Now Playing

Why Kamala Matters

Our 2007 profile of the then-San Francisco District Attorney is a snapshot of a politician on the rise.

Then-District Attorney Kamala Harris in her office in the Hall of Justice

Then-District Attorney Kamala Harris in her office in the Hall of Justice

 

Editor's Note: This story by former San Francisco editor Nina Martin, now of ProPublica, was originally published in August 2007. It ran with the following subheadline: "New-school DA Kamala Harris is on a mission to remake the American way of justice, with a unique combination of prosecutorial power and the reformer's belief in second chances. Considering her drive, charm, and friends like presidential hopeful Barack Obama, she may just be a law-and-order progressive's best hope."

 

A few years back, when Kamala Harris was prosecuting sex abuse cases in Alameda County, she spent a lot of time at Oakland’s Highland General Hospital talking with rape victims—young girls, old women, kids who’d been abused by people they trusted and loved. Describing what had happened would have been grueling for them under any circumstances, but the shabby surroundings somehow made the process even more painful. “It was just horrible,” Harris remembers. “I looked around and thought, ‘A person who is already traumatized shouldn’t have to spend hours in a place like this.’” So she got together a few women friends and formed a volunteer auxiliary group to spruce the place up. “I said, ‘Let’s get some art in here. Let’s paint.’”

Flash forward to 2004, when Harris took over the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office as the city’s first female and first African American DA. Instead of the major staff shake-up some were expecting, again she summoned the painters, who gave the old industrial greenish-gray corridors a coat of peachy beige. Down came the tattered domestic violence posters; up went student canvases from the Academy of Art. “It was the first time in 30-plus years anyone painted our offices for us,” says a wistful Linda Klee, a recently retired assistant DA who had been there since 1972.

Harris lets out a laugh when I remark on her proclivity for making things prettier; she’s spent the whole morning letting me tag along so I can see her take-charge, policy-wonk side, and now I’ve gone and caught her being Martha. With the press, Harris isn’t yet used to being captured, or interpreted, in ways she can’t control, and she seems both amused and a bit taken aback. But it’s clear to me that this impulse of hers is worth examining. Redoing the walls wasn’t just a stereotypically feminine way of making herself feel more at home, although there may have been an element of that. Harris has always loved art—in fact, she won prizes for her drawings and paintings as a kid. And she believes strongly in appearances: an attractive, organized office gives the public confidence and helps the people who work there stay focused and productive.

Finally, as she tells me later, she sees parallels between the victims of abuse she’s championed throughout her 17-year career and the staff she inherited from her predecessor, Terence Hallinan. An old lefty firebrand, Hallinan never seemed to understand or value the role of prosecutors, even after he became one; he spent eight years turning the office upside down, and it showed. “There was a real dysfunction that had developed in this office, where people were very afraid,” Harris says—afraid of getting fired (one awful Friday, 14 people returned from lunch to find pink slips on their chairs), afraid of backstabbing by their colleagues, even afraid of going to good-bye parties and writing letters of recommendation for those who’d been canned. Harris had worked for Hallinan for 18 mostly unhappy months in the late 1990s, so she knew that dysfunction firsthand. “Decisions appeared to be arbitrary and random,” she says. “There was so much chaos.”

Still, Harris was stunned after her election six years later to discover just how bad the chaos had become. The DA’s Office, responsible for handling 28,000 crimes a year in one of the most tech-centric cities in the universe—an office located just blocks away from the neighborhood where the Internet boom had shaken the world—didn’t have its own e-mail. Or laptops. In 2004. Some prosecutors had to share computers, all so old they verged on obsolete, and some still wrote out motions by hand, using carbon paper. Many didn’t have their own phones, much less voicemail or caller ID, and their offices harbored an untold number of lost files because there was no rational filing system and hardly any support staff.

With so few secretaries to go around, attorneys spent almost a third of their time doing grunt work like copying and three-hole punching; there was just one copy machine for 200 people. Harris’s new staff was so accustomed to deprivation that once, when the budget for copy paper ran out, people made copies on hot-pink paper until Harris whipped out her credit card and placed an order with OfficeMax. Training was as scarce as everything else. “I showed up on my first day and was immediately sent to a courtroom to make an appearance in a case,” says an ex–deputy DA who had no experience practicing criminal law when he was hired. “I thought, ‘It’s 9:15. Isn’t anyone going to show me what to do?’” The predictable results of all this disorganization: epic cynicism and the worst conviction rates in the state.

To be fair, the office had been overworked and under-resourced well before Hallinan became DA in 1995—a reflection of San Francisco’s long history of ambivalence toward authority and proud tradition of giving the finger to law enforcement at every opportunity. But things grew much worse under Hallinan, a onetime juvenile delinquent and former defense attorney who came to office promising to emphasize drug treatment and rehabilitation over punishment, and instead wound up alienating the entire police department (remember Fajitagate?) and the budget-makers in city hall. When Harris emerged, seemingly out of nowhere, to challenge her old boss, no one in this town had ever seen anything like her—a hard-nosed prosecutor with a reputation for competence and compassion, a political novice with connections that rivaled those of any elected official in this state. Not only that, she was black and Indian and a feminist and gorgeous. The campaign was filled with insinuations that Harris was just a Nob Hill social climber who owed her career and her allegiance to her ex-boyfriend Willie Brown. But she surprised almost everybody by beating Hallinan’s pants off. In doing so, she became the first prosecutor to head the office in decades.

Three and a half years later, Harris keeps on surprising people with how truly different she is. The painting episode was the first sign of how she takes command of broken systems (whether her office or the revolving-door institutions of criminal justice) and tries to fix them. As a boss, she’s a bit of a hard-ass and, well, bossy, with extraordinarily high expectations for everybody, including herself. But her first instinct, in dealing with her staff, crime victims and their families, and people who’ve run afoul of the law, is to improve their conditions. She truly believes that almost everyone has the potential and the desire to be better, given the right environment and incentives. It’s an approach that strikes me as distinctively female. Indeed, if the traditional view of the prosecutor is that of a punishing father, and Hallinan was a rebellious big brother, then Harris seems like some combination of a tough-love mother and a worldly wise big sister. She believes in putting people in jail—but only those who deserve to be there. She believes in consequences—but also in the power of the second chance. She envisions a world where the vast majority of first-time offenders never commit another crime and ex-felons are able to rejoin their communities, not as dangerous predators, but as good parents and good people. The key, she says, is to enforce “a disciplined kind of process”—authentic support and real accountability—so that second chance isn’t wasted.

Harris’s timing hasn’t always been perfect—she brought herself loads of trouble, for example, when she instantly declared that she wouldn’t seek the death penalty for the killer of beloved young cop Isaac Espinoza— but on this issue it couldn’t be better. Law-and-order types have dominated the criminal justice policy debate since the 1980s, ushering in the so-called Three Strikes statute, a massive prison crisis, and various other costly disasters—and that’s just in California. Progressives, meanwhile, have been largely clueless about how to respond; Hallinan certainly didn’t gain them any credibility. Now, as the human and economic costs of those failed hard-line policies become clearer, Harris has emerged as the kind of progressive “thought leader” for whom Democrats have been desperately searching, with big new ideas and a trademark pitch— not “tough on crime” but “smart on crime”—that resonates in surprisingly conservative places.

In liberal circles around the country, all this is suddenly making a lot of people very excited. Yes, Harris is personally dazzling—approachable, vivacious, intense, inspiring. “It’s unusual to find someone who’s that good-looking but also very intelligent, with a lot of substance,” says Craig Watkins, Dallas’s new African American district attorney, who credits Harris’s ideas with helping him win election this past fall against the slime-slingers in the Texas GOP. “It’s kind of intimidating.” Yes, she’s delivered on the basics (rallying her troops, scrounging up new Dells, winning major cases, and boosting conviction rates to a 10-year high, all despite one of the worst fiscal crises ever to hit the city). But it’s her ideas—and her ability to see them through—that have turned her into a hot political brand. “People flock to her—they want to work with her, and they bring all their friends and their connections,” says Supervisor Sophie Maxwell, her friend and frequent collaborator on issues affecting the black community. “It’s like people saying, ‘Ooh, I want to work for Google.’”

She’s had so much success, in fact, that no one’s bothered to oppose her for reelection this November. The only real questions about her future are: where does she want to go, and how fast does she want to get there? Over the past six months, I’ve heard a lot of speculation from friends and critics—maybe she’ll run for mayor in four years, or for attorney general after Jerry Brown; others think her ultimate goal may be senator, or even governor. (Keep in mind, in recent decades the usual next step for ex–San Francisco DAs has been ignominious semi-retirement.) More pressing, though—and, to people who assume she has a lot of dues to pay before her next big move, more surprising—is what could happen if Barack Obama ends up in the White House next year.

Though Harris was the first public official in California to endorse Obama for president, she doesn’t volunteer much about their friendship, which began a few years ago during his race for U.S. Senate, when they were introduced by mutual pals. Almost the same age (he’s 45, she’s 42), with similarly polyglot backgrounds (white mother, Kenyan father; Indian mother, Jamaican father), they instantly clicked; they even look like brother and sister, points out Harris’s mother, UC Berkeley scientist Dr. Shyamala Harris. In addition to their movie-star charisma, they share post–baby boomer centrist-progressive politics and a big-picture way of thinking about the world that transcends race and class. Trained as lawyers and activists, Obama and Harris are not given to revolutionary talk or grandstanding gestures; instead, both approach their work as pragmatists and conciliators, always searching for common ground. Indeed, they seem so similar that someone who’s been both a booster and a critic of Harris tells me, “She’s like a female Barack Obama.”

Over the past couple of years, Harris and Obama have held fundraisers for each other, and Harris is part of Obama’s national leadership team for 2008. “I help out wherever I can,” she says, which includes giving him feedback and putting him in touch with potential supporters. Obama, in turn, has been a sounding board for Harris, insiders say, although these days, as she points out, laughing, “My issues are secondary to his.... He’s got a lot of other things he’s dealing with! So I’m trying to keep my issues to myself!”

Well, maybe not. Harris’s supporters say they’ve started to hear echoes of her ideas in Obama’s speeches and debates. Many assume that if Obama is on a winning Democratic ticket next year, Harris will be drafted by the new administration, perhaps to help clean up the chaos in the post–Alberto Gonzales Justice Department or to resume her longtime work on children’s or women’s issues. (Her brother-in-law, lawyer and Oakland politico Tony West, is also close to Obama—his name is thrown around as a possible pick for U.S. attorney.)

Harris insists, “I love my job. I’m not going anywhere. We’ve made progress, but there’s more work to be done. I want to do more of that work.” But if San Francisco is just Harris’s laboratory for her far-reaching ideas, who can say where—and when—that work will take her?

 

The first time I meet Kamala Harris, she’s trying to convince a roomful of low-level drug dealers that they should get themselves to the gym. “I have a job that’s just crazy,” she tells the crowd of 100 or so young men and women, sounding more like a motivational speaker than the city’s chief law enforcement official. It’s the kind of responsibility she can never, ever put aside. “I get calls day and night,” she says. “That’s a lot of stress.”

What helps her cope, she continues, is hopping on the treadmill every morning. She has to wake up early to fit in a workout, and there are plenty of times she’s tempted to skip it, but once she’s at the gym she never regrets it. She used to watch CNN while exercising, but now she’s decided, “My life is like the news, and I don’t need to watch the news. So I watch MTV and VH1. I know every song!”

“It’s about just being happy and healthy and figuring out ways to cope,” she adds, earnest and slightly goofy, aware that this gym idea is a tough sell to this crowd, even though she’s wrangled them free monthlong passes to 24 Hour Fitness. What her listeners care most about is finding a job with a real future that pays better than selling crack. But she wants them to think about broader issues, like the importance of taking care of their bodies and figuring out ways to feel better that don’t involve booze or drugs. I can’t imagine Hallinan or Gavin Newsom, Nancy Pelosi or Dianne Feinstein, talking like this to a crowd of young, mostly male, mostly black and Latino dope dealers. Harris isn’t lecturing them; she’s trying to connect.

Up close, Harris is shorter than I expected (she’s 5 feet, 4 inches), though her brio and confidence—and spiky heels—add a few inches. Her brown eyes go from warm to flinty in a split second; her sweet features read African American or Indian or Middle Eastern, or even Italian—very 21st-century global village. Hers is an inclusive kind of beauty, nothing overdone; I suspect overdone takes too much time and is off-putting besides. Her clothes are the same: sophisticated and alluring without being the least bit revealing or show-offy. She favors dark grays and chocolate browns, pinstripes and lots of pants—everything sharp but low-key. It’s her nighttime look, too; she doesn’t do gala dresses. “That’s probably a good thing,” says Benefit magazine’s former editor, Tim Gaskin. “She’s 42 with the figure of a 21-year-old—the city would be wrecked.” This evening, in a gray suit and black turtleneck, she looks accessible enough to make a 24-year-old caught selling five grams of cocaine in the Western Addition think: “Maybe someday I can dress like that.” And this, I’m pretty sure, is half the point.

This is part of Harris’s appeal—she makes people feel comfortable. At events—sometimes several a night—she’s a toucher, if not always a hugger. She thrusts herself into the crowd, jokes easily and often, and makes a point of bragging about whomever she’s with. In her speeches, she’s down-to-earth yet commanding, keeping her message quick and to the point, yet managing to make listeners feel her idealism and excitement. She has a huge amount of energy, but it’s discipline as much as energy that gets her through these appearances. In this city, she’s learned, showing up is everything, even if it’s just for 10 or 15 minutes; graciousness goes a long way here. Andrea Dew Steele, Susie Tompkins Buell’s political advisor, says Harris, like Nancy Pelosi, is good at writing thank-you notes and staying in touch with people. “For a long career, that’s a very important quality—that ability to keep people close to you.”

The one full day we spend together starts with a strategy session with homicide prosecutors. (Her office handled 23 murder trials in 2006, more than anyone can remember in a single year, and Harris paid close attention to every one of them—higher conviction rates are the main thing she’s judged on and give her the clout she needs to do everything else.) The day ends with an after-dinner speech to San Francisco State faculty at an offsite retreat near Union Square. In between, she has a planning session for next year’s budget, a briefing with Spanish media about domestic violence, and a short interview with a baby-faced Sacred Heart sophomore who wants to be a reporter someday. By late afternoon, my head and feet are killing me, but she’s totally jazzed by her last big meeting, a weekly check-in with her felony staff. She doesn’t say much, just leans against the wall and listens as prosecutors rehash the cases they’ve recently won, or lost—what went well, what went badly, why this judge was great and that one was an even bigger asshole than usual. This may seem like Management 101, but it’s a sea change from the Hallinan years. No matter what the outcome of a case, after each attorney is finished, everyone claps, and Harris claps the loudest.

It’s not all cheerleading, though. In the crowded anteroom where her assistant, Sadie Ferguson, directs traffic, people chitchat and joke, but once in Harris’s office, they’re all business. Harris starts every meeting on time and stays on message. She’s been known to walk down the corridors around 5 p.m., looking at her watch and saying loudly enough for everyone to hear, “There sure are a lot of people leaving.” “She works like a dog,” says her good friend, Assemblyman Mark Leno.

Lateefah Simon, a MacArthur Fellowship winner in 2003 for her work advocating on behalf of incarcerated and at-risk girls, heads one of Harris’s most innovative programs—and has felt her boss’s sting. “I think I gave her a memo that had a ton of typos. Kamala put me on the hot seat. She said, ‘You know, you need to be perfect.’” Harris’s point was that Simon couldn’t rest on her MacArthur laurels or lower her standards just because her life was hectic. “She knows things don’t come easily for a woman of color. You’re not going to get by on half-assed work. You will work more than a full day.” Indeed, she already does. Besides her job, Simon is a single mom and a full-time student at Mills College. “Kamala wants to see my report card. Her expectations are just amazing.”

 

Harris’s term has been dominated by the murder issue, from the Isaac Espinoza case (which continues to reverberate in her prickly relations with the SFPD) to complaints by police brass that she isn’t charging enough of the slaying suspects they arrest (Harris responds that her office has charged 87 percent of the homicide cases the police has brought to it since 2004; and that in the other 13 percent, there wasn’t enough evidence to convince skeptical San Francisco juries of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt). She also inherited plenty of problems from Hallinan beyond the technological ones, especially involving how the office handles drug and gun crimes. Still, she’s pushing a legislative agenda in Sacramento that’s strikingly broad and ambitious—touching on everything from human trafficking to battered women to violence against parking cops. Whether politics is in her DNA, as some friends insist, or she’s benefited from some superb mentors (“I mean, Willie Brown is probably the most brilliant political figure of our time in our state,” says a longtime observer), Harris seems to relish the game.

I get a glimpse of this during a meeting on a bill she’s pushing in Sacramento this spring that was inspired by last year’s murder of Terrell Rollins, a young homicide witness, while he was under her office’s protection. The bill, which would double the funding for the state’s witness protection program and allow that money to be spent on a wider range of services, is an effort to address the murder problem by making witnesses, who are also often victims, less afraid to testify. It seems to have support in all the right places, but Harris and her aides want to make it a slam dunk by tweaking the language so it seems a tad more law-and-orderish without turning off liberals. “You know what I’d like to do? Let’s include the word ‘victim’ in here,” she says, turning to that favorite conservative buzzword. “Say ‘witness support, victim advocacy and services.’” When an aide points out that the bill “increases the discretion of prosecutors—we prosecutors love our discretion,” Harris jumps in: “Make that the first bullet point.”

The story behind the bill gives me insight into how showing up and listening can pay off for her. Harris has real networks all over the city that she can access when she needs to. After Rollins’s murder, which was a major crisis for her, she called a closed-door summit at St. Mary’s Cathedral with dozens of preachers, activists, and victims’ family members: what had her office done wrong? They responded that witnesses weren’t getting the kinds of long-term services they needed to resettle in new communities where they felt safe—why should they cooperate? “Basically, the community thinks we’re using them, chewing them up and throwing them away,” Harris says.

Next, Harris reached out to her fellow DAs in other counties, most of whom are Republicans. Only then did she hammer out a bill that allows for a much more big-picture approach—for example, GED classes and job training for witnesses while they’re in hiding. Her closest partner was Mike Ramos, the DA from ultraconservative San Bernardino County, who was suffering his own gang-related witness-intimidation crisis and immediately volunteered to help. The payoff for this collegial way of working was evident this April in Sacramento, where Harris and Ramos were scheduled to testify on the bill. “If you had asked me whether I’d ever work closely with a San Francisco district attorney on anything....” Ramos was saying to me, laughing and rolling his eyes. Then Harris strode down the Capitol corridor. She made a beeline for Ramos and flung her arms around him. Without a hint of hesitation, he hugged her right back.

At the center of Harris’s agenda—the big idea she’s been paying the most attention to and getting the most attention for—is a reentry program called Back on Track. “Reentry,” which refers to the release of ex-offenders back into society, is shorthand for the criminal justice crisis that Harris sees facing this state over the next decade. California, she points out, suffers from “the dangerous combination of having the nation’s largest prison population”—about 172,000 inmates—and one of its worst recidivism rates, about 70 percent within three years. With 120,000 ex-offenders being released this year—more than 2,500 felons in San Francisco alone—she adds, “the safety of our communities is at enormous risk.”

The risk is greatest in poor neighborhoods, where many offenders return with no support to help them resettle into productive lives. “That’s a failed system,” she says. “We have to talk about prevention as a way of keeping the community safe.” It’s not the way most prosecutors think, but they should, she believes. They have, after all, become the most powerful players in the criminal justice system (“They’ve gone from being 300-pound gorillas to 600-pound ones,” says Franklin Zimring, a professor at UC Berkeley’s Boalt Hall School of Law). If prosecutors can’t, or won’t, help craft a solution, then who will?

Classic reentry programs address ex-inmates, and Harris has a few of those underway. Back on Track, which expands on an idea she borrowed from the Alameda County DA’s Office, is more “reentry prevention” in its premise, giving young adult offenders one last chance to turn their lives around before they wind up in prison. The program focuses on low-level drug dealers, a class of offenders who often turn to crime because they can’t find jobs. The idea is to obliterate the notion that crack dealer is their only career option. “I knew too many young people who went to prison over first-time drug offenses,” says the program’s director, Lateefah Simon, who is 30 and grew up in the Western Addition. “Back on Track clients are literally my generation. I went to high school with some of these people.”

Unlike with some of Hallinan’s progressive ideas, accountability is key to Back on Track’s philosophy. The program is limited to young (ages 18 to 30) first-time adult offenders (many have juvenile records) with no history of gang involvement, gun possession, or violence. It also gives priority to people with kids—after all, helping parents get their lives together has repercussions for entire families and communities. In return for a plea of “no contest,” they receive a deferred sentence—a hammer over their heads that gives prosecutors, judges, and social workers enormous leverage. For the next year, participants must follow a carefully tailored “personal responsibility plan,” entailing anything from GED and English classes to job training to catching up on child support payments. They also must perform at least 120 hours of community service, aka “restorative justice,” working directly with people who might have been harmed by their actions. “You have to be at Glide serving lunch to the people you were selling crack to,” Simon explains. Get arrested again, and you automatically end up in prison, serving your full original sentence, if not more. “This is a second chance without the possibility of a third,” Harris says.

But Harris knows that second chances are meaningless without concrete support and opportunities. So Back on Track provides temporary housing, child care, parenting support, anger management classes, money management training—even gym memberships—as well as entrée into programs that can lead to decent-paying jobs with real potential for upward mobility. For help providing all this (initially, she had zero public money), she has called on her friends in the business, labor, and philanthropic communities—and received such an enthusiastic response that it sometimes seems the DA’s Office has become San Francisco’s favorite new charity. Back on Track’s growing list of partners includes Kaiser Permanente, PG&E, Nordstrom, Catholic Healthcare West, and various city agencies, with the lead role taken by Goodwill Industries. Another important partner is U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson, a Bay Area civil rights legend who now oversees California’s crisis-ridden prison health-care system and who presides over many of Back on Track’s weekly court hearings.

“To get anything done in this city, you have to know how to leverage the very best this city has to offer,” says Deborah Alvarez-Rodriguez, Goodwill’s dynamic president and CEO. “The art of the ask is respected in the business world and the philanthropic world, and Kamala’s terrific at it. She’s fearless in asking people to do things.” Indeed, in practically every speech to young people, Harris stresses the importance of asking for help. “Something in our society says that to prove you’re good, you have to do it yourself,” she tells me. “Nothing could be further from the truth.” As she’s discovered, people are often flattered to be asked. “You’d be surprised how often they say yes.”

Harris and Simon have kept Back on Track small so far—about 300 participants over three years—but are ready to grow it. One reason: the recidivism rate for Back on Track participants is astonishingly low, about 10 percent since it launched. Then there are the benefits to taxpayers: Harris’s people claim the program saves as much as $30,000 per participant in jail costs alone, or about $2 million a year so far. To help them sell the program in Sacramento and elsewhere, they’re looking for a foundation to fund a major study by a respected research institution such as the Rand Corporation.

If Back on Track participants make it through the year, the charges are dropped and they have a clean record, as if the arrest never happened. Of course, Harris insists on making a huge deal out of the graduation ceremony. She wants the participants to feel the thrill, and the responsibility, of becoming something many of them have never been before: role models. “I tell these young people, you have to understand your success is going to create the opportunity for someone in Cleveland or some other city to do this. The success you achieve is bigger than you, bigger than me, bigger than us.” At the graduation in March, Craig Watkins, Dallas’s DA, happened to attend, Harris recalls. “He told them, ‘I’ve been watching you. I’m taking this to Texas.’ You should have seen it—those guys just sat up 12 feet tall.”

 

I’m a little embarrassed to admit how much I like Kamala Harris. One of the paradoxes of this smugly idealistic town is that politics is a blood sport and cynicism is the only mode for writing about it. But after seeing her in many different settings, my cynical button just won’t stay on. I find myself agreeing with Louise Renne, her old boss at the City Attorney’s Office, who says: “She’s got a good head on her shoulders and a good heart.”

Yet there’s also something maddeningly elusive about Harris. She comes across as very private, very careful. Some of this wariness, I suspect, has been bred into her. (“If you don’t define yourself, people will try to define you,” her mother tells me. “One of the first rules I taught my children is, don’t let anybody tell you who you are. You tell them who you are.”) Much of it, no doubt, derives from her experiences with the press—during her last campaign, when the focus was her ancient-history romance with Willie Brown, and more recently over her handling of the homicide issue. I can hardly blame her for being skittish. There’s a lot riding—for her office, as well as her own political future—on her success. But it means that people don’t get to know her very well. Harris has always been friendly in our encounters, but it takes three interviews before she finally relaxes.

Not surprisingly, the people who’ve had the most influence on her worldview and her approach to her job include several strong women. The first is her mother: in Harris’s pantheon of heroes, Shyamala Gopalan Harris “is right up there with Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks,” says Amy Resner, a friend since their days in the Alameda County DA’s Office. The elder Harris, an endocrinologist and researcher at Berkeley’s Lawrence National Lab, was raised in a Brahmin family in India in which everyone was expected to earn an advanced degree and have a high-achieving career in public service.

“My father was very proud of the fact that his children did not seek out jobs where they would make a lot of money,” Dr. Harris tells me over lunch at a Maiden Lane bistro. She is freshly manicured and coiffed, a bundle of ferocious energy and opinions packed into a tiny frame. “Teachers, doctors, lawyers—these are supposed to be service professions. When you make money on people who require legal and medical help, you are taking advantage of the very vulnerable. That’s tacky.”

When she was not yet 21, Shyamala came to study at UC Berkeley in the early 1960s and soon married a fellow grad student, Donald Harris, now an emeritus professor in economics at Stanford. They had two daughters before divorcing a few years later. For a time, Kamala and her sister, Maya, lived with their mother in the Berkeley flats, in a predominately black neighborhood that still looks scruffy despite the surrounding gentrification boom. Yet thanks to their far-flung extended family, their world was much wider.

“When Kamala was in first grade,” Shyamala recalls, “one of her teachers said to me, ‘You know, your child has a great imagination. Every time we talk about someplace in the world she says, “Oh, I’ve been there.”’ So I told her, ‘Well, she has been there!’ India, England, the Caribbean, Africa—she had been there.” One of Harris’s Nob Hill friends thinks her Brahmin background accounts for her ease around wealthy, powerful people (her friends include Vanessa Getty, Cissy Swig, Susie and Mark Buell, and Nancy Pelosi). “A lot of people think, ‘Those people are too rich for me, I can’t be part of their world—they’re out of my fucking league,’” this friend says, adding that Harris never seemed to feel like she didn’t belong. “She just kept showing up.”

Feminism was another tradition in Shyamala Harris’s remarkable family. First in Berkeley and later in Montreal, where she relocated with her daughters in the mid-1970s, Shyamala worked hard, traveled to conferences, gave speeches, mentored students, and instilled in her daughters the belief that this was normal and expected—all at a time when female scientists were rare. When they were little, the Harris girls often accompanied their mother to the lab, labeling test tubes while she performed meticulous experiments aimed at understanding the role of female sex hormones in the body. Kamala wasn’t much interested in science, but she absorbed several key lessons from Dr. Harris’s specialty, endocrinology, and its study of dynamic systems. When you don’t understand an issue, move deliberatively. (“The tadpole, you give it this liquid and something happens. Did it happen with every tadpole? What happens if you give the tadpoles a little more, a little less?” Harris recalls.) But then, broaden your inquiry; go where the evidence takes you. Look at the entire system.

Another important lesson: don’t just sit on the sidelines and complain, and don’t expect anyone to come to your rescue. “When my sister and I were growing up, I’d come home with a problem, ‘Oh, Mommy, this happened, that happened.’ Unlike other people who I thought had parents who would say, ‘You poor thing,’ my mother’s first response was always, ‘What did you do?’ Always. And when I was younger, that used to bother me. ‘You’re not coming to my defense! I want a mother to come to my defense!’” Harris shakes her head at the recollection. “Eventually I realized that she was empowering us by saying, ‘What could you have done?’ Because if you can see where you fit into the problem, you can figure out where you could fit into a solution.” Perhaps as a result, Harris says, “I love problems, because they’re an opportunity to fix something—there’s nothing more gratifying.”

Harris’s other major influence was Regina Shelton, a Louisiana native who ran a preschool downstairs from the Harris’s apartment and became like a second mother. “Mrs. Shelton was one of the smartest people I’ve ever known,” she says. “She was always taking people in and supporting them, including a lot of foster kids. The idea of seeing the potential in people without stereotyping them, investing in them with the expectation that they can be great”—these are things Shelton taught her, Harris says. Ditto the value of imposing very high standards. Indeed, in her career, Harris has encountered plenty of people who think she’s too strict. But, she points out, referring to Shelton’s preschool, “The folks doing this work out of their basements have never taken excuses for failure”—why should she?

The whole Harris family was close to the Sheltons, even staying with them every summer when they visited from Montreal. Harris, then in her teens, remembers: “It was like summer camp.” She would sometimes help out in Shelton’s schools, where she received an early insight into the pervasiveness and consequences of sexual and domestic abuse. “In the nursery school, there were some really horrible stories. I remember Mrs. Shelton taking care of a young mother who had clearly been beaten by her husband, taking the kids overnight so the mom could get her situation together.” In high school in Montreal, she got another glimpse at the toll taken by sexual abuse. “It became clear that one of my girlfriends was being abused by her father. I said, ‘You have to come live with us.’ My mother said, ‘Absolutely.’” Over the years, Harris says, she and her friend lost touch, but after her election she got an email, out of the blue. “She had gotten her life together, gotten married, and had a child. She had named her daughter Maya.”

Harris says that friend is one of the reasons she became a prosecutor. After graduating from Howard University, a historically black institution in Washington, D.C., she headed back to the Bay Area and San Francisco’s Hastings College of the Law. (Law school was never in doubt: “The heroes for me growing up were the architects of the civil rights movement, and they were the lawyers.”) The usual route for someone with her progressive politics was criminal defense or civil rights work (Her sister, Maya, also a lawyer, is the executive director of the ACLU’s Northern California chapter). Harris, though, had seen the impact of law enforcement on immigrants, poor people, women, children, and her own extended family. “I thought, ‘Why always be on the outside, trying to break down the door? Why not be at the table where the decisions are being made?’”

Her first job was in the Alameda County DA’s Office, where she quickly learned how the legal system can have wide-reaching, unintended consequences. An innocent bystander, a woman with kids, had been rounded up during a drug bust. If the woman didn’t get out that day, she’d be stuck in jail all weekend. A frantic Harris spent the afternoon looking for someone to approve her release, finally plunking herself down in a courtroom until the judge relented and signed the necessary paperwork. “With the swipe of a pen, you have the ability to charge someone with a crime,” Harris says, explaining why the woman’s plight made such an impression. “What does that mean? They have to find a lawyer. They’re going to sit in a jail. They’re going to be embarrassed in their community and their family. They could miss work and lose their job. All because I’ve charged them. That’s profound.” To this day, Harris espouses a “do no harm” philosophy when prosecuting someone: “That power has to be taken seriously. It’s not as simple as, ‘Ah, charge them and see what sticks.’”

Harris eventually gravitated toward prosecuting sex crimes. “Kamala was in her element in front of jurors,” Amy Resner says. “In closing arguments, she would talk to them like she was talking with people in her living room. No notes. But she was always incredibly well prepared. She had a talent for showing how passionately she cared.” Russ Giuntini, now Harris’s top deputy, was a prosecutor in the same office, but hardly knew her in those days. “Then a judge, a friend of mine who had been a really accomplished trial lawyer himself, says, ‘You gotta come see this young DA, she’s good.’ So I watched her and I went, ‘Yeah, she is good.’”

Harris left to work for Hallinan in 1998, recruited by one of her mentors from Oakland, who was briefly his top lieutenant. As head of the career criminals unit, she scored points with her new colleagues by quickly taking a case to trial—against the legendary Tony Serra, a supporter of Hallinan’s, no less—and beating him on the major charges. From there, in 2000, she went to work for then–City Attorney Louise Renne, who was known for innovative legal tactics like suing tobacco companies and gun makers. Harris headed the office’s Family and Children Services division, which deals with child dependency issues and foster care—many of the broken systems whose damaging long-term effects she had seen as a prosecutor. It’s a perspective very few prosecutors ever get, and it’s helped shape her thinking as DA. Harris has put healing families and communities, often by working with women and girls, at the heart of her criminal justice agenda. This may be her most radical idea of all.

 

Craig Watkins first came across Kamala Harris last year during his campaign for DA in Dallas—a Democrat and an African American in a city where Republicans had been entrenched for years. He had already run once and lost; this time around, voters seemed more welcoming of Democrats in general, but he still needed a way to sell his liberal ideas to people who weren’t used to the notion of a black man overseeing the criminal justice system in the ninth-biggest city in the country. He was looking for inspiration when he came across Harris’s website and her favorite talking point: “It’s not about being tough on crime, it’s not about being soft on crime, it’s about being smart on crime.” As he read through her material, Watkins thought, “Well, this smart-on-crime idea will sell itself. It resonates with liberals and conservatives and the business community. It resonates throughout every aspect of politics.” So he called Harris, picked her brain, and stole her best line.

In November, Watkins was elected as the first black DA in Dallas’s history, and he has since been widely hailed for groundbreaking moves like bringing in the Innocence Project to help free inmates wrongfully convicted by his predecessors. “I have to give Kamala credit for getting me to this point,” he declares. “I basically adopted her plan.” After spending a few days at Harris’s office, he wants to start his own versions of community courts and Back on Track. Anyone who can figure out how to sell a new way of thinking about criminal justice to cities as different as San Francisco and Dallas is clearly ready for the big time, he says. “We need a voice like hers at the national level.”

Harris is already an occasional visitor to Washington, D.C., where she’s been working with the National District Attorneys Association on witness protection and prisoner reentry and with Nancy Pelosi and Dianne Feinstein on a broad array of programs (as well as lobbying for the federal money to help pay for them). California is even more ready for a new progressive thought leader on criminal justice issues, and Harris is positioning to be that person, too. In the past three years, she has gotten five bills passed through the legislature; this session, she has another six—including the witness intimidation bill—in the works. “The whole world of criminal justice has been extraordinarily male-dominated,” says Mark Leno, who used to head the Assembly’s Public Safety Committee. “To have an extraordinarily competent woman come into this—she changes the discussion.”

Of course, all this stokes the cynics, who have been complaining for years that Harris is wildly ambitious, not only for the people of San Francisco, but for herself as well. They see signs in her every move that she’s less interested in long-term rebuilding and reform than in smoothing a fast track to higher office. Take those conviction stats: critics in the SFPD insist they’ve improved mostly because Harris’s people are only charging cases they’re confident they can win. Deputy public defender Teresa Caffese accuses Harris of having played the statistics game in her aggressive prosecution of Lashuan Harris, the mentally unhinged Oakland woman who threw her three young sons into the bay in October 2005. Even prosecutors conceded that the 23-year-old mother was a schizophrenic who believed that killing her kids was God’s will. Because her sanity was not in question, Caffese tells me, prosecutors knew that any convictions would probably be set aside by the trial judge (this is exactly what happened). “Kamala will have her murder conviction, even though Lashuan was [eventually] found not guilty by reason of insanity,” Caffese points out.

At the same time, left-leaning critics say, Harris has taken a number of positions that (to progressives, at least) seem intended to pad her résumé and appease moderates and conservatives around the state, whose support she would need in a run for attorney general. Harris’s legislative agenda, chock-full of bills even a Republican would love, is an obvious example. More quietly, Caffese contends, Harris has tried to play down her opposition to the death penalty. In contrast to the Espinoza case, Caffese says, “Death was kept on the table for Lashuan Harris for more than eight months after the tragic events occurred—on a case where this community, without a doubt, thought the right thing was to put her into a mental institution. To me, that’s a sign she was speaking to a larger audience.” Harris, sounding excruciatingly cautious, explained at the time that her office only got Lashuan Harris’s mental health evalation at the preliminary hearing. “After evaluating all the information,” she said, “the office decided that the appropriate punishment to seek is life in prison.”

And the same person who told me last fall that Harris is like a female Barack Obama compared her to a different presidential hopeful when I checked in again in June, the day after Harris charged Supervisor Ed Jew with election-code violations and perjury. “Did that have to be today?” the onetime unabashed Harris admirer asked. “Did she have to do anything? Why bring these charges now except to be ahead of the feds? It’s the beginning of the Rudy Giuliani way of using your office to get to your next office.” (Giuliani was the U.S. attorney in New York before becoming mayor for two terms.) “Rudy did it a lot. It’s slimy.”

But is it slimy—or is it just smart politics? Is Harris any more ambitious than any other politician of her standing would be? And what’s the matter with ambition, anyway? Why not start looking beyond the DA’s Office, beyond San Francisco? “If she’s got something that’s going to better this nation, so be it,” Watkins says. “Let her be as ambitious as she can be and benefit us all.”

However, should Obama come calling in a year or so, the big question is whether the DA’s Office would be ready for her to go. (A call from Hillary Clinton seems more doubtful, considering Harris’s early endorsement of the candidate who has seriously imperiled Clinton’s front-runner status.) People wonder what would happen to ideas like Back on Track—not just the program, but all the connections and philanthropic partnerships that Harris has used to make it successful. Some worry about a brain drain.

Harris says that one of her major goals for her second term is “institutionalizing the work we’re doing. That’s really important. It can’t be the function of the bright people who happen to be doing it.... And it can’t be the function of me, because the work is so much bigger than me.” That makes sense, of course, especially for someone who is trying to rebuild and depoliticize an office with as much power and as many problems as the one she inherited.

But it’s the kind of statement that is also certain to make people wonder anew how long she’ll be around. So did a few lines from the standing-ovation commencement speech she delivered at San Francisco State in June, excerpted in the New York Times (alongside graduation speeches by Gloria Steinem, Laura Bush, and Defense Secretary Robert Gates—pretty good company). Harris was recalling her race against Hallinan. “I remember the day I got my first poll results back. I was sitting in a small conference room, a little nervous, but very hopeful. Then I read them. I was at 6 percent. And that wasn’t good. So I was told what you all have probably heard in your life, and that you will certainly hear in your future. I was told that I should wait my turn. I was told that I should give up. I was told that I had no chance.

“Well, I didn’t listen.

“And I’m telling you, don’t you listen either. Don’t listen when they tell you that you can’t do it.”

 

Originally published in the August 2007 issue of San Francisco

Have feedback? Email us at letterssf@sanfranmag
Follow us on Twitter @sanfranmag