Why you should care
Because this state innovator could be destined for higher office.
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You have to understand the context of desperate times. Otherwise, the reception Kamala Harris receives here in dusty Bakersfield may seem like theatrics, as one reporter later called it, to the chagrin of her campaign. To the beat of a mariachi band, Harris — the California attorney general and front-runner in the Senate race — enters the stage flanked by an honor guard of a dozen United Farm Worker members who clap and wave the flags bearing the iconic black eagle of Cesar Chavez himself.
It is pageantry, thick even by political standards. But if Harris were a lackluster candidate, she’d hardly inspire such a vocal display of affection. Certainly not from the economically depressed denizens of the Central Valley, which the rest of the state dubs less eloquently as “the armpit of California.” To understand the appeal of Harris, you have to understand the politics of want and the allure of hope. “Sí, se puede,” the crowd chants. Harris begins: The work here, the 51-year-old says, has “always been about challenging our country to live up to its ideals. And unfortunately, the struggle continues.”
The Golden State suffers from an economy still recovering from recession, but unlike other states, it bears particular pangs of drought and debt. Harris is pitching herself as a solution, and she’s got the Democratic establishment behind her, from locals like Gov. Jerry Brown to the national names she hopes to work with in the U.S. Senate — liberal stalwarts like Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand and Elizabeth Warren. Harris has staked out a national profile on issues from criminal justice to childhood education, earning praise as a future lion in the Senate or, as OZY’s Carlos Watson has suggested, maybe a loftier position. Given her work taking on cyber exploitation, standing up for California homeowners and fighting for children across the state, she’s “unstoppable,” says Stephanie Schriock, president of pro-Democratic political action committee Emily’s List.
“I think of issues as a Venn diagram,” Harris tells OZY when asked how she’d get some of her more difficult promises — like comprehensive immigration reform — through a divided Congress. “There is going to be an area where there is an overlap. I like to go for that area and expand it.”
This strategy seems to have worked for the former San Francisco prosecutor, who held a speaking slot at the 2012 Democratic convention — the same jumping point that launched the stardom of Barack Obama, who has called Harris “brilliant” and “tough.” Her family’s narrative is the quintessential immigrant tale, and her résumé is brimming. But after a tumultuous life in the public eye that has perhaps left Harris overly cautious, as critics suggest, can this pantsuited progressive live up to her potential?
Just down the highway, miles of farmland are colored tan like sand. Among the rows and hedges that mimic the grainy documentaries of the past migrant farmers movement, it’s hard not to feel history being made while passing signs that read “No Water = No Food” and “Is Growing Food A Waste of Water?”
During a press conference after her speech, Harris holds court, but the tables are turned. Politics turns even the best prosecutors into defendants. “You can’t make it rain, but what can you do?” Harris promises to deal with the drought by funding water recycling, storage and desalinization programs. “Where do you get the money?” Bring in federal dollars, she says. “Do you support a moratorium on fracking?” She’d monitor it but is worried by the practice. “So you’re OK with fracking as long as it’s regulated?” She’s very skeptical, and concerned. “So would you ban it?” Well, Harris is waiting to see what regulations look like.
She learned about navigating conflict from an early age. Her Indian mother was Shyamala Gopalan Harris, a noted breast cancer scientist; her Jamaican American father, Donald Harris, an economist at Stanford University. Together, the couple carted Harris and her younger sister, Maya — now a key adviser in Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign — between civil-rights marches in the Bay Area. “We grew up surrounded by adults who spent all their time marching and shouting,” Harris says. Although her parents later split, she mastered thriving under pressure. And as an adult, she’d be tested early.
Four months after Harris beat a two-term incumbent to become San Francisco’s “top cop,” as she puts it, a police officer was shot and killed. The city police union and Sen. Dianne Feinstein urged her to seek the death penalty, but Harris refused, citing her own moral opposition and a campaign promise to avoid capital punishment. “Our members never forgave Harris,” Gary Delagnes, the former president of the union, said recently in The New York Times. Retribution came when almost no police groups endorsed Harris in her 2010 attorney general race. “There was a candidate in that race who was very, very in favor of the death penalty,” Harris says. This time, most law-enforcement agencies have aligned behind her. In 2009, Harris wrote Smart on Crime, establishing herself as a national expert on criminal-justice reform while presaging the modern shift toward rehabilitation over incarceration.
As attorney general, she’s had moments of political courage. When other states reached a settlement with five large mortgage companies accused of causing the recession through home-foreclosure abuses, Harris fought what she felt was a lowball deal of $4 billion in aid to Californians. Allies, including the Obama administration, urged her to settle for less, but she was vindicated after winning her state more than $20 billion in relief and additional legal protections. In Bakersfield, she lays out ambitious (albeit wonky) plans, including her hopes to decrease crime — by curtailing truancy, pointing out that the incarcerated are, overwhelmingly, high school dropouts.
Yet for all her bold stances, Harris hesitates in other arenas. “Too often, Harris has been cautious and calculated to a fault,” the Los Angeles Times wrote in its endorsement of her. While she once led on justice reform, the editorial accused her of “sitting on the sidelines” more recently. Critics say she’s been deaf to calls to create a force investigating police shootings. And despite her opposition to the death penalty, she’s defended in court the state’s right to execute criminals (her argument: It’s her job to defend the current law, not legislate it). The Times theorized that Harris was cautious “to avoid mistakes that could impede her political rise.” Then again: “An attorney general is constrained both legally and politically,” argues Jack Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College. Sometimes, he says, “caution is a virtue.”