Kamala Harris’ first act as a political candidate was knocking out a former boxer: the progressive San Francisco district attorney who had been her boss.
Her freshman Senate term has been defined by committee performances so lacerating that Trump administration officials have complained of her lawyerly velocity. “I’m not able to be rushed this fast,” a flustered Jeff Sessions once said to her. “It makes me nervous.”
And in Harris’ most memorable turn as a presidential contender, speaking with practised precision to the man who Tuesday chose her as his running mate, she began with a less than charitable disclaimer — “I do not believe you are a racist” — before flattening him with the “but …”
“It was a debate,” she has said repeatedly since then, offering no apology for campaign combat.
That is San Francisco politics, friends say. That is Kamala Devi Harris.
In announcing Harris, 55, as his vice-presidential nominee, Joe Biden told supporters she was the person best equipped to “take this fight” to President Donald Trump, making space in a campaign premised on restoring American decency for a willing brawler who learned early in her career that fortune would not favor the meek among Black women in her lines of work.
“She had to be savvy to find a way,” said Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, who has known Harris for more than two decades. “There was no path laid out for her. She had to find her way through the kind of set of obstacles that most people in the positions that she’s held have not had to ever deal with.”
It is this dexterity, people close to her say, that has most powered Harris’ rise — and can be most frustrating to those who wish her electoral fearlessness were accompanied by policy audacity to match.
Caustic when she needs to be but cautious on substantive issues more often than many liberals would like, Harris has spent her public life negotiating disparate orbits, fluent in both activist and establishment circles without ever feeling entirely anchored to either.
Despite her early departure from the race last year, allies have long retained an unshakable belief in her talents as a prospective future standard-bearer for the party.
“I’m crying,” said Amelia Ashley-Ward, a friend and the publisher of The Sun-Reporter, a publication aimed at the African American community in San Francisco. “When I first met Kamala Harris, I always felt that God had something a little extra for her.”
For Harris, the firstborn daughter of immigrant academics from India and Jamaica, political activism was a kind of birthright. Her maternal grandparents fought for Indian independence from British rule and educated rural women about contraception. Her parents protested for civil and voting rights as doctoral students at the University of California, Berkeley. As a toddler, she was pushed along with the crowds at protests and marches in her stroller, later recalling early memories of “a sea of legs moving about, of the energy and the shouts and the chants.” Her parents hosted civil rights leaders and started weekly study groups to discuss the books of Black authors and grassroots organizers, from the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa to the preaching of Malcolm X.
Her mother, Harris wrote in her 2019 memoir, “was born with a sense of justice imprinted on her soul.”
As her mother had no relatives in the country, the Black community in Oakland became her family, even after she had divorced from Harris’ father, a Jamaican who came to the United States to study economics. Harris and her younger sister sang in the children’s choir at a Black church and studied the arts at Rainbow Sign, a pioneering Black cultural centre. After school, they spent time at a child-care centre run by a neighbour in the basement of their apartment building, learning about Black leaders such as Frederick Douglass, George Washington Carver and Sojourner Truth.
As a first-grader, Harris joined the second elementary school class in Berkeley to be desegregated by busing, making her an early test subject for a contentious liberal policy. It was a part of her history that exploded into controversy during a Democratic primary debate when she challenged Biden’s past stance on busing and his warm remembrances of working with segregationist senators.
Those early experiences had a formative impact on Harris’ professional path, pushing her away from the outsider politics of her childhood and into the Democratic establishment that she came to believe had greater power to effect change.
“The reason I made a very conscious decision to become a prosecutor is that I am the child of people who, like those today, were marching and shouting on the streets for justice,” she said in the recent interview. “When I made the decision to become a prosecutor, it was a very conscious decision. And the decision I made was, I’m going to try and go inside the system, where I don’t have to ask permission to change what needs to be changed.”
Initially, this was not glamorous work. In the 1990s, she joined prosecutors’ offices in Alameda County and, later, San Francisco, where she oversaw the career criminal unit. Her boss there was an old-guard liberal, Terence Hallinan, whose hold on the job grew precarious as Harris considered her own political future.
Urged to challenge Hallinan by peers who said the office was poorly managed, Harris found herself effectively running to his right, telling voters in their 2003 contest that there was nothing progressive about being “soft on crime.”
But Harris’ bid was trailed by insinuations that she was beholden to a much older ex-boyfriend, Willie Brown, who also happened to be the mayor of San Francisco (and a prominent endorser featured on her campaign literature).
To defuse such attacks, Harris resolved to strike back twice as hard, airing her rival’s own sensational baggage and at one point appearing to suggest that she would not hesitate to investigate him for public corruption after replacing him.
On the trail during the 2020 primary, Harris often recounted being asked to describe “what it’s like to be the first woman fill-in-the-blank,” explaining to chuckling crowds that she could not answer the question because she has never been anyone else. But she was sure, she added, that “a man could do the job just as well.” (If Biden wins in November, Harris will break another barrier, enshrining her husband, Doug Emhoff, as the country’s first “second gentleman.”)
In her presidential bid, Harris tried to bridge her personal biography with her professional history, with a logo that paid homage to Shirley Chisholm’s groundbreaking campaign as the first woman to seek the Democratic nomination for president and a slogan referring to her own time as a prosecutor: “Kamala Harris For The People.”
This merger did not go as smoothly as advisers had hoped. During her campaign — and more recently, as the death of George Floyd spawned global protests over racial injustice and policing — Harris worked to reconcile her activist childhood with her work in elected office, described by critics as too incremental on criminal justice. In interviews in recent months, Harris praised the Black Lives Matter movement for forcing a change in prosecutors’ offices.
“One of the differences between when I became a prosecutor and started and now, is the incredible leadership, and effective leadership, of Black Lives Matter,” she said in June. “That movement put the pressure and the advocacy and the activism from the outside to counteract the obstacles from the inside that were invested in status quo and not only reluctant to change but opposed to change.”
Harris has long leaned on a favorite saying: “No good public policy ends with an exclamation point.” If that makes her a question mark now on certain issues of the day, some Democrats reason, there are probably worse qualities in a running mate.