California Attorney General Kamala Harris is poised to become the first Black female senator in almost 20 years—that is, if she gets through the next few grueling months on the campaign trail. ESSENCE spoke with the exceedingly ambitious leader about her plans for 2016 and how she's blazing trails to win the seat.
It’s an unseasonably warm October day in Los Angeles, and the sun shimmers in the azure sky as the cab zips past palm trees along Wilshire Boulevard. My destination is the campaign headquarters of Kamala Harris—the California attorney general who aims to make history as the Golden State’s next U.S. senator.
Inside a six-story commercial office building with a glass exterior, it’s a quick elevator ride up to a light-filled suite. A handful of millennial staffers study their laptops and tablets, quietly focused on their duties. While I wait in a conference room, I’m assured that “the A.G.” (as she’s referred to by her team) will be along shortly. Minutes later, the boss blows in, impeccably attired in a tailored gray suit, stiletto pumps and a double strand of pearls. While much has been made of Harris’s good looks (President Obama caught some heat for calling her “the best-looking attorney general in the country” at a 2013 event), what is most striking is her manner: graceful, classy, confident. Harris walks and talks with the self–assurance of someone on a mission. And she is.
The thirty-second attorney general of the most populous state in the union—she shattered barriers in 2010 as the first woman, first African-American and first South Asian-American elected to the prestigious post—now wants to go to Washington. “I believe there is a need for a strong and powerful voice that represents the most vulnerable and voiceless among us,” says Harris, 51, who greets me warmly and pulls up a nearby chair to discuss her candidacy, platform and political views. “I strongly believe that I have a duty to be bold, not just for the state, but for the country.”
Harris leaped into the Senate race last year after political legend Barbara Boxer announced plans to retire in 2016 after 23 years in the chamber. The Democrat Harris became an early front-runner in a crowded field of potential candidates vying for the seat.
While there are currently 20 Black women in Congress, all in the House of Representatives, there hasn’t been an African-American female senator since Carol Moseley Braun of Illinois became the first more than two decades ago. She served one term, from 1993 to 1999, but lost a reelection bid.
Today, there are only two African-American men in the 100-member Senate: Tim Scott (R-South Carolina) and Cory Booker (D-New Jersey). Harris told me during our sit-down that the senator from the Garden State was among those who encouraged her to run. “Kamala is one of the most exciting leaders in the country right now,” Booker tells ESSENCE. “She brings an incredible combination of life experiences and skills that are sorely needed on issues like prison reform, empowering victims, addiction and violence. And she has actually run [and managed] something, and shown herself to be a creative problem solver.”
Harris’s Senate platform is extensive. If elected, she vows to work on legislation to create long-term growth and prosperity “that lifts families on every rung of the economic ladder.” She would seek ways to foster innovation, invest in job training, and help small businesses and start-ups. Harris also pledges to fight “to ensure our children have a fair shot in school and in life by passing universal prekindergarten legislation,” and to save young adults from crushing student loan debt. The A.G.’s goal is to create good-paying jobs and enact family leave and equal pay policies that benefit working families. “This issue is important to all, but for Black women, poor women, working women, it’s about economic empowerment,” she says.
ESSENCE political contributor Donna Brazile characterized Harris as a “twenty-first century” politician who is a rising star and the future of American leadership. Harris, she believes, has the makings of a presidential contender. “The country needs someone of her caliber arguing policy,” says Brazile, vice chairwoman of voter registration and participation for the Democratic National Committee. “I believe with her coalition she is uniquely poised to win.”
First, however, Harris must fund-raise in a state notorious for its cash-guzzling campaigns. According to The Hill, “strategists are predicting the race will be the most expensive in history….” A billion-dollar price tag is possible. While Harris has raised millions from Hollywood celebs and grassroots donors, the savvy pol takes nothing for granted.
“I’ve been traveling across California, meeting people,” she says, noting that once she has tackled her day job, evenings and weekends are spent driving or flying to campaign events across the sprawling state. “I’m invested in winning.”
ROOTS OF SUCCESS
To understand her motivation and drive, one can look no further than her family tree: immigrant parents—a Jamaican father and an Indian mother. Born in Oakland, Kamala Devi Harris (her first name, pronounced “comma-lah,” means lotus flower) is the eldest of two daughters who were raised among intellectuals and freedom fighters. Theirs was a household where meals would run the gamut from collard greens to curries. Their faith melded Hindu and Baptist practices. Activists would come to dinner and strategize.
“My parents met at Berkeley,” says Harris, whose younger sister, Maya, is also an attorney. “Mom was a scientist with a Ph.D., and my father was a professor of economics at Stanford. My parents were active in the Civil Rights Movement, marching and shouting for justice. We grew up always being told that you have a responsibility to serve.”
Early on, Harris became fascinated by the legal profession and the role that law played in empowering the citizenry. “My heroes were lawyers—Constance Baker Motley, Charles Hamilton Houston and Thurgood Marshall.”
When it was time for college, she followed in the footsteps of some of her legal idols and attended historically Black Howard University in the nation’s capital. There, she joined the debate team, pledged a sorority (Alpha Kappa Alpha) and reveled in the way that she and her peers defied expectations.
“I loved my time at Howard,” she gushes. “It was just a special place. Being there not only laid the foundation for my political career, it also let me know that there was a place out there that wanted to invest in people who looked like me, nurture people who looked like me and provide people who looked like me, my sister or my cousin with the tools to succeed.”
After earning an undergraduate degree in political science and economics, Harris attended the University of California, Hastings College of the Law. Postgraduation, she launched her career as an assistant district attorney in Alameda County, California. In 2003, she was elected district attorney of San Francisco, easily defeating the incumbent. She served two terms (from 2004 to 2011) before pursuing statewide office and winning an election that would catapult her into the attorney general’s office in 2010.
As attorney general, she and her staff of 5,000 have tackled a dizzying array of cases such as dismantling criminal organizations and gangs, battling fraud and abuse, and prosecuting those who prey on immigrant families. Harris took on some of the biggest banks in the world and won $20 billion for California home owners harmed by the foreclosure crisis. She also defended California’s environmental protections in court.
She has been dogged about protecting children—first, early in her career when she prosecuted child abusers, then in her work as San Francisco’s D.A. fighting human trafficking and child sexual exploitation. And in 2015, she used her position as attorney general to create the Bureau of Children’s Justice. “I was raised in a community and family that really prioritized children,” says Harris, who is the author of Smart on Crime: A Career Prosecutor’s Plan to Make Us Safer (Chronicle). “So I am very purposeful about the need to take care of children.”
Harris has also been involved in national issues, playing a role in the movement for marriage equality and leading the opposition to discrimination against Californians based on age, race, sex, religion, sexual orientation and gender identity: “I am about protecting folks’ dignity. We have to fight for it, we have to demand it, we must value it.”
That sentiment—that people are important—sums up Harris’s personal and professional philosophies, according to relatives and members of her inner circle. “We met at 18 through a dear mutual friend and I loved her from the start,” says Chrisette Hudlin, a PR consultant who is married to filmmaker Reginald Hudlin. “She has literally been the same person her entire life: warm, fiercely loyal, incredibly loving. She just has a wonderful heart.”
Hudlin, who has two children, made Harris the godmother to her 11-year-old daughter, Helena. “Kamala is so involved. She knows the teachers, she comes to every school play. They have sleepovers. She even took her on the campaign trail and they went all over the place—San Diego, San Francisco, Santa Rosa!” Hudlin attributes the worldview that Harris possesses today to her late mother, Dr. Shyamala Gopalan Harris. “She was brilliant, graceful, fierce,” says Hudlin of the breast cancer researcher who emigrated from India in the early 1960’s. “Honestly, she was one of the most dynamic people I’ve ever met.”
Harris’s parents divorced when the girls were still young, and though her father was involved, Harris’s mother handled most of the parenting duties. The tight-knit trio experienced countless adventures, some that took them around the world. For instance, they lived for a time in Canada, where Dr. Harris held a research position at a Montreal hospital. They also visited family in India.
When Harris’s mom succumbed to cancer in 2009, it was devastating. “We were all very close,” says Meena Harris, the A.G.’s 31-year-old niece. “My mother had started a new job. Kamala was in the midst of the attorney general campaign. We grieved and supported one another.” Meena is a Harvard-educated lawyer in D.C. who has held leadership roles in her aunt’s political contests and is currently a senior adviser. Her mother, Maya, is now a senior policy adviser for Hillary Clinton’s campaign, based in New York.
“Every aspect of who they are was shaped by my grandmother—there’s no doubt about that,” says Meena. “She never pushed us in one direction, but she imparted important values about feminism, service and knowing who you are.”
To that end, Harris is a youth mentor. Among her mentees is Iyahna Smith, a 20-year-old student at Howard who is majoring in psychology. “We met when I was in high school,” says Smith, a San Francisco native. “I was part of College Track, a program that provides students from disadvantaged backgrounds an opportunity to go to school. I gave a speech, and during it I mentioned my desire to go to Howard. Afterward, Ms. Harris came up to me, told me it was her alma mater and said she wanted to help.”
Smith says that since then, the A.G. has carved out time in her schedule to meet with her in person. Harris has assisted her protégée with everything from writing college essays to securing summer internships. “Ms. Harris calls me regularly; she’ll send me greeting cards to encourage me,” says Smith. “It’s just incredible that someone who is so busy and has so much responsibility has been so involved.”
Smith recalls running into her mentor last summer at an event and meeting her then new husband. (Harris married Doug Emhoff, a fellow attorney, in 2014.) “They seemed so happy,” says Smith. Their ceremony was an intimate affair, with family and close friends in attendance. While guarding her privacy, Harris does confide that she’s enjoying coupledom. “I’m something of a gourmet cook—I love to eat—and we have fun making meals. He’s my sous chef and has these goggles that he puts on when chopping onions.” She grins, looking smitten. “It’s hilarious.”
When asked if her incredibly full plate—work, family, faith, mentoring, plus campaigning—ever takes a toll, Harris shakes her head and invokes the names of Harriet Tubman and other African-American heroines. “My mother always told me that you can be the first to achieve something, but make sure you’re not the last.”
And with that, Harris checks the time. Our conversation has lasted more than an hour, and she has a lengthy to-do list. “This is my life’s work. I’m extraordinarily honored to do it.”
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