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The making of Kamala Harris

Why Democrats are pinning their hopes on Joe Biden’s running mate. 

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She’s a left-wing radical. She’s a pragmatist, a technocrat, an old-school, tough-on-crime liberal. She’s a trailblazer, a ground-breaker. She’s a sell-out, she’s a cop. America isn’t ready to elect someone like her. She’s not black enough. Perhaps pundits struggle to compute a part-Indian, part-Jamaican American woman in public roles they’ve only ever seen filled by white men. Perhaps, too, Kamala Harris defies easy definition because she resists it.

The California senator and Democratic nominee for vice-president often tells reporters she wasn’t raised to talk about herself. She can be evasive in interviews and is dismissive when journalists attempt to label her ideologically or place her on the political spectrum – that’s “a nice subject for a graduate class,” she once told a Bloomberg reporter, “but it’s not how people are living life”. Harris says her mother taught her to reject “false choices”, and that she’s grown accustomed to forging her own path. Harris is the first woman of colour on any major party presidential ticket in the US; she’s been the first woman and the first black person in almost any job she’s done.

The 55-year-old dresses elegantly, in a uniform of well-cut suits and pearls, and has a brilliant, disarming smile. She is warm and personable, but can also be steely and relentless – as during the congressional hearings that raised her national profile. Her grilling of Donald Trump’s judicial appointees, Jeff Sessions, Brett Kavanaugh and William Barr, went viral. She asked question after question, looking deeply unimpressed, a little bored, sometimes amused. “I’m not able to be rushed this fast, it makes me nervous,” Sessions told her during his Senate confirmation hearing to become attorney general. Watching Harris was like watching a cat that has pinned a squirming mouse under its paw and decided it may as well play for a bit before killing it. Or maybe it wasn’t like that at all. All three men got the job.

Political observers were already positioning Harris as a promising vice-president for Joe Biden, the Democratic frontrunner, last spring, while her own presidential primary campaign was in full swing. She was having none of it. “Joe Biden would be a great running mate,” she told reporters in May. Her own presidential campaign foundered in the months that followed, and she dropped out of the race in December. Her political experience, national profile and identity as a black woman, able to speak with authority on the Black Lives Matter protests roiling many American cities this summer, meant that Harris was, most mainstream commentators agreed, the natural choice to be Biden’s vice-president, though he waited until 11 August to announce his pick. If he is elected in November, Biden, who would be 78 by the time of his inauguration, will be the oldest president in history. He has described himself as a one-term “bridge” president, which makes Harris as much an understudy as a sidekick.

***

“That I am here tonight is a testament to the dedication of generations before me: women and men who believed so fiercely in the promise of equality, liberty and justice for all,” Harris said at the Democratic National Convention, when she officially accepted her vice-presidential nomination. If Harris felt awkward delivering a speech to a mostly empty room – the convention was held virtually because of the coronavirus pandemic – it didn’t show. It was a masterful, rousing speech, which wove together her personal story with that of the civil rights movement and described the upcoming election as “a chance to change the course of history”. “Years from now, this moment will have passed. And our children and our grandchildren will look in our eyes and they're going to ask us: 'Where were you when the stakes were so high?' They will ask us: 'What was it like?' And we will tell them. We will tell them, not just how we felt. We will tell them what we did,” she said.

In the speech Harris credited her mother with instilling in her the values that would shape her political career. She was extremely close to her mother, Shyamala Gopolan, who was born in Chennai, India, moved to the US at the age of 19 and went on to become a breast cancer researcher. Gopolan met Harris’s father, Donald, at graduate school in Berkeley, California, where they were both involved in the civil rights movement. Donald Harris, who is from Jamaica, is now an emeritus professor of economics at Stanford. Kamala Harris was born in Oakland in 1964, and mostly raised in the San Francisco Bay Area. She often says her parents gave her a “stroller’s eye” view of the struggle for racial justice. In her autobiography, The Truths We Hold, she writes that once when she was fussing as a toddler her mother asked her, “What do you want?” to which she replied, “Fweedom”. Her parents separated when she was five and Harris and her younger sister Maya, now a civil rights lawyer who worked on Harris’s presidential campaign, remained with their mother in Berkeley. Harris writes that Gopolan, who died in 2009, raised her daughters to be “proud, strong black women” who also remained connected to their Indian heritage.

[See also: the New Statesman's US presidential election forecast]

Harris studied political sciences and economics at Howard University in Washington, DC, one of the US’s historically black colleges and universities (a HBCU). A legacy of segregation, HBCUs played a central role in the formation of America’s black middle class and in the civil rights movement. That Harris chose to study at Howard is “central to understanding her identity formation”, Andra Gillespie, an associate professor of political sciences at Emory University, told me. It indicates that “embracing her black roots, being proud of her black heritage, is something that has been part of her life for her entire life”. Harris is the first HBCU graduate on a major party presidential ticket, and she has retained close links with her alma mater. She held her first presidential campaign event there, wore a Howard hoodie while watching the Democratic roll call at the Democratic National Convention and remains involved with her sorority.

After Howard, Harris returned to California to study law. Harris has said that many of her friends and family were “incredulous” that she wanted to work for the district attorney’s office on graduation, knowing the role state prosecutors play in enforcing the US’s punitive and racialised criminal justice system, but she said she wanted to reform the system from within. She no doubt also understood that these judicial roles are a well-worn path to political power in the US. Harris started working as a deputy district attorney in Alameda County, California in 1990, focusing on sex crimes, and worked her way up. In 2003 she became the first woman and the first African American to be elected district attorney for San Francisco. Seven years later, she was elected attorney general for the state of California, another job that had only ever been held by a white man. The attorney general race was so tight that on election night the San Francisco Chronicle declared her opponent, the Republican Steve Cooley, the winner. (Once all ballots had been counted, three weeks later, it was found that Harris had won by 0.8 per cent of the vote.)

***

There is no easy way to characterise Harris’s record as a prosecutor. She implemented a number of reforms popular with progressives at the time, such as refusing to hand down the death penalty, even in a high-profile case of a 21-year-old who murdered a police officer; pioneering various programmes aimed at reducing recidivism and providing alternatives to prison sentences; and instituting implicit bias training and bodycams for police officers. She took other decisions that contradicted these aims, such as defending California’s death penalty in court, and declining to investigate police shootings. She wrote a 2009 book called Smart on Crime, setting out how she was rethinking criminal justice in the US – she was neither “soft” nor “hard” on crime, only “smart” – and outlining some of her policies, including an initiative that threatened the parents of truant children with prison time. Harris, who is said to have a wonkish streak, argued that because 80 per cent of murders are committed by school drop-outs, this was an innovative community safety initiative; her detractors saw it as yet another way to criminalise black families.

Phelicia Jones, a longstanding activist in San Francisco, recalls watching Harris win a debate in a local jail during her district attorney campaign. She remembers that “it was very exciting for black people to see a young black woman who’s running for DA” but told me she ultimately felt betrayed and bitterly disappointed. Jones says that when a 26-year-old black man named Mario Woods was shot 20 times and killed by police in 2015, her letters to Harris’s office seeking justice went unanswered. “At the time Mario was murdered, she was the attorney general, the top cop of California. She could have instituted an independent investigation, she could have had the courtesy to write back to us, she could have given us the courtesy to meet with us. And she did not. And with the political aspect of what goes on in the black community, when we are ignored the message you send is that we’re not important,” Jones told me. Gil Durán, who served as Harris’s communications director and senior adviser while she was attorney general, told me that at the time she was “largely unfocused and certainly not ready for prime time”. In a widely shared New York Times op-ed, the law professor Lara Bazelon lambasted Harris’s prosecutorial record, describing her as “on the wrong side of history” and outlining several occasions when Harris fought to uphold wrongful convictions.

Harris’s prosecutorial career may leave her vulnerable to criticism from the left, but it’s also one of her greatest assets. It is central to her political identity and suffuses her rhetoric: her campaign slogan, "For the People", echoes the phrase she uses to introduce herself in court, and she has often spoken of wanting to “prosecute the case” against Trump. The police killing of George Floyd and the nationwide Black Lives Matter protests that followed have simultaneously amplified left-wing calls to abolish the police and prisons, and increased the electoral appeal of a perceived law-and-order candidate who can bring peace to the US's burning cities.

For some voters, Harris’s background offers reassuring evidence that she’s “tough” enough, and she often speaks of how she used her prosecutorial powers to seek justice for the vulnerable. One of her greatest victories as attorney general was securing a $20bn settlement from the banks for selling subprime mortgages to Californians, having negotiated up from an initial offer of just $4bn. “I've fought for children, and survivors of sexual assault. I've fought against transnational gangs. I took on the biggest banks and helped take down one of the biggest for-profit colleges. I know a predator when I see one,” she said during the Democratic Convention. She uses that last line a lot, and her tone makes clear to whom she’s referring.

In 2014 Harris married Douglas Emhoff, a lawyer. She has two adult stepchildren, who call her “Momala” – a nickname that helps Harris free herself from what the writer Rebecca Traister calls “the tight knot for women in politics”: “Everything associated with motherhood has been coded as faintly embarrassing… And yet to be a bad mom has been disqualifying, and to not be a mom at all is to be understood as lacking something: gravity, value, femininity.” Harris is a keen cook; in one of the most charming of her many viral moments, she is filmed dispensing tips on how to brine a turkey in a 90-second commercial break before going live on MSNBC. “Do the salt and pepper all over, just, like, lather that baby up,” she says, massaging the air in front of her. Harris has used cooking as a way to convey her cultural heritage, too, appearing, for instance, in a video with the Indian-American actress Mindy Kaling in which they make dosas together.

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Harris was elected to the Senate in 2016, and in 2017 became the first African American to represent California and only the second black woman to sit in the upper chamber. As well as serving on the high-profile intelligence and judiciary committees, Harris established her progressive credentials as a vociferous critic of Trump, and by supporting several left-wing initiatives, such as Bernie Sanders’ Medicare-for-All bill and bills to raise the minimum wage and overhaul the bail system. As protests spread across the country this summer following the police killing of Floyd, Harris introduced legislation to substantially reform the police and to make lynching a federal crime.

She announced she was running for president on 21 January 2019, Martin Luther King Jr Day. Her campaign showed early promise – her first rally in Oakland attracted 20,000 people – but quickly faltered. She flip-flopped on several issues of central importance to Democratic voters, such as whether she would abolish private health insurance in favour of Medicare-for-All, struggled to account for her mixed record as attorney general in California, and failed to convey to voters what she stood for. “There was a degree to which people perceived: what is your core here? Do you know what your core is? Can you tell a straight story about your past?” Durán, her former aide, told me. “I think people in 2020 respect evolution. But for a long period of time, and maybe even now to some degree, she tries for this revisionist version of her career.”

After she dropped out of the race, investigations in the New York Times and Politico detailed months of dysfunction and infighting in her campaign. “Kamala Harris Supporter Insists Her Inspiring Message of Something or Other Will Always Live On” a headline in the satirical new website the Onion read. Speaking anonymously to New York magazine, one of Harris’s allies offered a more sympathetic interpretation of her predicament. “The political consultant class gnashes their teeth over this – they have to market a product,” the friend said. “The problem that they have is: she is what she is. She’s complicated.”

[See also: Emily Tamkin profiles Joe Biden]

As Durán sees it, in picking Harris, Biden had offered her “a lifeline” after her own disastrous campaign, while also choosing a skilled and experienced politician uniquely suited to the current moment. “Kamala Harris’s gift as a politician is that she’s a symbol of hope for so many people,” he said. Her vice-presidential nomination marked the culmination of decades of lobbying and agitation within the Democratic Party to acknowledge the importance of African American women, the Democrats’ most loyal voting bloc, Andra Gillespie of Emory University told me. “There was a reckoning that needed to happen within the party, and that’s been going on for years, about whether African American women were being supported and rewarded for their loyalty."

The calls for Biden to select a black woman as his running partner intensified after a disastrous interview in which he said that black people “ain’t black” if they were undecided about how they would vote, and grew louder still following the death of Floyd. Harris was one of several black women said to be under consideration, among them the former national security adviser Susan Rice, the mayor of Atlanta, Keisha Lance Bottoms, and the California congresswoman Karen Bass. Sharon Wright Austin, a political sciences professor and expert in African American politics at the University of Florida, told me she had been concerned that Biden choose a black woman as a running partner, because a number of black people, especially black women, had indicated that they might not vote for him otherwise. Austin also regarded Harris as the strongest candidate: young, dynamic, attractive, with a track record of winning difficult elections and – arguably – no major skeletons in the closet. “She brought a lot of enthusiasm to the campaign that was lacking,” Wright said. It is hard to overstate the symbolic importance of her nomination. Phelicia Jones, the activist who was such a vocal critic of Harris’s record on police killings, described the Democratic ticket as the “lesser of two evils”, but when I later suggested she didn’t sound enthusiastic about Harris’s nomination she corrected me: “It’s a warm feeling. I am excited. She’s a black woman!”

***

During a presidential primary debate, Harris challenged Biden on his record on race. “I do not believe you are a racist,” she began, but said she found his support for segregationist senators “actually very hurtful” and to her this was “personal”. Biden looked downcast and Harris’s popularity briefly soared. Biden’s wife, Jill Biden, described Harris’s “unexpected” attack on his race record as a “punch to the gut”. When she is asked about the exchange now, Harris laughs it off. “You landed haymakers on Joe Biden. I mean, his teeth were like Chiclets all over the stage!” the CBS host Stephen Colbert said to her recently, asking how the pair could be such “pals” now. “It was a debate!” she said, eight times, laughing in an unnaturally insistent manner.

But Harris and Biden have known each other a long time – Harris was close friends with his son, Beau, who died of brain cancer in 2015 – and they do seem to enjoy an easy rapport. In their first joint interview, with ABC in August, Biden said most of their differences were over “tactics” rather than values and portrayed her as a progressive. “We both believe Medicare, healthcare is a right not a privilege. We both believe that we have to deal with the existential threat to humanity, called global warming… The question is how you get there,” he said. They are closely aligned on foreign policy, having both spoken of wanting to restore America’s international standing through a return to multilateralism, by repairing relationships with the country’s traditional allies and taking a tougher stance against human rights violations in Saudi Arabia and China. They both, in other words, are seeking a return to Obama-era diplomacy, although they will be navigating a very different political landscape, a strengthened China, the resurgence of authoritarian leadership across the globe, and an American public worn-down by US military interventions in the Middle East and Afghanistan.

As Biden and Harris enter the final weeks of campaigning before November’s election, they face a nation that is sad, angry and diminished globally; beset by a pandemic that has killed more than 200,000 Americans and cost millions of jobs; roiled by civil unrest; and presided over by an incompetent, divisive president who has spent four years undermining democratic norms and institutions, and isolating the US internationally. When Biden and Harris appear together, side-by-side but 6ft apart, the appeal they are making is that in contrast to Trump they represent a reassertion of American decency, a politics underpinned by a sense of moral responsibility and public duty. Biden – white-haired, genial, empathetic – offers a reassuring sense of continuity. Harris – charismatic, assertive, enigmatic – embodies the tantalising possibility of change.

[See also: Emily Tamkin on the US vice-presidential debate]

Sophie McBain is a special correspondent at the New Statesman. She was previously an assistant editor.