Influential California politician Willie Brown inserted himself into Kamala Harris’s presidential campaign this week, penning an op-ed for the San Francisco Chronicle detailing his romantic relationship with her in the 1990s. The relationship was never a secret, but the public acknowledgement ignited new criticisms of Harris. Commentators began to imply she benefitted professionally from the personal relationship, possibly even only getting to where she is today because of their liaison.
Willie Brown was a fixture in California politics for years, serving as speaker of the state assembly for 15 years, and known as something of an unofficial deal-maker and influencer. He first met Harris in 1994, when she was an assistant district attorney in Alameda County. He was 60 years old at the time, and had been estranged from his wife, Blanche Brown, since 1981.
In his capacity as speaker, Brown appointed Harris to two political positions. The first was a six-month appointment to the California Unemployment Insurance Appeals Board; the second was a role on the Medical Assistance Commission, a body tasked with negotiating contracts to control Medi-Cal costs. At the time, Brown had a reputation for filling many openings with his personal associates and inner circle; when Harris vacated the Appeals Board gig, he replaced her with his longtime buddy Philip S. Ryan.
Harris ended the relationship–which was conducted in the open and frequently reported on at the time–in late 1995, shortly before Brown was sworn in for his first of two terms as mayor of San Francisco.
By the time she ran for district attorney in 2003, Harris had actively distanced herself from Brown, but that didn’t stop the two men competing with her for the D.A. job from trying to drag her for the relationship, which was already eight years in the past.
“[Terence] Hallinan and [Bill] Fazio aren’t attacking Harris’ platform (which they both profess to generally share) or professionalism (each admits that Harris is a competent prosecutor),” S.F. Weekly reported in September of 2003. “Rather, they are knifing her with innuendo, saying her ties to the outgoing mayor would cause her, as district attorney, to look the other way should her former beau or his political minions ever be credibly accused of committing crimes in office. The charge that she is Brown’s puppet—that she’s guilty by association with a mayor who has not been found guilty of anything—infuriates Harris.”
As Harris tried to shake her ties to Brown in that ’03 race, he found ways to keep their connection in the public eye. He donated $500 to her campaign and, reportedly without input or consent from Harris’s team, had a consultant who had worked on his mayoral campaigns send out a fundraising letter on her behalf, carrying his name.
“I certainly helped with her first race for district attorney in San Francisco,” Brown asserted in his Chronicle piece. “I have also helped the careers of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Gov. Gavin Newsom, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, and a host of other politicians. The difference is that Harris is the only one who, after I helped her, sent word that I would be indicted if I ‘so much as jaywalked’ while she was D.A.”
With the renewed interest in the Harris-Brown affair, criticisms of Harris that resemble amped-up versions of those lodged against her in 2003 are making the rounds again. Twitter pundits (mostly the right-wing variety) have accused her of acting as Brown’s “mistress” in exchange for unearned political patronage.
— Jim Hoft (@gatewaypundit) January 27, 2019
Floozy Kamala Harris was banging her married boss Willie Brown, then-mayor of San Francisco, who admits he jump started her political career, FYI. #KamalaHarris2020
— Mark Dice (@MarkDice) January 28, 2019
“It is difficult to find any successful politician in San Francisco who does not have history with Brown,” David Siders wrote in a recent story for Politico. “Even so, Harris’s critics used the relationship to contend that she was not independently qualified to hold office.”
Brown frames his Chronicle piece as something of an act of support for Harris, starting off by saying he has been inundated with calls asking him to comment on their relationship, and by writing the op-ed he is aiming to simply set the record straight. And whether the Harris team was involved in the publication or if it was done without her knowledge, it may end up being a strategic boon. Critics will have a field day with it now, months before primaries even begin, and voters won’t be surprised later on in the process. Or it could be that Willie Brown’s real motivation was reminding us all that he used to be powerful and once dated a woman who is suddenly very, very famous. Maybe it’s a complicated mix of personal feelings and political gamesmanship played out on the public stage.
The bigger question may be why opponents are so eager to explain the rise of Harris–a rare woman of color in the highest rungs of power–as the corrupt benefit of a romantic liaison rather than a result of her own political acumen.
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