According to the oddsmakers, that is.
PredictIt, a website that allows election junkies to place real money behind their political prognostications, has been asking thousands of its traders who they think will be the party’s next White House standard-bearer. Harris, just entering her 12th month as a senator, has remained among the top three candidates since the market opened Aug. 30.
It’s the 53-year-old Harris who has rocketed up the chain of fresh possibilities this year, as she’s been feted by elite donors, fawned over by the Democratic establishment and elevated by a smitten national press corps.
As the cultural and ideological antidote to the current president, her ascension was almost inevitable. But it’s also been in motion for years.
Ever since she stepped into the public arena, Harris has been bathed in great expectations. When he was president of NBC Universal, CNN’s Jeff Zucker broke his policy of supporting candidates and introduced her to New York power players as “important for the entire country.”
Former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa predicted in August that “she’s going to be knocking on doors in Iowa.” In defending her against liberal critics in September, Hillary Clinton singled Harris out as one of her “favorite Democrats.” Later that month, Gwainevere Catchings Hess, president of The Black Women’s Agenda, introduced Harris at a luncheon as “the unsilenced, the uncensored, the unstoppable.”
At a time when the Democratic Party remains adrift in the political wilderness, still painfully sorting out its last national election loss while simultaneously trying to turn the page anew, Harris has vaulted over a fleet of venerable talent to bear the torch of former President Barack Obama’s legacy for the next generation.
But as the rules of the nonstop news and social media cycle dictate, with breakneck elevation comes severe scrutiny. Even as she’s still finding her freshman footing, Harris has been foisted into the meat grinder, drawing early fire from liberal activists who suspiciously view her as the next anointed choice of the aristocratic party pooh-bahs who propped up Clinton.
It’s a small-scale preview of what she’ll face if she ultimately decides to launch a bid for the presidency halfway through her first term – a prospect she’s not summarily dismissed despite laughing it off and shooing it away. “Listen, 2020 is in how many years?” she told a reporter in May. “We are in the year of our Lord 2017.”
In the meantime, Harris is carefully picking her battles, quietly building a national network and noticeably increasing her political visibility with campaign stops in important battlegrounds like Florida, Ohio and Virginia – all while closely guarding against the perception she’s moving too fast.
“She definitely has that ‘it’ quality,” says Michael Kempner, a longtime Democratic fundraiser who hosted Harris at his Hamptons home in July. “Charismatic, smart, impressive – and there’s that extra quality that you can’t necessarily pinpoint, but it has the feeling of a star in the making. Everyone looks for the new, new thing. Kamala is the new, new thing.”
“Everyone’s assuming she’s running for president,” he adds.
The Female Obama
As someone christened the next Barack Obama before Obama was even a presidential candidate, grand notions about the future have always been an ingredient in Kamala Devi Harris’ profile.
“With an Indian mother and a Jamaican father, Harris strikes some observers as a California version of Barack Obama,” the Los Angeles Times wrote in October 2004, during Harris’ first year of elected office and a month before Obama was elected to the U.S. Senate.
Four years later, at the moment when Clinton’s candidacy was in its last throes against presidential candidate Obama, The New York Times’ Kate Zernike looked ahead and noted Harris as among the field of potential first female presidents.
But it was a 2009 interview on “The Late Show with David Letterman” that really injected life into the comparison. Gwen Ifill, the longtime PBS news anchor and one of the most prominent African-American journalists, who passed away in November 2016, sung Harris’ praises, bestowing on her instant national notoriety.
“There’s a great district attorney in San Francisco whose name is Kamala Harris. She’s brilliant, she’s smart, she doesn’t look anything like anybody you ever see on ‘Law & Order,’ yet she’s tough and she’s got a big future,” Ifill said. “They call her the female Barack Obama.”
While only three years apart in age, the alignment of Harris and Obama is foremost driven by ethnic background. Both are predominantly recognized as black, yet each carries a mixed heritage that fuels a more exotic and complex storyline.
Whereas Obama is the son of a white American mother and a black Kenyan father, Harris is the daughter of an Indian mother and Jamaican father who met during graduate studies at the University of California–Berkeley.
Harris’ grandfather was an Indian government diplomat and advocate for the country’s independence. In traveling back to her mother’s homeland as a child, she can recall walks on the beach with her grandfather filled with conversations about politics, corruption and justice.
“When we think about it, India is the oldest democracy in the world,” she told India Abroad in 2009. “So that is part of my background, and without question has had a great deal of influence on what I do today and who I am.”
But the parallel between Harris and Obama also speaks to Harris’ political audacity – and her willingness to take bold but crucial risks at key moments in her career.
Her first campaign for San Francisco district attorney was a challenge to two-term incumbent Terence Hallinan, who previously had been her boss. Harris’ first poll of the race in the spring of 2003 put her at 7 percent support to Hallinan’s 30 percent.
A progressive greybeard from a family steeped in San Francisco’s bloodsport politics, Hallinan, a boxer in his youth who sparred with Cassius Clay, was gruff and well-established. But that allowed Harris to run as a fresh face, free from the cobwebs that mired the halls of justice.
“The thrust of the campaign was to professionalize and make the office more effective,” says Jim Stearns, Harris’ general consultant on the race. “One of her favorite lines was, ‘These attorneys don’t even have email.'”
Harris ran on competence and change, but also from the right, arguing that Hallinan’s conviction rate was one of the lowest in the state, in part due to a backlog of cases gathering dust. In one campaign mailer, she vividly relayed her charge that Hallinan endangered the city by using an image of a chalk outline from a crime scene. The mailer read: “An Outline for Disaster.”
To win the race, former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, whom Harris dated in the ’90s (“She’s never suffered from that, nor have I benefited,” Brown now jokes.) told the campaign it needed to raise nearly $1 million – a goal it met through a torrent of fundraisers around the country. At the same time, Harris put together an unlikely rainbow coalition of Asian-Americans, African-Americans, economically affluent moderates, and gays and lesbians.
The last weekend before the November election, her campaign tracked her as still down 5 points, but on the move to qualify for a two-person runoff. She managed to squeeze into second place after Hallinan by about 6,400 votes, and a month later, it was no contest. As the candidate situated in the ideological center, she crushed Hallinan by 13 points, becoming the state’s first African-American female district attorney.
A Republican consultant in California, who did not want to be named, says an overlooked but integral factor in Harris’ unlikely victory was her connection to Brown – a personal and professional relationship that dogged her during the contest. “He raised the money, got her support, put it together. She’s a master at leveraging personal relationships,” the consultant says.
Brown acknowledged pulling his extensive levers for Harris, but rebuffed claims he was the decisive factor.
“Oh yeah, I was mayor at the time. It was always a plus to have the mayor’s office and the mayor and the mayor’s friends being helpful,” he says. “I was responsive to every request made by the campaign for my assistance.”
The defining moment of Harris’ DA tenure came almost immediately during her first year, with the murder of a young city police officer. Like most San Francisco politicians, Harris had staked out a position against capital punishment, but fell under appreciable pressure to make an exception in the case of Isaac Espinoza, who was slain by a man wielding an AK-47.
Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat and by then well into her tenure as the Golden State’s senior U.S. senator, invoked the issue at the officer’s funeral, with Harris seated in the front row. Later, Feinstein said if she had known Harris was against capital punishment, she probably would not have endorsed her, according to the Los Angeles Times. Even the state’s more liberal Democratic senator, Barbara Boxer, called for the killer’s execution.
Yet Harris stuck to her conviction that the death penalty is not a deterrent and is applied discriminately. She chose to pursue life without parole and secured consecutive life sentences for the killer, David Hill.
“What surprised people is she held her ground under huge pressure,” Stearns says. “Feinstein’s in the church calling for the death penalty and Kamala’s in the pews. It’s the kind of pressure almost all politicians seem to bend under, and she didn’t bend. That elevated her stature quite a bit. Everybody knew who she was all of a sudden. And there was a lot of people who really admired her courage under fire.”
As Harris was building a name for herself in San Francisco, she also found an early kinship with Obama, introducing him at a Bay Area fundraiser for his Senate campaign. He returned the favor later during her re-election bid.
Debbie Mesloh, a longtime adviser to Harris who has worked on all of her campaigns, describes Harris and Obama during their first encounter as “simpatico.” “When he got elected, he said he’d only go back to Illinois. But his first out-of-state trip as senator was to San Francisco and he retired our debt,” Mesloh recalls.
Later, even though Clinton was seen to have a firm lock on California ahead of its 2008 presidential primary, Harris became the first elected official in the state to endorse Obama – even as some of her top fundraisers warned against it.
Mark Buell, who has been Harris’ longtime finance chairman and whose wife, Susie Tompkins Buell, is a close friend of Clinton’s, says Harris called for his advice on what to do.
“I told her she had no option. She had to support him as an African-American,” Buell says. “She had more to lose by not being there for him, as hard as that was for me to say. I don’t think my wife appreciated what Kamala did. But I’m more pragmatic in my own mind. She did the right thing.”
Harris traveled to Springfield, Illinois, for Obama’s presidential campaign announcement, encouraged her staffers to move to Los Angeles to work in his statewide headquarters and became a top Obama surrogate on cable television and at public events around the country, making stops in Iowa, Nevada and New Hampshire.
As his California co-chair, she faced off with former President Bill Clinton at the state party’s 2008 convention, where the pair made dueling pitches for their candidates. “Can you say ‘gulp’?” Harris half-joked ahead of time. But she held her own at the party’s premier statewide event.
“When you really think about it, hasn’t that been, from the beginning, what this campaign to elect Barack Obama has been about?” she asked the audience, drawing a parallel between her role at the convention and Obama’s presidential bid. “Hasn’t it been about the audacity to do things unimaginable?”
When Obama won, Harris was in Chicago for the historic night. But while the emotion-filled moment caused her to consider joining the new administration in Washington, her team had already sketched out her next step in California, toward what they describe as her dream job.
It took eight days.
That’s how swiftly Harris moved to lay down her intentions to win the 2010 California attorney general race following Obama’s victory. The incumbent, Democrat Jerry Brown, had been signaling for months a yearning to return to the governorship, and Harris decided she wanted to continue her prosecutorial work on a larger platform.
Politically, in what’s become characteristic of her approach, she’d come to the conclusion that acting early and decisively was a smart way to get ahead of the pack. The same strategy applied to her expeditious leap into the 2016 U.S. Senate race once Boxer announced her retirement.
The attorney general contest morphed into a seven-person Democratic primary, and right off the bat Harris had to battle the perception that an African-American woman from San Francisco could not be elected the state’s top cop. Even a future Democratic speaker of the California State Assembly told Harris’ campaign manager, Brian Brokaw, she couldn’t win.
“Every person who had been elected prior to AG was a white male,” Brokaw recalls. “That was a challenge from the outset.”
But Harris was shrewd in timing the release of a book, “Smart on Crime: A Career Prosecutor’s Plan to Make Us Safer,” for a year before the election. It landed her on the set of NBC’s “Today” show for an in-person interview with Matt Lauer – an unheard-of booking for a local district attorney. She spoke about her signature cause: battling recidivism among nonviolent offenders through a program allowing low-level drug convicts to rehabilitate outside of prison. Lauer, too, cited the comparison to Obama.
Despite former Facebook executive and Democratic competitor Chris Kelly pouring some $12 million of his own money into the race, Harris ended up cruising in a cakewalk to win the June primary.
The general election pitted Harris against another district attorney: Steve Cooley, a three-time elected Republican from Los Angeles County.
Cooley essentially ran a single-issue campaign, using the death penalty as a cudgel against Harris. At a time when a Field Poll found 70 percent of Californians supported the death penalty, including 63 percent of Democrats, he ripped her as a “radical” representing “a tremendous threat to public safety.” Cooley also touted endorsements from nearly every law enforcement organization in the state, and maintained a 3- to 4-point lead over Harris through the summer and into the fall.
But Cooley’s confidence may have allowed a fatal slip-up during a closing October debate. Asked whether, if elected attorney general, he planned to “double dip” and collect his pension from his time as county prosecutor, Cooley replied that he did. “I earned it,” he said. “Thirty-eight years of public service, I definitely earned whatever pension rights I have and I will certainly rely upon that to supplement the very low, incredibly low, salary that’s paid to the state attorney general.”
Harris could only laugh. “Go for it, Steve,” she replied, belting out a chuckle. “You’ve earned it, there’s no question.”
But Brokaw’s mind began racing.
“We’re sitting there in the debate room going, ‘That sounded pretty bad. Was that as bad as it sounded?'” he recalls.
The Harris campaign turned Cooley’s complaint about a $150,000 salary into a potent 30-second television advertisement in the final weeks, draining its depleted coffers to place it on the air in the Los Angeles market, where Harris also savvily and tirelessly campaigned in black churches.
Around the same time, Obama struck magic again, endorsing Harris in a written statement and adding a rare last-minute fundraising stop for her down-ballot run during a jaunt to San Francisco. “It spoke to the strength of their relationship,” says Sean Clegg, a top Harris strategist.
Harris also benefited from a Republican meltdown at the top of the ticket, in which gubernatorial nominee Meg Whitman found herself ensnared in a controversy over employing a housekeeper who was in the country illegally.
Election night 2010 was a cataclysm for Democrats nationwide. But in California, the party racked up a clean sweep of statewide contests – except for the attorney general race, which was too close to call. That night, Cooley held a lead and declared victory onstage by making a V sign with his fingers. But understanding absentee and provisional ballots might not be counted for days, the Harris campaign knew it still had a path. By early Wednesday morning, Harris had overtaken Cooley in the vote count.
And then she waited.
As every other Democrat on the California ticket was celebrating, Harris was holed up in an office with her advisers, monitoring sluggish vote counts and preparing legal options. With the burden of the campaign behind her, she actually loosened up and cracked jokes, seemingly at peace with her fate.
The race dragged on over the next few weeks. But on Nov. 24, with Harris in the lead by a little more than 50,000 votes, Cooley conceded. Harris ended up winning by less than a percentage point.
“She got lucky,” says Kevin Spillane, a San Diego-based Republican strategist who worked for Cooley. “She got caught up in a wave. If Whitman hadn’t collapsed, Cooley would’ve won.”
Regardless, Harris had reached another series of historic milestones, becoming the first woman, first African-American and first Indian-American ever to be elected attorney general of California.
“I’m proud that we can stand here today,” she said in her victory speech, “recognizing that we don’t have to and one does not have to run from their convictions when they choose to run for office.”
A Life’s Work
If there’s one issue that’s defined Harris’ 14 years in elected public service, it’s been the pursuit of criminal justice reform. It’s the topic she’s devoted the most time to with the greatest passion, innovation and risk.
This summer, as her first major bipartisan overture in Washington, she introduced legislation with GOP Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky aimed at revamping or replacing money-based bail systems, encouraging states to use individualized risk assessments when determining whether a defendant should be released. The measure hasn’t received a committee hearing.
But her commitment to the cause goes back to her years as district attorney, when she came to believe the most serious problem confronting law enforcement was the perpetual system of low-level prisoners who were finding themselves back in court within months or years of their release facing repetitive drug charges.
Her solution was to create a preventive Back on Track initiative that allowed these mostly young men to enroll in a program that offered counseling on employment, substance abuse, parenting, education and child support when they re-entered society. She billed the approach as “smart on crime,” a pointed reversal from the “tough on crime” mantra that dominated the ’80s and ’90s and precipitated a boom in the construction of prisons.
That didn’t mean Harris went soft on the most serious, violent offenders. In fact, as district attorney, she boasted of increasing felony conviction rates “to their highest level in 14 years” – words that could come back to haunt her with some progressives, given California’s recent prison-crowding crisis.
As attorney general, Harris expanded her anti-recidivism efforts, launching a pilot program in Los Angeles and initiating a children’s justice division aimed at supporting troubled youth at risk of slipping down a lawless path.
“There’s been a real sea change in California and she’s played an important part in that,” says Tim Silard, president of the Rosenberg Foundation and a justice and public safety expert who has worked with Harris on many of her initiatives. “She evangelized the approach and to have this advocacy come from someone in law enforcement is incredibly rare.”
Harris has called criminal justice reform her “life’s work,” and her approach ended up being adopted in cities including Atlanta and Philadelphia. But such a sweeping portfolio also provides a large target.
Critics say that once Harris earned a more prominent platform as attorney general to pursue the bold reforms she’d touted for years, she got cold feet. And on multiple issues at the crux of revamping the justice system, she took a blurred position or no position at all.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson, president of the Los Angeles Urban Policy Roundtable, said Harriscould have been “a more vigorous advocate for full criminal justice reform.” “She’s been confined to [her] comfort zone and unwilling to be big and bold,” he told The Sacramento Bee.
As attorney general, Harris declined to take a position on two sentencing reform ballot initiatives – one adjusting the “three strikes law” and another to reduce the penalties for certain crimes. She notably balked on a question about legalizing recreational marijuana, with a spokesman later clarifying she believed the issue should be “up to a vote of the people.” (As she moved toward her election to the Senate, Harris was described as “generally supportive” of legalizing recreational marijuana, and a spokesman says she now believes states should be able to do what they want.) Following a spate of police-involved deaths of African-Americans, she stopped short of endorsing statewide mandates on the use of body cameras, saying it was up for localities to decide whether officers should wear them.
In 2014, lawyers for Harris’ office argued in court against the release of eligible nonviolent prisoners so they could continue to work, a blaring contradiction to the philosophy she had championed. She pleaded ignorance. “I was shocked,” she told Buzzfeed, explaining she wasn’t personally involved in the high-profile case.
Harris’ defenders say she made a decision early on to remain neutral on ballot initiatives given her unique role as attorney general – a position responsible for approving the title and summary language that appears for voters.
“That process, it’s a very important feature in whether a proposition is successful. She’s got to call balls and strikes. For her to take a position undermines her role in being fair to all sides,” says Brian Nelson, a former California Department of Justice general counsel and special assistant attorney general.
Brokaw compares Harris’ situation to what was expected of Obama on race relations during his tenure. “There’s only so much one person can do. Just the fact that criminal justice reform is being talked about nationally … she was one of the early people talking about smart reforms,” he says.
Yet one impression left is that Harris was prioritizing her political future, rhetorically situating herself as a reformer while preserving her viability by skirting the thorniest calls.
Sen. Cory Booker, a New Jersey Democrat and potential 2020 rival who says he reveres Harris, gently checked her track record in a New York Times profile.
“I know some people might think she’s not checking every box on the list for criminal justice reform,” he said. Still, “I see her as a valued activist and ally.”
After all, during this same period, Harris was aggressively moving to repair tattered relations with law enforcement, which helped make her 2014 re-election a foregone conclusion.
And then – suddenly – another opportunity came knocking.
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Source: US News