In a year full of changes, 2020 has brought us another first. As Joe Biden announced his pick for vice president yesterday, Kamala Harris becomes the first black and first Asian American woman nominated for national office by a major political party.
Who is Kamala Harris?
Kamala Devi Harris was born October 20, 1964, in Oakland, California. Her first name means, “lotus flower,” in Hindi, the native tongue of her mother, Shyamala, who immigrated from India. Her father, Donald, was born in Jamaica and attended college at the University of California, Berkley, where he met Harris’s mother. Harris is the oldest of two, and has a younger sister named Maya.
A love for politics from a young age
Donald and Shyamala brought young Harris to protests and civil rights demonstrations when she was a toddler, planting the seeds for her progressive career down the line. She also participated in busing as a child, which is the practice of taking children from predominantly black neighborhoods and driving them on buses to predominantly white schools as part of integration.
The couple divorced when Harris was 7, and she and her sister moved with their mother to Montreal, Quebec, Canada, when the future politician was 12 years old. Here she learned french and started down the path of activism by organizing a protest of local neighborhood kids against a business owner who refused to allow kids to play on the lawn.
A lover of dance, Harris founded a troupe while attending Westmount High school. She then returned to the United States and attended Howard University in Washington D.C.
Harris earned several degrees from prestigious universities
Popular and outspoken, Harris was elected to the liberal arts student council and practiced her future prosecutorial skills as a member of the debate team. After she earned her B.A. in political science and economics from Howard, Harris continued her pursuit of higher degrees at University of California, Hastings, where she earned a Juris Doctor degree, a graduate-entry professional degree in law.
Kamala’s career has solid roots in law and is full of firsts
She passed the California bar in 1990, and was hired as a deputy district attorney in Alameda County, California. Biography tells us that, “She became managing attorney of the Career Criminal Unit in the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office in 1998, and in 2000 she was appointed chief of its Community and Neighborhood Division, during which time she established the state’s first Bureau of Children’s Justice.”
In 2003, Harris ran for San Francisco district attorney, beating her former boss, the incumbent, in the process. During her tenure as district attorney, Harris created a, “Back on Track,” campaign that hoped to reduce recidivism among inmates, and it was largely successful. The program offered training for jobs and opportunities for those convicted of low-level crimes.
During her campaign for attorney general, Harris had promised to avoid seeking the death penalty, a popular progressive stance that would shape many of the choices she would make moving forward with her career. During her handling of a trial against a gang member who was convicted of killing a police officer, Harris kept her campaign promise by refusing to seek the death penalty and was met with harsh criticism for doing so.
When was Kamala Harris first elected?
In another remarkable first, in 2010 Harris was elected the first African American and first woman to hold the office of California state attorney general. There she built a reputation as a determined and dogged fighter.
One of her most notable contributions to her tenure as state attorney general is when she refused to defend Proposition 8, which was shot down by a federal court for being unconstitutional. Proposition 8 attempted to ban same sex marriage, and Harris stood in staunch opposition to it. She also officiated the first same-sex marriage after the initial enaction of Proposition 8.
Ambitions on the national stage
In 2016, Harris ran for U.S. Senate and won, becoming the second black woman and first Asian American elected to the Senate.
Harris serves on several senate committees, including the Senate Intelligence Committee where she earned national attention for her grilling of then-nominee for the Supreme Court, Brett Kavanaugh. The former attorney general hammered him with the skill of a prosecutor, and won great acclaim from liberals and progressives alike, who staunchly opposed Kavanaugh’s appointment.
As part of her grilling of the Supreme Court nominee, Harris challenged Kavanaugh on his history with racial discrimination. Kavanaugh’s history includes efforts that detractors say caused voter suppression, and his record suggests a man unlikely to take hard stances against discrimination. Vox quotes Harris addressing Kavanaugh,”‘Almost two decades after the Supreme Court’s landmark ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, I was part of only the second class to integrate the Berkeley, California public schools,’ Harris said as part of a statement during Kavanaugh’s confirmation. ‘If that Court had not issued that unanimous opinion led by Chief Justice Earl Warren in that case argued by Thurgood Marshall, I likely would not have become a lawyer, or a prosecutor, or been elected district attorney or the attorney general of California.’”
Despite career successes, voters struggle with Harris’s mixed message past
Despite her enormously successful career, Harris faces a battle of image with her would-be voters. Harris considers herself a progressive who comes from past that makes her uniquely aware of the criminal justice issues she tackles in her career. But her position as a prosecutor has progressives doubting her dedication to criminal justice reform.
In the mid-90’s, crime was a hot-button political issue. It became a central topic in presidential debates and congressional back-and-forths. The race riots in the early 90’s and subsequent images of violence in the streets spurred a movement to take a harsher stance on lawbreaking. Politicians embraced this, “tough on crime,” approach, and Harris’s career began in the middle of this time period when her attempts to aid former criminals in reintegrating successfully into society was seen as somewhat radical, although now it’s a basic progressive platform. She can provide progressive receipts for other career moves as well.
Vox shares, “In one instance — her handling of California’s “three strikes” law — Harris was arguably ahead of the time. Under the law, someone who committed a third felony could go to prison for 25 years to life, even if the third felony was a nonviolent crime. But Harris required that the San Francisco district attorney’s office only charge for a third strike if the felony was a serious or violent crime.
However, as a prosecutor, Harris obviously has to uphold the laws. The future VP-nominee enforced rules that often run contrary to progressive platforms. During her tenure as California’s attorney general, Harris did institute her, “Back on Track,” program to help reintegrate former criminals into society. However, she upheld the status quo of the Justice Department in many areas, leaving her progressive supporters disappointed. Harris fought to release fewer prisoners, despite overcrowding issues that plagued California prisons, and took a hard stance on upholding rules that limit appeals for release by innocent people.
Mixed baggage accompanied Harris to her candidacy for President
This sort of mixed baggage is what Harris brought with her to 2019 when she declared her intent to run for the Democratic nomination for President. Announcing her bid for the candidacy on Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 2019, Harris hit the ground running with campaign events and immediately was considered one of the front-runners.
But Harris struggled to pinpoint her base voters. While the U.S. Senator has broad appeal to Democrats, Harris failed to rouse enthusiasm among progressives due to what they consider her, “cop,” background. Liberals in the party, for their part, sometimes saw her as too progressive. By September of 2019, Harris had failed to rally a base of supporters adequate to secure the nomination and in December she withdrew her name from the running.
Harris and Biden square off
During her campaign, Harris and Biden squared off many times, and tense exchanges led to viral soundbites that once again reminded the voters that Harris pulls no punches and is not afraid to take the big fish on head to head.
During one such tense exchange in the middle of a presidential debate, Harris tore into Biden on his controversial opposition to busing. Harris lashed out at Biden, saying, “‘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,’ Harris said.
‘I will tell you that on this subject, it cannot be an intellectual debate among Democrats. We have to take it seriously. We have to act swiftly.'”
Despite these verbal bloodbaths, Biden picks Harris
Their interactions continued to be strained and had not improved by the time Harris withdrew her intent to run in December. It came as a surprise to many, then, when Biden announced her as his choice for vice president less than a year later. But in many ways, it makes perfect sense.
Biden is a candidate who does not appeal to progressives. An old school Democrat, he has broader appeal to liberals and moderates, and is likely to draw Independent voters in large numbers due to his former running mate Barack H Obama’s wide-ranging popularity. Harris, on the other hand, appeals to voters concerned that a progressive platform has been silenced in the 2020 race, and who are angry at losing their opportunity to choose a woman as a candidate when Senator Elizabeth Warren bowed out of the running earlier this year.
Biden struggles to rouse voter enthusiasm on his history with racial integration and issues like healthcare, whereas Harris excels in those areas. Together they offer a little bit of something to voters of many political leanings. Some are concerned that, in attempting to make their appeal broader in range, the Biden campaign will fail to energize a liberal base, over-extending itself to look appealing. While this is a valid concern, it seems likely that Biden’s choice of Harris will rather bring back to the fold progressive voters who were unenthusiastic about Biden’s candidacy.
Whatever the future holds, Harris has smashed another glass ceiling
Whether the Biden campaign’s bid to broaden reach is successful or not, Harris has again made history with her most recent nomination. A woman of great career success, a proven history of progressive policies, and an indomitable personality, Kamala Harris will be a mover and shaker for years to come. The former attorney general may even be the United States’ first black, Asian American, and woman vice president.
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