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Which Ms. Harris Will Go to Washington?

Kamala Harris has been cautious and reticent as attorney general. As a U.S. senator, she’ll be the same—probably.

California attorney general Kamala Harris.


Editor's Note: This is one of many stories about politics that San Francisco is publishing over the next month, all part of the October 2016 Democracy Issue. To peruse the rest of the issue's contents, and to read stories as they become available online, click here.

For someone on a first-name basis with President Barack Obama, California attorney general Kamala Harris keeps a low profile. The former San Francisco district attorney rarely makes waves, and aside from a few instances—like the $20 billion settlement she extracted from banks implicated in the country’s mortgage meltdown—her tenure as AG has been devoid of major fireworks.

Expect that low profile to continue if Harris becomes a U.S. senator. Harris is a heavy favorite over Representative Loretta Sanchez to win the retiring Barbara Boxer’s spot as the state’s junior senator. And junior senators, whether they’re a former first lady or a rhetorically gifted community organizer—or, in Harris’s case, an Obama BFF—usually don’t do much aside from sit, watch, and vote, especially if they’re in the minority party.

“As a junior member of the minority party in the Senate, you’re mostly a spectator,” says John Pitney, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College. “But if you’re a skilled negotiator, you can still get things done.”

A confidante of Obama since before she bucked her Democratic colleagues and became an early backer of his presidential bid in 2008, Harris has moved to rebuild alliances with mainstream Democrats close to the Clintons. As of June, she’d raised more than $12 million; among the donors was Ron Burkle, a grocery store magnate who has supported the Clintons. 

Although Harris’s track record indicates that she’ll be a typical unobtrusive freshman senator, there’s always the chance she could reinvent herself. As attorney general, Harris has never really been tested on her core values—California’s death penalty is on semipermanent hold, and, a spate of police shootings notwithstanding, she has not had to deal with a Baltimore- or Ferguson-level civil rights crisis. So will Harris keep her head down and be a dutiful worker like Hillary, or will she start flexing her star power early like Obama? “That will be the ultimate choice for her,” says University of San Francisco politics professor Ken Goldstein.


Originally published in the October issue of San Francisco

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