Kamala D. Harris 1964—
In 2010 Kamala D. Harris was first elected as California's attorney general, becoming the first woman, the first African American, and the first Indian American ever to hold the position. During her inaugural speech, she stated, “It is often said that a good prosecutor wins convictions. But a great prosecutor has convictions.” Harris's dedication to fairness and social responsibility and her political savvy propelled her to success. A liberal-minded lawyer, she opted to become a prosecutor rather than a defense attorney and spent seven years as district attorney in San Francisco. During that time she worked to reform the criminal justice system to prevent crime, protect victims, and rehabilitate criminals—an approach that she called being “smart on crime.” Harris's track record as a tough but fair prosecutor, combined with her progressive idealism and charisma, helped her win election as California's chief legal officer in 2010 and again in 2014. As attorney general, Harris focused on public advocacy, law enforcement, criminal justice reform, and consumer protection. Considered a rising star in the Democratic Party, Harris is regarded as a serious contender for higher office, including governor of California, U.S. senator, or U.S. Supreme Court justice.
Kamala Devi Harris was born in Oakland, California, in 1964, one of two daughters of Shyamala Gopalan, an immigrant from India, and Donald Harris, a Jamaican American. Her first name (pronounced commala) means “lotus flower” in the Sanskrit language of India. She grew up in Berkeley, California, where her parents attended college and took part in the civil rights movement. Her mother became a nationally respected scientist, specializing in breast cancer research, while her father went on to teach economics at Stanford University.
Her parents divorced when she was five years old, and Harris and her younger sister Maya were raised by their mother. Harris valued her Indian heritage, especially the tradition of strong, courageous women she saw personified in her feminist mother and in her grandmother, whom she saw on family visits to India. According to Bob Egelko of the San Francisco Chronicle, Harris learned the ins and outs of politics from her grandfather, P. V. Gopalan, who was a diplomat for the Indian government. When she was 12 years old, Harris's family relocated to Montreal, Quebec. They lived in an apartment complex with a grassy
courtyard where children were forbidden to play. The young Harris organized a protest, convincing the building's management to change the policy.
Began Legal Career as a Prosecutor
After graduating high school in Montreal, Harris moved to Washington, DC, to attend Howard University, a historically black university. She earned a bachelor's degree in political science and economics in 1986 and then returned to the San Francisco Bay Area to attend the University of California Hastings College of the Law. She completed her law degree in 1989 and went to work as a law clerk in the district attorney's office in Alameda County, which encompasses her hometown of Oakland.
Harris opted for a career prosecuting criminals—a choice that came as surprise to her family, who had expected her to choose a position protecting the downtrodden, such as a public defender, who represents defendants who cannot afford a lawyer. Harris felt otherwise. Egelko quoted her as saying, “Some of the most voiceless in the community, the most vulnerable, the most powerless, are victims of crime, and I wanted to be a voice for them.”
Working in the district attorney's office gave Harris an understanding of the power of prosecutors to shape the way crime is defined and charged. In 1990 she was promoted to deputy district attorney for Alameda County, and over the next eight years, she prosecuted many cases involving rape and other violent crimes. Harris developed a strong commitment to the victims of such crimes, especially young women and children. She worked to win as many convictions as she could and to help the crime victims. For example, she recruited volunteers to redecorate a bleak hospital room where she interviewed rape victims.
Ran for Public Office
In 1998 Harris took a job managing the Career Criminal Unit for San Francisco district attorney Terence Hallinan. There she worked to combat recidivism—the tendency of offenders to commit other crimes after their release from prison, resulting in their frequent return to prison. Along with her sympathy for the victims of crime, Harris also had an understanding of and compassion for the poverty and despair that can lead young people to break the law. She became convinced of the importance of creating options to give hope to those who are trapped in a cycle of criminal behavior. To that end, Harris vigorously prosecuted criminals while also working to establish rehabilitation programs to offer them a chance to build a new life.
After two years Harris left for a position in the office of the San Francisco city attorney, which provides legal services to city officials and departments. Harris was made chief of the Community and Neighborhood Division, where she worked to ensure the safety and Page 95 | Top of Articlewelfare of young people. She developed a special interest in combating human trafficking, a crime that often victimizes young people. Harris founded a community group called the Coalition to End the Exploitation of Kids, which concerned itself with this threat to children around the world.
Harris set her sights on becoming San Francisco's head district attorney, an elected position. She announced her candidacy, running under the slogan “Smart on Crime,” which expressed her conviction that the district attorney's office should be seen not as “hard” or “soft” on crime but rather should approach the problem with intelligence and innovation.
Elected District Attorney
Although Harris was little known before the November of 2003 election, she garnered enough votes to qualify for a runoff election against her former boss, Hallinan, who was also a progressive Democrat. According to Dean E. Murphy of the New York Times, Hallinan was vulnerable to defeat because of criticism that he was soft on crime and that he had a poor relationship with the city's police department and Mayor Willie Brown. The election was close, and Hallinan prematurely declared victory after early results showed him with a decisive lead. After weeks of vote counting, however, Harris surged ahead and won the runoff with more than 56 percent of the vote. She became the first woman district attorney in San Francisco, the first African-American woman district attorney in California, and the first Indian-American district attorney in the United States.
Only three months after her election, Harris faced harsh scrutiny over her handling of a high-profile case in which a police officer was murdered. There was intense pressure, particularly from her law enforcement colleagues, for the district attorney's office to seek the death penalty. However, Harris opposed capital punishment and had promised during her campaign that she would not seek it. Instead, she sought a sentence of life in prison without parole for the perpetrator. Although her decision angered many on the police force and their supporters, others within the community respected her choice. She won reelection in 2007 after running unopposed and began her second term in office as San Francisco's district attorney.
Egelko noted that “[d]uring her seven-year tenure, Harris doubled Hallinan's conviction rate, while also establishing or expanding aid programs for victims of domestic violence and sexual exploitation, and boosting treatment and job training for youthful first-time drug offenders.” Soon after becoming district attorney, Harris created a special team to prosecute child sexual assault cases. She also worked to develop a stronger witness protection program and continued programs to help offenders break the cycle of violence. In 2004 she helped found the Safe Home and School for sexually exploited youth, the first such safe house in San Francisco and one of only a few in the country. Despite these accomplishments, her tenure was not without controversy. A scandal at the police department's drug testing laboratory tainted evidence for hundreds of cases, forcing Harris to dismiss charges against the defendants. In addition, a judge found that her office had withheld required information from defense attorneys during some cases. Neither incident seemed to seriously dampen public confidence in the district attorney, however.
Became California's Attorney-General
Harris remained politically ambitious and cultivated her growing reputation within the national Democratic Party. She campaigned actively for Senator Barack Obama during his first bid for the presidency in 2008. The following year saw the publication of her book Smart on Crime: A Career Prosecutor's Plan to Make Us Safer, which she cowrote with Joan O'C. Hamilton. In the book Harris lays out her views on the criminal justice system and suggests economically practical reforms that she believes would strengthen public safety: “Getting Smart on Crime does not mean reducing sentences or punishments for crimes,” Harris wrote. “It does mean using the time and resources we now spend on offenders more productively to reduce their odds of reoffending. And it means investing in comprehensive efforts to reduce the ranks of young offenders entering the criminal justice system.”
With statewide elections approaching in 2010, Harris decided to run for the post of attorney general, which was being vacated by Democrat Jerry Brown as he sought the governor's office. Harris's primary contender was Republican Steve Cooley, the district attorney of Los Angeles County. A particularly divisive issue separating the candidates was Proposition 8, a 2008 ballot measure passed by California voters that banned had gay marriage. Only months before the 2010 election, a federal judge ruled that the measure was unconstitutional. Cooley vowed to fight the decision in court if he became attorney general; Harris adamantly refused to do so, citing her belief that Proposition 8 was discriminatory. Cooley, a capital punishment sup-porter, used Harris's earlier decision not to use the death penalty against a cop killer to gain endorsements from many of the state's law enforcement groups. For her part, Harris promised to enforce California's death penalty law if she was elected, despite her personal opposition to it.
In November of 2010 Democratic candidates captured all of the highest offices in California. Harris once again found herself in a tight race that was decided after weeks of vote counting. She won the election by a narrow margin, capturing 46.1 percent of the vote Page 96 | Top of Articlecompared with Cooley's 45.3 percent. At her inauguration in January of 2011, Harris became the state's 32nd attorney general and the first woman, the first African American, and the first Indian American to hold the post. In her inaugural address, she pledged to work with the state's residents to make California “the undisputed national leader in innovation in crime fighting.”
Regarded as Rising Star among Democrats
As California's attorney general, Harris focused on combatting transnational gangs, organized crime, and mortgage fraud; reducing student truancy and inmate recidivism; and pursuing civil litigation against companies accused of defrauding Californians. The state was particularly hard hit by the housing market crisis that precipitated the economic downturn that began in 2007. Large banks were widely blamed for the crisis for engaging in questionable practices as they originated and serviced mortgage loans and carried out foreclosure proceedings.
Harris played a major role in procuring the National Mortgage Settlement, a joint federal–state agreement reached in 2012, in which 49 states and the District of Columbia settled civil claims against the country's five largest mortgage providers. Harris raised eyebrows when she rejected a draft agreement that had been forged after a year of negotiations and had the backing of President Obama and the attorneys general of many other states, arguing that the agreement did not provide enough relief to Californians. The final agreement awarded a total $26 billion to all the states involved in the case. According to Katrina Heron of Newsweek, the deal negotiated by Harris raised her state's stake from around $4 billion to $12 billion, with another $6 billion promised to homeowners who had seen their home values fall dramatically due to the housing crisis. The agreement attracted some criticism, particularly from liberals who argued that it should have been more punishing to the banks. Harris continued to file civil suits on behalf of California against major mortgage lenders and secured additional settlements totaling millions of dollars.
In November of 2014 Harris easily won reelection against Republican attorney Ronald Gold, taking 56 percent of the vote compared to 43 percent for Gold. Some political analysts have speculated that Harris will run either for the governor's office or for the U.S. Senate, while others believe that Harris could be in the running for a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court justice if one of the sitting justices retires before the end of President Obama's second term.
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—Tina Gianoulis and Kim Masters Evans