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Kamala Harris Makes Her Case

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One day in early June, Kamala Harris, the junior senator from California, tapped the glass of the bakery case at a Blue Bottle coffee shop on a non-iconic block in Beverly Hills. No one seemed to know who she was—another polished professional woman, grabbing an afternoon coffee—which was fine by her. She had chosen the spot, presumably for the anonymity. A few minutes later, her body woman delivered her a cookie: caramel chocolate chip, covered in a light snowfall of flaky salt. As Harris broke off small pieces and popped them in her mouth, we talked about her early life, rummaging through the layers for identifying details. The child of immigrant academics who divorced when she was young—her mother, a cancer researcher, came from India, and her father, an economist, from Jamaica—Harris grew up between Oakland and the Berkeley flats, but also spent time in college towns in the Midwest and a few years in Montreal, where her mother was teaching. “A very vivid memory of my childhood was the Mayflower truck,” she told me. “We moved a lot.” She speaks some French. She loves to cook and enjoys dancing, puns. She tells her own story uneasily. “It’s like extracting stuff from me,” she apologized. “I’m not good at talking about myself.”

In the past two years, Harris has been visible to the American public mostly through viral clips of her performances on the Senate Judiciary Committee: stumping Judge Brett Kavanaugh, grilling Attorney General William Barr. A former prosecutor, she deploys an interrogation style that is impatient and knowing, almost amused. The eyebrows go up, a faint smirk plays around the lips: you might as well fess up. “Someone likened her to the mom that knows exactly what’s going on and you’re all in trouble,” Jim Stearns, a political consultant in San Francisco, who has worked with Harris, told me. Pinned by her gaze, the representatives of the Trump Administration are almost pitiable. The former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, testifying before the Senate Intelligence Committee, pleaded with her to slow down—“I’m not able to be rushed this fast. It makes me nervous!”—as she levelled questions at him about his contacts with Russian nationals during the 2016 campaign. After Barr testified, the hosts of “Pod Save America” joked that the other senators should give all their questions to Harris. From the safety of TV, Trump has begun calling her “nasty,” practically an anointment.

By the time she was forty, Harris—who got her start as a sex-crimes prosecutor in Alameda County—had been elected district attorney of San Francisco, the first woman and the first person of color to hold that position. In 2011, she became attorney general of California—again, first and first. She won her Senate seat in the election that gave Donald Trump the Presidency. Now she is a leading contender in the Democratic effort to unseat him, the only black woman in a field that, with six female candidates, is distinguished by an unprecedented number of women. “My Shot,” from the musical “Hamilton,” often plays at her events.

Harris, who is fifty-four, has a billboard smile, and brown eyes that soften easily but just as readily turn skeptical. President Obama once called her “by far the best-looking attorney general in the country.” (His point, it would seem, was that most of the rest of them were old white men, but it sounded sexist, and he apologized.) Early on, when it became clear that Harris’s political trajectory was likely to take her beyond California, some in the media started referring to her as “the female Obama.” Weren’t both of them accomplished, telegenic, and biracial, with names they had to teach people to pronounce? (She is “Comma-la.”) She and Obama were close—she was among the first to endorse him in California—and he was the transcendent political figure of the new millennium. Harris wanted no part of it. “One thing that above all else drives her crazy is getting reduced to a demographic stereotype,” Sean Clegg, a longtime adviser, says. “She was a prosecutor. They didn’t have the same life experience. She told us, ‘Don’t define me based on something a man did.’ ” Recently, when a reporter asked her about carrying on Obama’s legacy, she said, “I have my own legacy.”

As a black, female law-and-order Democrat, Harris creates a kind of cognitive dissonance. Some liberals, while professing a strong desire to see a woman of color in the White House, fear that California’s former “top cop” won’t fulfill sweeping progressive goals. To them, she seems like a defender of the status quo posing as a reformer. Others are less bothered by her past as a prosecutor—after all, Democrats often struggle to cultivate “toughness”—but believe that the best person to stop Trump’s reëlection is another white man in his eighth decade. To this way of thinking, which contends that the prospect of a liberal black woman President may present too much of a challenge for mainstream America, Harris would make an advantageous Veep. But when, in May, matchmakers in the Congressional Black Caucus speculated about the possibility of a Biden-Harris ticket, she had a snappy retort. “Joe Biden would be a great running mate,” she said.

It was a striking comment for a candidate who was polling at eight per cent (to Biden’s thirty-nine). Harris, however, has demonstrated an ability to defeat incumbents and heirs apparent—who are also white and male—in spite of skepticism about her viability. “When we think about standards we apply to women and candidates of color, we talk about ‘If you don’t meet these, I’m dismissing you,’ ” Mirya Holman, a political scientist at Tulane University who studies gender in elections, told me. “The edges are very waffly for white men.”

I asked Harris whether she thought Americans had different criteria for Presidential candidates depending on gender. This is, after all, the election cycle in which another female candidate, Senator Amy Klobuchar, was described in the Times as being so hangry that she ate a salad with a comb, then ordered a staffer to clean it. “I’m not carefully enough watching—and I probably should—how men are being treated compared to me. I’ve had this experience so many times that I don’t let it distract me,” Harris said. “Here’s the thing: every office I’ve run for I was the first to win. First person of color. First woman. First woman of color. Every time.” (Carol Moseley Braun, a Democrat from Illinois, was the first black woman elected to the Senate, in 1992; Harris is the second, and also the first South Asian senator.)

Early in the primaries, polls can be misleading; audience size is often a better predictor of voters’ interest. (See: Trump.) Harris has shown that she can rivet a crowd. Some twenty thousand people turned out for her first rally, in Oakland, and in late May she drew one of the largest television audiences of the early election season with an assured performance at an MSNBC town hall. She has issued proposals on a host of liberal issues, from protecting abortion rights to reforming gun laws and closing the teacher-pay gap, and announced her support for the Green New Deal, universal health care, and citizenship for Dreamers. But in the first phase of the primary she remained illegible—not the revolutionary, not the wonk; not the fresh-faced millennial or the safe bet. In speeches, she talked about her “3 A.M. agenda,” an insomniac’s almanac of money, health, and safety worries that she hoped Americans would find relevant. To the extent that she had crafted a persona, it was a contradictory one, evading categorization. “She’s the easy-to-listen-to, poorly defined identity candidate,” Samuel Popkin, a political scientist and pollster, told me—a progressive centrist, tacking this way and that.

By the time we met, the first Democratic debate was only three weeks away, and Harris urgently needed to define herself and her platform. Her most serious competitors had managed to make their campaigns feel like the valorous culmination of a life’s work. (Failing to do so, as Beto O’Rourke had, meant fund-raising death.) Harris’s life’s work, however, was proving difficult to digest. What set her apart—her experience at the highest levels of law enforcement—was also complicating. She seemed uncertain about how to create a coherent story of her past, but impatient with the stories that others were offering.

Perhaps, given all the “firsts” she represents, resisting definition had been strategically necessary in her earlier career—better to blend, unobjectionably, like the instrumental version of a pop song. But, in a Presidential primary, the audience demands an electrifying vocal. Five months into the campaign, Harris knew that she hadn’t yet found it. “The challenge is, I think, people rightly want to have a sense of who somebody is,” she told me. “I’ve been thinking a lot about it recently, ’cause I know I need to frame it.”

Harris, in 2019, was supposed to be a senator working alongside the first female President of the United States, not yet a candidate herself. Campaigning in the spring, she sometimes seemed startled, like an understudy who’s just found out that the leading lady broke her foot. Her stump speech, delivered seamlessly, was nonetheless forgettable. As she enumerated the disasters of the economy, the environment, and the Administration, she punctuated the list with a mundane applause line: “Let’s speak truth.” At an intimate fund-raiser in West Los Angeles, I listened to her ramble on when asked a straightforward question about immigration reform, causing consternation in an otherwise friendly room. But she applied herself to the task of candidacy with A-student intensity. After our coffee in Beverly Hills, she was scheduled for back-to-back events and then a red-eye to D.C. “In high school, when I was getting distracted by other things, my mother would say, ‘Don’t do anything half-assed,’ ” Harris told me.

During her Senate campaign, Harris’s penchant for high-end travel made her staff cringe. These days, she carries a small Goyard tote and sits in coach. In April, on a flight to Cedar Rapids, Iowa, connecting through Chicago, Harris found her way to the middle of the plane and sat in an exit row. As it happened, the Reverend Jesse Jackson had a seat nearby, and he switched to sit next to her. She ate a piece of takeout salmon—with a fork, not a comb. In transit, people stopped her at airport gates, in corridors, outside the ladies’ room. She always had a minute to hear from them, nodding thoughtfully, head slightly cocked, while her body woman collected an e-mail address for follow-up.

The next morning, Harris was scheduled to appear at a houseparty in Des Moines. En route, she stopped at a coffee shop near Drake University, an “impromptu” visit to a place pre-stocked with law students. “Oh! Hi!” she said, walking through the front door. “Surprise—or not,” she added, seeming embarrassed by the contrivance. She approached a group of students. “Contract law!” she said, glancing at the thick book on the table in front of them. “I had this awful professor, just awful—made you feel small. But so much about contract law is just human behavior.” A woman presented a piebald English bulldog, the Drake mascot, and Harris gamely crouched on the floor, scratching his belly, till the handler excused him, saying, “He smells food.”

The day was chilly and gray; a spring storm was coming, but the houseparty, hosted by a group that helps women run for political office, was packed. The chair of the Iowa Democratic Party Women’s Caucus introduced Harris with a speech addressing the “false narrative about women,” that there are certain offices they just can’t be elected to. “Well, I’m here to tell you, we can and we will,” she said.

Rather than focus on her own accomplishments and frustrations, Harris spoke about her mother’s experience. “She was one of the very few women of color in science,” she said. “When I decided to run, she said, ‘Honey, you watch out for what’s going to happen, because there are still certain myths about what women can do and cannot do, in spite of the fact of what women actually do in life.’ And she said, ‘Two of those myths are that women can do certain things but not necessarily be in charge of your security or your money.’ In spite of the fact that, Who is the lioness protecting those cubs at all costs? Who is it who is invariably sitting at that kitchen table in the middle of the night trying to figure out how to get those bills paid?”

Harris’s mother, Shyamala Gopalan, the Brahman daughter of a diplomat from Chennai, graduated from the University of Delhi at nineteen, and, avoiding an arranged marriage, went to Berkeley to study nutrition and endocrinology. There, she met another graduate student, Donald Harris, from Jamaica, who was pursuing a Ph.D. in economics. The student civil-rights movement, centered on the Berkeley campus, gave the two young immigrants a shared context. “They both identified as people of color and people who were oppressed by a white-male-dominated world,” Meena Harris, Kamala’s niece, told me. “Their fields were science and economics—there were not many Indian women or black men.” They were married while still in graduate school, and Kamala was born in 1964; another daughter, Maya, came two years after that.

Donald Harris got his doctorate, and the family followed him as he took jobs at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, at Northwestern, and at the University of Wisconsin. Eventually, he was hired as a professor of economics at Stanford, where he is now emeritus. Gopalan, who had earned her Ph.D., began a career in breast-cancer research at Berkeley. They separated when Kamala was seven, splitting what little they had. Her mother got the slide projector, the movie screen, and the twenty record albums her father had in his possession at the time. Her father got three metal bookshelves and a filing cabinet. The books were to be divided by mutual agreement, but Kamala would later tell young women she mentored that books were the only thing she ever heard her parents fight over.

In an essay about the Harris family history, on a Web site devoted to the Jamaican diaspora, Donald Harris writes that he encouraged his children to believe “the sky is the limit,” but also told them, as relatives had told him, to “memba whe yu cum fram.” The transmission of these values ended courtesy of the Alameda County Court, which mandated that Gopalan would have primary custody of the girls. The judgment, Donald says, was “based on the false assumption by the State of California that fathers cannot handle parenting (especially in the case of this father, ‘a neegroe from da eyelans’).”

According to Harris’s 2019 memoir, “The Truths We Hold,” Gopalan chose to remain in the East Bay, on the top floor of a yellow stucco house in Berkeley. The family unit, as Harris configures it, was matriarchal—“Shyamala and the girls.” She devotes dozens of pages to describing the lessons that Gopalan imparted. “My mother cooked like a scientist,” she writes. “She had a giant Chinese-style cleaver that she chopped with, and a cupboard full of spices. I loved that okra could be soul food or Indian food, depending on what spices you chose.” Hindu customs and cosmology infused their lives. The name Kamala means lotus, and is another name for the goddess Lakshmi.

Growing up, Harris was surrounded by African-American intellectuals and activists. One of her mother’s closest friends was Mary Lewis, who helped found the field of black studies, at San Francisco State. When Gopalan worked late at the lab, Kamala spent time with her “second mother”—Regina Shelton, who ran a day care in the apartment below theirs, decorated with posters of Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth. Harris writes that Gopalan “knew that her adopted homeland would see Maya and me as black girls, and she was determined to make sure we would grow into confident, proud black women.”

The sisters spent summers with their father, in Palo Alto, and occasionally travelled with him to Jamaica, but he barely registers in Harris’s account. Meena says, “He was not around after the divorce. Their experience and relationship with blackness is through being raised in these communities in Berkeley and Oakland, and not through the lens of being Caribbean.”

In her late teens, Harris fell in with a group of friends who were bound for historically black colleges. “We all went to private school, we all were educated, we all were very much parented, but we knew kids that weren’t,” Derreck Johnson, a restaurateur in Oakland, told me. He attended the same Catholic school as Maya, before going to Fisk University, and remains close to the family. “The idea of the struggle was embedded in us from our mothers, who told their stories,” he said. Kamala went to Howard and returned to San Francisco for law school. By then, Maya, who had given birth to Meena at seventeen, was in college, so Kamala and her mother often took Meena for overnights and weekends. The matriarchy was intact.

Gopalan, who died of colon cancer in 2009, had high moral standards. Five feet tall, she commanded respect. “She was one of those very small people that you’re instantly, like, ‘Yes, sir,’ ” Jim Stearns, the consultant, said. Gopalan’s own mother had been an activist in India, educating rural women about contraception, and Gopalan insisted that her daughters commit themselves to social causes. Harris now tells audiences that, whenever she complained, her mother issued a challenge: “Well, Kamala, what are you going to do about it?” Gopalan attended nearly every rally and campaign event and Pride parade and swearing-in, sometimes in a sari. Till her death, Kamala called her “Mommy.”

Harris’s father does not participate in her public life (and didn’t answer a request for an interview). The exception to the rule is telling. In February, on “The Breakfast Club,” an urban-market radio show, Harris admitted to smoking a joint in college, and one of the hosts asked if she supported legalizing marijuana. “Half my family’s from Jamaica—are you kidding me?” she replied, laughing. The glib response elided a more complicated record: she opposed recreational pot when she was D.A. of San Francisco, then apparently adapted her view as the public consensus shifted. But that wasn’t the problem. After Harris’s radio appearance, her father gave a statement to the Jamaican-diaspora Web site, reprimanding his daughter. “My deceased parents must be turning in their grave right now to see their family’s name, reputation and proud Jamaican identity being connected, in any way, jokingly or not with the fraudulent stereotype of a pot-smoking joy seeker and in the pursuit of identity politics,” he wrote. “Speaking for myself and my immediate Jamaican family, we wish to categorically dissociate ourselves from this travesty.” When I asked Harris how she felt about this belated, public parenting, she said, “He’s entitled to his opinion.” I asked if she found talking about Donald unpleasant. “I’m happy to talk about my father,” she said, glumly. “But, ya know.” She raised her eyebrows, and said nothing. This was not going to be “Dreams from My Father,” the sequel.

Since Harris announced her candidacy, neo-birthers have been concocting spurious stories about her origins and spreading them online. Because her father is from the Caribbean, the argument goes, Harris cannot lay claim to the term “African-American.” (She is careful to describe herself as “black.”) In Donald Harris’s family history, he refers to his paternal grandmother as “a descendant of Hamilton Brown who is on record as plantation and slave owner”; some antagonists of Harris have suggested that this heritage disqualifies her from speaking to the experience of Americans descended from slaves. Not long ago, Donald Trump, Jr., re-tweeted (then deleted) a message which denied that Harris is a “black American,” an assertion that attempted to cast doubt on both parts of that identity. “Look, this is the same thing they did to Barack,” Harris said, on “The Breakfast Club.” “They don’t understand what black people are. Because if you do, if you walked down Hampton’s campus, or Howard’s campus, or Morehouse, or Spelman, or Fisk, you would have a much better appreciation for the diaspora, for the diversity, for the beauty in the diversity of who we are as black people. So I’m not going to spend my time trying to educate people about who black people are.”

If Harris developed her social conscience in the yellow stucco house in the East Bay, she got her political education in the drawing rooms of Pacific Heights. San Francisco is an incubator of Democratic talent and the stronghold of California’s best-known political families: the Feinsteins, Pelosis, Newsoms, Browns. Politicians are pillars of high society. “People like Kamala, past mayors, the Pelosis, Feinstein, they are as much part of the socialite scene as the barons of industry and tech moguls,” a local observer told me. “At a society party, the hostess will announce, ‘Nancy can’t be here tonight. She’s trying to get Trump not to build a wall.’ ”

One recent evening, a housekeeper in stocking feet answered the door at Sharon Owsley’s home in Pacific Heights, a three-story house flanked by topiaries. “Mrs. Owsley will be right down,” she said. A few minutes later, Owsley appeared, wearing a leopard-print silk blouse and black pants, and invited me into the living room, where floor-length curtains framed a view that encompassed the entire eastern swath of the city, from the Salesforce building to Alcatraz. The furnishings were crystal, gilt, and tasselled bronze brocade. “I travelled to Europe a lot with Ann Getty, and I suppose it influenced my style,” she said.

Owsley’s late husband was a pioneer of the natural facelift. “They used to say about him that the best-kept secret in Hollywood is a plastic surgeon in San Francisco,” she said. After graduating from law school, at the age of fifty-three, Owsley went to work for Harris, who was then the district attorney and her friend of a decade. “In San Francisco—this was especially true twenty-five years ago—there’s a group of people who socialize with each other, and are very supportive of the opera, the ballet, the arts,” Owsley told me. “Entry into the group depends on your attributes—not if you have money, but if you are smart. That was the appeal of Kamala. She can turn a room into a group of bystanders.”

Around the time that Owsley met her, Harris was a young prosecutor. She was dating Willie Brown, one of the most visible and powerful politicians in the state. He was sixty—four years older than her dad. Originally from segregated East Texas, he had come to San Francisco during the era of “James Crow” and, rather than join his uncle’s illegal gambling operation, became a defense attorney, representing pimps and prostitutes. Eventually, he won a seat in the State Assembly and, for fourteen years, served as speaker, earning the nickname the Ayatollah. A Democratic power broker with Republican allies, he apportioned the prime office space and knew where to find a legislator if his wife showed up looking for him. In the course of Brown’s career, he was investigated twice by the F.B.I. for corruption, but never charged with a crime. (He played a version of himself in “The Godfather: Part III,” glad-handing Michael Corleone.) Brown’s social life was “spicy,” as he puts it. Married since 1957, he lives amicably apart from his wife, seeing her on holidays. He has had a series of girlfriends—currently, he’s dating a Russian socialite—and maintains a large collection of friends all over the city, notably among wealthy white donors in Pacific Heights. “Willie knows no strangers,” Owsley told me.

During Harris’s short-lived romance with Brown, he ran for mayor; they broke up sometime between his victory party and his swearing-in. The association has clung to her—“an albatross,” she told SF Weekly years ago. Some of the most abhorrent memes of the Presidential campaign riff on their relationship (“Just say no to Willie Brown’s ho”), as does the third comment down on just about any Harris news story. Roseanne Barr has weighed in, scurrilously. Stories that mention Brown have always infuriated Harris; when I asked her campaign about him, a spokesperson testily referred me to statements that she made sixteen years ago.

Among political hopefuls, Brown is known as a mentor and a Pygmalion. Always nattily turned out—he favors Brioni suits and Borsalino hats—he believes that people in public life should present themselves well. “Women in politics need five or six well-fitted sets of pants,” he writes in his memoir. “They also need a complement of blouses or shirts that can be interchanged. And they need a whole series of blazers.” Pelosi is always on point, he writes; Feinstein can look as if she’s caught between seasons. Tactfully, he doesn’t mention Harris, but he may as well have been cataloguing her wardrobe.

“Willie is a bit of a finishing school for some of the people in his orbit,” the local observer told me. “Most people don’t quite know one hundred per cent how to dress for the first Pacific Heights cocktail party they get invited to. The notion that he helped polish somebody like Kamala a little more—I don’t think that is sexist. To use a Colette metaphor, he might have been the Aunt Alicia. ‘Here’s how you dress for this, and when you talk to this person remember that her husband likes to talk about this subject—and you might get a big donation.’ ” Harris grew close to Wilkes Bashford, a friend of Brown’s and one of San Francisco’s most exclusive clothiers, and she became a frequent bold name in the society columns. Even now, she is often featured in the address-restricted magazine the Nob Hill Gazette. Brown also arranged appointments for Harris on the California Unemployment Insurance Appeals Board and the state’s Medical Assistance Commission, which together reportedly paid her about four hundred thousand dollars over five years. He gave her a car.

In his memoir, published the year Obama was elected President, Brown writes that it is critical for black candidates to “cross over into the white community.” He maintains that black women face a particular challenge being seen as leaders. “When whites look at black women, they see the women as servants, maids, and cooks (just as my mother was),” he writes. “No matter how astute these women are, they’ve never been viewed as worthy of much beyond domestic-service status.” His advice to black women seeking political office: get involved at a high level with cultural and charitable organizations, “like symphonies, museums, and hospitals.” In 1995, Harris joined the board of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, where she designed a mentorship program for public-school teens.

Gavin Newsom, the Governor of California, is another Brown protégé, though the connection is rarely held against him. Born into a political family from Pacific Heights, Newsom was a fixture in the social scene to which Brown introduced Harris. “I certainly remember Gavin delivering wine to our house,” Owsley said, remarking that her husband had invested in PlumpJack, Newsom’s hospitality company. When Newsom was twenty-eight, Brown appointed him to chair the Parking and Traffic Commission of San Francisco. Not long after, when a seat opened on the city’s powerful Board of Supervisors, Brown chose Newsom to fill it. “I can candidly tell you with conviction I would not be governor of California—I would not have been mayor of San Francisco—without his support and his mentorship,” Newsom told me. “Kamala was not directly appointed D.A. of San Francisco. I think it’s patently unfair to judge that harshly and not judge my relationship.”

Since Brown fostered both of them, Harris and Newsom have been political siblings vying for primacy. The day Harris was sworn in as D.A., in 2004, Newsom became mayor; when he became lieutenant governor, she was sworn in as state attorney general. They share donors, networks, and consultants, and have backed each other publicly on issues that range from supporting gay marriage to opposing the death penalty. (Harris also endorsed Newsom’s decision to turn undocumented minors accused of felonies over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, a decision both have since disavowed.) The two have even vacationed together, Newsom acknowledged to me. I asked Nathan Click, who once served as a spokesperson for Harris and now does the same for Newsom, who the elder was. “I don’t know—twins?” he said. A civic leader in San Francisco told me, “Kamala and Gavin are like two puppies rolling around having fun together, seeing who pops out first.”

Several years ago, Harris and Newsom’s sibling rivalry was nearly put before the state’s voters. As Governor Jerry Brown was entering his final term, Newsom was the lieutenant governor and Harris was attorney general. Governor was clearly the next job for each of them. “It divided the social world,” Mimi Silbert, who co-founded the Delancey Street Foundation, a residency program for ex-convicts, and who is an old friend of both Harris and Newsom, says. “It was, ‘I’m more for Gavin,’ ‘Well, I’m more for Kamala.’ ” As the tension was becoming excruciating, Barbara Boxer unexpectedly announced that she was giving up her seat in the U.S. Senate. Within days, Harris had declared that she would run for the Senate, clearing the way for Newsom eventually to become governor. “It was very important when she decided, because running against her for any office was not something I had any desire to do,” Newsom, who is a co-chair of Harris’s California campaign, said. “If she decided to run for governor, that would have been perilous in terms of my own considerations.”

This spring, I met Harris for coffee near her Senate office, on Capitol Hill. She was in uniform: slim-cut dark pantsuit, silk blouse, black pearls. I asked her what would have happened if she had faced Newsom—a symbol of electability, the heir with the hair—in a race for governor. “I would have won,” she said—wasn’t it obvious?—and broke out laughing.

In Harris’s first run for office, in late 2002, she challenged an incumbent, an entrenched progressive named Terence Hallinan, from a storied liberal family that had helped drive the House Un-American Activities Committee out of San Francisco. He was also her former boss. Hallinan, nicknamed Kayo for his skills in the boxing ring, had hired Harris away from Alameda County. After working for him in the San Francisco D.A.’s office, which was disorganized and plagued by low conviction rates, she quit in disgust, and before long started planning a renegade campaign. In San Francisco, as in much of the nation, district attorney was a position that had only ever been occupied by white men. At the beginning of the race, Harris likes to point out, only six people in a hundred knew her name.

During the campaign, Hallinan invoked the corruption allegations surrounding “her boyfriend,” a jab at her autonomy that also undermined her legitimacy. Harris felt compelled to tell SF Weekly, regarding Brown, “I have no doubt that I am independent of him—and that he would probably right now express some fright about the fact that he cannot control me.” Countering the aura of privilege projected by her appearances in the society pages, Harris established her campaign headquarters in Bayview-Hunters Point, a forlorn part of San Francisco that was once a naval shipyard. “It’s the hood,” Amelia Ashley-Ward, the publisher of the Sun-Reporter, the city’s oldest black newspaper, told me. “Right above her offices, you had the public housing. And there was always crime. But she was right there in the hood. She would walk up and down the street, the liquor stores, the bars, and talk to people.”

Sean Clegg, Harris’s adviser, says, “Everyone told her, ‘These nice ladies from Pacific Heights aren’t going to want to go down there and do phone calls.’ She said, ‘I’m going to test your hypothesis and prove you wrong.’ ” Harris knew what stirs a rich liberal: the Pacific Heights ladies came to Bayview-Hunters Point, and they left feeling deepened by the experience. (Harris’s national campaign is headquartered in Baltimore. Clegg says, “We wanted to go somewhere that is in spirit a sister city to Oakland.”) On weekends, Harris says in speeches, she set herself up in front of supermarkets, handing out a black-and-white Xeroxed campaign flyer to anyone who paused to make eye contact. Instead of a table, she brought along an ironing board—“ ’cause, you see, an ironing board makes an incredible standing desk!” she says. The symbolism—an implement of domestic labor transformed into an executive tool—was powerful, if only notionally applicable to an attorney who socialized with philanthropists.

Ashley-Ward severed the Sun-Reporter’s historic relationship with the Hallinan family to endorse Harris. “I was going to have to break ties with the old regime and take on this young woman, an African-American woman,” she said. “A woman who people had always tried to hold back and say, ‘It’s not your time.’ ” With Ashley-Ward’s support, Harris won her campaign on the ground, hand-selling the city on the idea of a competent progressive, someone who could prosecute crimes without disregarding the people who would feel her efforts most profoundly. One Republican who has worked extensively in state government told me, “To the extent that she learned from Willie, it was a master class in campaigning in left-wing poetry but governing with pragmatic centrism.”

Two months ago, Harris gave a speech at a gala for the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Sun-Reporter. Ashley-Ward, wearing a pink feather boa and statement eyeglasses, greeted guests. She and Harris remain friends: she showed me a string of kiss-emoji texts that Harris had sent to her phone. Brown, who had bought a front-row table for the event, has retired from politics and now writes a column in the San Francisco Chronicle, but he watches Harris closely, like a proud dad. “He looks at the polling numbers every day,” Lee Houskeeper, a press agent who has a standing lunch date with Brown, told me.

I followed Brown to his chair, through a sea of people grasping for him—“Mr. Mayor, Mr. Mayor”—and asked if I could speak to him about Harris’s political education. He turned, exasperated, and said, “For what? For what the—? I won’t talk about it. Gawd.” A few minutes later, Harris arrived, allowing the program to begin. I caught a glimpse of her just outside the ballroom: arms crossed, a quick, heavy sigh. By the time she entered, her expression was ebullient. She stopped at Brown’s table, but did not come around to hug him. Cameras were flashing. She beamed and waved as if she held a castanet in each hand—Hi, hi. Another friend of Brown’s, a politician who served with him in the Assembly for years, told me that he had recently called Brown to congratulate him on Harris’s success: “I said, ‘Hey, fuck you, you made another one’ ”—first Newsom, now Harris. “Willie said, ‘She doesn’t even know who I am.’ ”

A week before Harris announced that she was running for President, she was at a Barnes & Noble at the Grove, a busy outdoor shopping mall in Los Angeles. The store’s third level teemed with parents pushing dehydrated-vegetable puffs into toddlers’ mouths; school-age children sat on adult shoulders, wearing superhero capes. At the front of the room, Harris read aloud from her new picture book, “Superheroes Are Everywhere,” a stiff effort to link the figures of her life—the uncle who taught her chess, the aunt who worked with computers—to the C.V.-style list of her achievements in the endpapers. After she finished, she had the children recite “The Hero Code,” with their right hands raised, an underage swearing in: “I promise to be the very best me I can be!”

“Oh, my goodness, you wore your cape!” Harris said afterward, taking a little girl’s face in her hands and smiling vividly. She signed the girl’s book and posed for a photo. Another child approached, small and pale, with a big black bow on her head. She announced that she had just learned about Sandra Day O’Connor—a pathbreaking woman who happened to be a Republican. “She’s very cool,” Harris said, evenly. “And R.B.G., she’s also very cool.”

Doug Emhoff, Harris’s husband, stood to one side, holding her purse. He wore whitewall sneakers, jeans, and a blazer. A line of children and parents zagged through the shelves. Harris remained unflaggingly engaged, asking each child a question, paying a compliment, nodding exaggeratedly. “That’s her real personality,” Emhoff said, shaking his head, starstruck, at his wife. “She smiles and laughs and has a good time. That came through on ‘Colbert.’ ”

For much of Harris’s life, she has been single, with no children, focussed on her work. She married Emhoff, a corporate lawyer in Los Angeles, at a tiny ceremony in 2014, where Maya officiated and guests were sworn to secrecy. When Harris is not on Capitol Hill, or on the campaign trail, she and Emhoff live together in Brentwood, with a freezer full of two-cup containers of Bolognese she makes ahead so that he can always have home-cooked food. (Emhoff enrolled in cooking classes before the wedding, to make himself a worthy sous-chef.) He has two children from a previous marriage: Cole, who works as an assistant at William Morris Endeavor, and Ella, a student at Parsons School of Design. Harris’s official Twitter account identifies her as “Momala,” the name she says her stepchildren gave her. One longtime donor, noting the country’s expectations around the First Family, told me, “When she married Doug, I knew she was running for President.”

After Harris finished signing books, she walked over to Emhoff. “How did you not die from maximum cuteness?” he asked her. Harris ignored the cloying remark and, noting the presence of reporters, turned sober: a policy point was coming. “Kids pay attention to everything,” she said. “They remember it. That was an element in my school truancy initiative.”

The initiative, which threatened the parents of chronically absent students with jail time and fines, is a signature program of Harris’s tenure as district attorney; she ran for attorney general partly so that she could expand it across the state. It is also probably the policy that gives her critics on the left the greatest cause for doubt.

In her first book, “Smart on Crime,” Harris presents herself as a criminal-justice innovator, data savvy and unconstrained by conventional wisdom. Shortly before she became D.A., a civil grand jury reported that nearly a third of high-school students in the San Francisco Unified School District were absent at least one day a week. A study her office commissioned found that ninety-four per cent of the city’s murder victims under the age of twenty-five were high-school dropouts, and the statistics were similar for the perpetrators. Public education, as Harris saw it, was the last defense against a life of crime. In the book, she writes, “Little Johnny may flash an irresistible, lopsided grin when you ask him why he’s in the candy store instead of school in the middle of the morning, but there’s nothing cute about him in eight or ten years when he ends up in the Hall of Justice after he’s robbed a convenience store—or worse, when he arrives in the morgue.” She sent letters reminding parents to get their kids to school, and instructed prosecutors to attend meetings between parents and administrators, looking, she recalls, “as stern as they could.” Harris established a truancy court, and by 2009 had prosecuted twenty parents; eventually, she says, the rate of truancy in the district dropped thirty-two per cent.

But the means were harsh, and she knew it. Her staff bridled, and Harris writes that, at one event promoting the program, half the principals and administrators in the district rejected her approach. (The other half cheered, she claims.) A senior lawyer who worked under Harris during those years says, “I’ve never known her to shrink from something she thought was right when on the surface it didn’t look progressive enough.” Harris insists that her intention was to force parents and schools to collaborate, in order to protect children’s right to an education. Imprisonment was not the goal, she says, and no parent was jailed in San Francisco. However, under a state law that Harris sponsored in 2010, truancy became a criminal misdemeanor. That law has been applied unevenly across the state, at the discretion of local district attorneys. The state does not keep complete statistics, but dozens of parents have reportedly been charged, and at least two have served time.

The criticism of Harris’s past is two-fold: that as an enforcer she was excessively punitive, and as a reformer she was too slow. In “Smart on Crime,” she boasts of tripling the number of offenders sent to state prison and substantially increasing conviction rates for drug dealers. In the Senate and on the campaign trail, Harris presents herself as a civil-rights leader and a criminal-justice reformer. She has called for higher pay for public defenders and is co-sponsoring legislation with Senator Rand Paul to address the cash-bail system, an institution that many on the left argue criminalizes poverty. Alec Karakatsanis, a civil-rights lawyer I spoke with, complained, “For years, when she had control over this exact issue, she crushed people with money-bail amounts that were five times the national average.” Rebecca Young, a senior trial attorney in the public defender’s office in San Francisco, told me, “Much of what she says is driven by political expediency, and that’s why it becomes difficult to trust. We know she advocated for high bails around guns, drugs—around everything, frankly, but misdemeanors.” In a recent interview on MSNBC, Harris called for mandatory independent reviews of police shootings, a practice she rejected as recently as 2016. “It’s a tale of two Kamalas,” Brendon Woods, the public defender of Alameda County (the first African-American to hold that position), says. “She was A.G. when Black Lives Matter was taking hold and we were focussing on state brutality and state-sanctioned murder. She gave us silence.”

Among liberal voters, these incongruities can lead to a vague distrust (“I like her, but . . .”). Stearns, the consultant, dismissed concerns that voters might feel Harris was too hard on underprivileged people. “When you’re looking at twenty candidates and you’re deciding which one to vote for, and one of them is a very strong African-American woman who checks the box on a lot of issues you care about, you know, that seems like a pretty minor flaw,” he said. “If you really love somebody and they have a weird mole on their chin, it’s not like you’re going to say, ‘O.K., they’ve checked every other box, but I can’t get over that—see ya.’ ” So the truancy initiative is like a weird mole? I asked. He winced, and said, “I’ll definitely get a text from her about that.”

By the time Harris wrote “The Truths We Hold”—campaign materials between hard covers—she had reframed her efforts for an audience that has become much more attuned to questions of social justice. In place of the roguish, unsupervised “Little Johnny” stood a more sympathetic figure. “Imagine a single parent, working two minimum-wage shift jobs, six days a week, and still trapped below the poverty line. She gets paid hourly, with no vacation or sick leave. If her three-year-old daughter runs a fever, she can’t bring her to the day care she took a second job to pay for,” Harris writes. “If a parent in that situation asks her son to stay home from school for a day in order to take care of his little sister, we can’t accuse her of loving her children any less.” Little Johnny was home babysitting, not casing a candy store for a future grand theft. In April, after a number of news stories about the truancy law, including profiles of parents who had been prosecuted—some of them with chronically ill and perpetually bullied children—Harris apologized for what she described as unintended consequences. Parsing her various answers on how the policy was applied, the Washington Post gave her two Pinocchios.

Maya, who is the chair of Kamala’s Presidential campaign, plays a conciliatory role with the activist left. While at Stanford Law School, she befriended the criminal-justice scholar Michelle Alexander—she helped proofread Alexander’s book “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness”—and met her future husband, Tony West, who went on to be an Associate Attorney General under Obama. Maya, who served as a policy adviser to Hillary Clinton’s campaign, focussed her research on police and criminal-justice reform. In 2003, she was hired to run a racial-justice team at the Northern California branch of the American Civil Liberties Union. A few years later, she became the branch’s executive director, and the natural adversary of the district attorney: her older sister, Kamala.

“People say, You must have the craziest Thanksgiving—you’ve got the A.C.L.U. on one end and the D.A. on the other end,” Meena says. “But the perspective Kamala had is that those are two sides of the same fight. One is on the outside—A.C.L.U., the work my mom was doing on police brutality and racial justice—and the other on the inside, what Kamala was doing.”

Raised in a family of activists, Harris argues for incremental change, backed by the muscle of high office. “The majority of what I did that could be considered reform, or just untraditional for a prosecutor or untraditional for a D.A.’s office, could not have been done if I hadn’t had the power to be able to do it without asking anybody permission,” she told me when we met in Washington. As attorney general, she established an open-data portal for law-enforcement statistics, notoriously compartmentalized and hard to access in California; among other things, the tool has allowed anti-police-violence groups to track deaths in custody.

Harris said, “I’ll be the first to say, I didn’t do enough.” But she resists the implication that she has come lately to the issue of criminal-justice reform. “I did not learn the flaws of the criminal-justice system in law school or college or by reading about it,” she told me. “I grew up knowing the flaws and how it was disproportionately impacting the black community. It’s not academic for me. When I decided to become a prosecutor, it was with full awareness of what needs to be fixed.” She reminded me of her lifelong opposition to capital punishment. Months after she became D.A., a police officer was killed by a gang member with an assault weapon. Despite immense political pressure, she refused to call for the death penalty.

As district attorney, Harris created a program for people charged with nonviolent first-time felony offenses: after pleading guilty to a felony, if they completed a demanding treatment, education, and work program, they could have their convictions vacated. To run the program, she hired an activist named Lateefah Simon—a single mother without a college degree, who when they met was an advocate for female drug dealers and sex workers. (Simon started college while in the job, and Harris monitored her report cards.) “I came into that office to get black children out of jail and prison,” Simon told me. “What I began to understand is Kamala wanted me and others she hired from the movement to understand what her job was as a prosecutor. It was to change the culture of that office. But also to defend people who couldn’t defend themselves.”

The participants in the reëntry program—which Simon says her more conventional colleagues called “hug-a-thug”—were mostly drug dealers, motivated by economic necessity. Simon said, “She understood that we actually could, slowly but surely, get them out of systems by just focussing on basic needs.” The program was small, and difficult enough to complete that one public defender complained to me that it often amounted to an easy felony conviction for the D.A. But it was novel, and it was not required of the D.A. politically. As attorney general, Harris sought to take the program statewide, starting with Los Angeles County.

Harris’s version of progress depends not on a system-wide overhaul but on a deliberate, iterative approach—you try something, go back, tweak it, try again. This approach befitted the offices she sought, and the large and politically heterogeneous state she represented. Popkin, the political scientist, told me, “As an attorney general, to get anything done between Black Lives Matter and the police, you have to be really good at not overdoing it one way or the other. You’re the ref, and you’ve got to make both coaches equally unhappy.” In the current election, though, many voters are uninterested in compromise. “You’ve earned this problem,” Popkin continued. “You’ve been cautious all along, and in a Presidential campaign people want bold. She had to be cautious to get big, and now she wants to go farther. What got you to the Senate won’t get you to the White House.”

From a young age, Harris says, she has felt the weight of what she represents; that awareness has made her almost unnaturally self-controlled. “I know that when I make decisions it will impact a lot of people,” she told me. “That’s where I’m not going to be modest. I also know that when I say something there will be a lot of people that will trust that I will have thought through what I’ve said. Mrs. Shelton, my second mother, and so many people in my life, they would often say, ‘Well, what does Kamala say about it?’ I know that there are people who count on me, and for that reason it is really important to me that I have and take into account all information, and if I was wrong about something, I don’t let pride associate. Because the consequence of what I do and what I say can be profound.” Her voice was quavering, and her eyes were filling. She swatted my arm. “You got me!” she chided.

In her memoir, Harris writes that she was “raised not to talk about myself”—such displays were considered narcissistic and vain. But, if you don’t want anyone else to define you, you had better define yourself. In June, several days after we met at Blue Bottle, Harris decided it was time to dispel lingering doubts (“I like her, but . . .”) that liberals harbored about her record as a prosecutor. She chose a predominantly black audience, at an event held by the South Carolina N.A.A.C.P.: the listeners who would be most receptive to a nuanced discussion of race and policing, and, perhaps, the people she most needed to win over.

As a prosecutor, Harris learned how to expose defendants and ferret out lies. She also learned to woo a jury. Nancy O’Malley, who was Harris’s supervisor in Alameda County and is now the district attorney there, says that she could take the most brutal, intricate case and make it accessible. “She had an authoritative, serious tone, but there was a softness about the way she presented the evidence,” O’Malley told me. “The jurors’ eyes were all wide open.”

Harris began her speech at the N.A.A.C.P. event, at a Baptist church in West Columbia, by praising the other speakers, the attendees, and “the ancestors.” She told the crowd, “My mother used to say, ‘You don’t let people tell you who you are. You tell them who you are.’ So that’s what I’m gonna do. That’s what I’m gonna do. Because let me be clear: self-appointed political commentators do not get to define who we are and what we believe.”

She had become a prosecutor, she said, in spite of her family’s skepticism, because she wanted to protect people and fix problems from inside the system. “I know and I knew then, prosecutors have not always done the work of justice,” she said. “Yet I knew the unilateral power prosecutors had with the stroke of a pen to make a decision about someone else’s life or death. . . . I knew that it made a difference to have the people making those decisions also be the ones who went to our church, had children in our schools, coached our Little League teams, and knew our neighborhoods.” To applause, she said, “I knew I had to be in those rooms, and that we always have to be in those rooms, especially and even when there aren’t many like us there.”

In the following weeks, as she travelled back and forth between South Carolina and Iowa, Harris built a case. Her background as a prosecutor was not a reason for defensiveness but a defining strength—an expression of the values she was raised with. When I asked Harris what she thought Trump’s greatest vulnerability was, she said, “His policies are weak. He has not come up with a meaningful policy on much of anything, from infrastructure to climate change. Look at his perspective on climate change—he’s talking about clean coal. Literally, there is a case to be made and to be prosecuted on this Administration’s policies.” She had gone after sexual predators and predatory lenders and perpetrators of fraud. Who better to take on Donald Trump? In speeches, she laid out Trump’s “rap sheet,” including “ten counts of obstruction of justice.” (In a looser moment, she joked, “He claims to be the best President we’ve seen in a generation. Well, I say, ‘Let’s call Barack Obama, ’cause that’s identity fraud.’ ”) The coolheaded incantation “Let’s speak truth” was replaced with a rousing alternative, “Let’s prosecute the case!”—a through-the-looking-glass version of “Lock her up” that unnerved some legal experts. Many Democratic candidates, including Harris, support impeaching Trump. In Iowa, she suggested a straightforward prosecution, saying, “I know predators, and we have a predator living in the White House.”

In late June, Harris had her chance to speak to the largest audience yet of the Democratic primary season, at the first debate, in Miami, which a record eighteen million people watched on television. Lily Adams, Harris’s director of communications, described the planning: “There’s this continuing question, What’s your background? Who are you? We were thinking, This is a huge opportunity to make a first impression.” The objectives were narrow. “One was to demonstrate strength and give a performance so that Democratic voters would say, ‘She’s who I want to put up against Trump,’ ” Adams said. “That’s the Kamala Harris from the hearings who has given such aggressive oversight to the Administration and spoken with moral clarity about all the damage they have done. You want to convey that. The second was, on any issue, talk about your priorities, this 3 A.M. agenda—for her to say, ‘What would be important to me as President are the issues that keep you up, that you worry about.’ ”

On the night of the debate, Joe Biden was the heir apparent, but Harris managed to commandeer the role of grownup, silencing the quarrelling contenders as if managing a basement full of rambunctious teens. “Hey, guys, you know what?” she said. “America does not want to witness a food fight. They want to know how we’re going to put food on their table.” Then, like any mother, she gave herself license to throw some food.

Halfway through the event, Harris interrupted a discussion of police violence against black people. “As the only black person onstage, I would like to speak on the issue of race,” she said. Chuck Todd, one of the moderators, stammered for a moment as he attempted to redirect to Biden, then closed his mouth and gestured that he would cede the floor. Harris delivered a soliloquy about the damaging effects of profiling and discrimination, and, turning to Biden, reprimanded him for working with segregationists in the Senate to oppose mandatory busing in the nineteen-seventies. Looking toward the audience, she said, “There was a little girl in California who was part of the second class to integrate her public schools, and she was bused to school every day. And that little girl was me.” She had found in her own story an unassailable source of authority: the first person, which could be weaponized. Biden, defending his civil-rights record, cited his decision to become a public defender, rather than a prosecutor, before tapping out, muttering, “My time’s up, I’m sorry.”

The exchange had the potency of a super-virus. Harris’s poll numbers surged, and Biden’s fell. Having lately slipped behind Biden, Pete Buttigieg, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren in fund-raising, Harris collected two million dollars in twenty-four hours. Her campaign started selling T-shirts with a picture of her as a seven-year-old and the phrase “That little girl was me.” (The image and phrase also appeared on Twitter minutes after she delivered the line.) In mid-July, she was tied for second place in the polls with Warren and Sanders.

The first debate and the bounce Harris experienced suggest that this could turn out to be a primary in which rhetorical effectiveness and Tweet-able zingers will offer the most persuasive evidence that a Democrat can beat Trump. Or, more dangerously for Harris, it might turn out to be a battle to express a transformative vision for the future of America and the world. What it’s unlikely to be is a fight over the past. In the weeks following the debate, the legitimacy of federally mandated busing, a decades-old policy that did not solve de-facto segregation in public schools, was examined thoroughly. In the end, Harris said that she didn’t think it was the only option for bringing about equality; Biden said he was sorry for leaving some people with the impression that he had been on good terms with segregationists.

The two candidates returned their attention to their own campaigns, but Biden’s advocates remained dismayed by the breach of decorum. Carol Moseley Braun, the former senator and a Biden supporter, attributed the attack to misplaced “ambition.” It was an old refrain. For Harris’s entire political career, she has faced the question of whether it is her time. Trump’s incumbency, which has enraged and motivated so many women, affords what may be a unique opportunity to break the tautology of the American Presidency: that it can only ever be for men because it has only ever been for men. Is the country ready for a woman, a black woman, to be President? Is Harris ready? When she says, in speeches, that our great gift as Americans is “knowing what can be, unburdened by what has been,” she is talking about the history that would be made if she were to win. She is also asking voters to have faith in what, given the chance, she can become. At the houseparty in Des Moines, she invoked the doubters. “ ‘Nobody will be ready for you, it’s not your turn, it’s not your time, nobody like you has done this before, it will be too hard,’ ” she said. “But I didn’t listen.” ♦



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