
Harris’s closest friends and confidantes point to the disconnect between the public Kamala and the private one.
Regardless of Brown’s intentions, in late July, Kounalakis organized a Zoom meeting of 20 California officials who made their case for Harris to Biden and his team. One of Kounalakis’s first calls was to Long Beach mayor Robert Garcia, whose mother, Gabriella O’Donnell, had just died of complications from COVID-19. (Less than two weeks later, Garcia’s stepfather, Gregory O’Donnell, also succumbed to the virus.) Harris had met Garcia’s mother four years earlier when, as attorney general, she swore in Garcia as mayor. “She’s always been there for me,” he says. Garcia adds that after his mother’s death, Harris reached out to him and “talked a lot about her own mother and how important she was to her. Her words were sincere and kind and came from a place of friendship, and they brought me lot of comfort.”
Harris’s closest friends and confidantes point to the disconnect between the public Kamala and the private one. Words like “tough,” “ambitious,” and “ruthless” are replaced with “funny,” “warm,” “kind,” and “thoughtful.” Ballard, the San Francisco-based consultant, says Harris possesses a skill that he’s seen in only a handful of politicians: an uncanny knack for remembering the smallest details of people’s lives. During her acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention, it was impossible to miss her focus on friends and family or that she wore a huge smile throughout. She shared the intimate detail that when she was five, her parents split, leaving her late mother, Shyamala Gopalan, to raise her two daughters on her own. “My mother instilled in my sister, Maya, and me the values that would chart the course of our lives. She raised us to be proud, strong Black women, and she raised us to know and be proud of our Indian heritage,” she said.
The convention speech was widely seen as an attempt to smooth out Harris’s sharper edges and counter the impression of her as the tough-as-nails prosecutor who had rhetorically pinned U.S. Attorney General William Barr during the impeachment trial and lacerated Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh at his confirmation hearings (a YouTube video of her exchange with Kavanaugh has been viewed 3.5 million times).
But it’s precisely those sharp edges that the Biden-Harris campaign may need to call upon in the last month of a campaign during which the president is guaranteed to pull out all the stops of outrageousness. Of course, unleashing Harris’s inner cop risks alienating the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, already irritated that neither Sanders nor Warren are on the ticket. But the Trump campaign wasted no time leaning into the unrest in the wake of the police killings in Minneapolis and Kenosha, Wisconsin, as a way to turn the race away from the president’s failures to contain the COVID-19 pandemic that has crippled the economy and killed more than 200,000. For now, the strategy appears to be working only among Trump’s immovable base; polls conducted in early September, weeks after the Kenosha shootings and the Republican convention, showed Biden’s eight- to ten-point national lead over Trump had barely budged. That could change, of course, but at the very least, Harris’s presence on the ticket has had no discernible negative impact. And if the Trump campaign persists in a “law-and-order” theme, Harris’s background as California’s former top cop is a formidable weapon, locked and loaded, that Democrats can draw upon at a moment’s notice.
In the final days leading up to Biden’s selection of his running mate, Garcetti said that his committee’s intent was to identify the core character of the finalists and present each candidate to Biden “almost like they were characters in a play.” Whether or not Harris will need to channel her inner Cersei Lannister may end up determining this election.
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