KAMALA HARRIS was working her way through a crowd at the Westin Bonaventure Hotel in Los Angeles when an aide whispered in her ear that the target was in range. “He’s here?” Harris said. “O.K., let’s do it.”
It was early on a Saturday morning in January, and a throng of union leaders and members were gathered for a banquet-hall breakfast hosted by the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, one of the country’s largest union umbrella groups and a major political force in the state. Harris, the attorney general of California, had arrived in a black pantsuit and stilettos with black beads at her throat. Her meet-and-greet style involves more than the usual amount of touching: She moves from the standard handshake and smile to a lower arm clasp, or a hand on the shoulder, or a double clasp, holding the other person’s wrists with both hands. Addressing a shy young man who said he was running for local office, she offered a quick tutorial: “Tell me your name, shake my hand, look me in the eye and ask me for your support. That’s how you do it.”
Harris, who is 51, is running for office, too. She is the leading Democratic candidate in this year’s race for one of California’s Senate seats, a rare prize that last opened up a generation ago, in 1992. If she wins the June 7 Democratic primary and the general election in November, she will be the first black woman in the Senate since Carol Moseley Braun, the first ever elected, who served one term for Illinois ending 17 years ago. Harris pre-empted some potential opponents by declaring her candidacy early, a few days after Barbara Boxer announced her retirement in early 2015, but her closest rival, Representative Loretta Sanchez, pointedly told an audience in January, “I think we need a Latina in the U.S. Senate.” As of that month, Harris had raised far more money than Sanchez and had racked up endorsements from unions and other power brokers, but she was well aware that in a state that is 40 percent Hispanic, she still needed the blessing of Latino leaders.
Now her aide had spotted one in the crowd: Jimmy Gomez, a Democratic state assemblyman from northeast Los Angeles. Heading into the scrum, Harris looked over her shoulder at me with a conspiratorial smile. “Here comes the strong-arming,” she said. “I’m going to be shameless.” She strode up to Gomez, did the forearm clasp and, brisk and direct, asked Gomez to endorse her for Senate. Gomez, a youthful 41-year-old who is a son of Mexican immigrants, seemed a bit taken aback. He mentioned a bill he was sponsoring to ease the financial burden on low-income workers of taking family leave, which was stalled. “Let’s work on it,” Harris said. “Do you have stories of the people who are affected? You need to tell their stories.” Gomez nodded intently.
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I worked with Kamala at the SF DA’s office. I haven’t read the all the other comments about her, but a number of them have seem critical. I…
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Though he didn’t commit to an endorsement, he said, “I’d love to help you out,” and made sure to pose for a photo with Harris. A few weeks later, she endorsed his family-leave bill, and at the end of February, Gomez tweeted a smiling picture of himself with a ballot from the California Democratic Convention, where Harris needed 60 percent of the delegates present to win the party’s endorsement: “Just voted for @KamalaHarris for Senate at #CADEM16 !!!” Harris won 78 percent of the vote. In April, Gomez’s family-leave bill, which passed easily, was signed into law.
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Harris in November at the Pitchess Detention Center in Los Angeles County. Credit Preston Gannaway for The New York Times
Perhaps more than any other rising Democratic star running for federal office this year, Harris embodies the future the party would like to imagine for itself in the fast-approaching post-Obama era. One indication of her cachet is the coveted prime-time speaking slot she received at the 2012 Democratic National Convention. Senator Cory Booker told me that he “reveres” Harris. President Obama said of Harris in 2013, “She is brilliant, and she is dedicated, and she is tough.” (He wound up apologizing for adding, “She also happens to be, by far, the best-looking attorney general in the country.”)
Harris’s appeal is partly demographic. Obama’s presidency was supposed to herald the dawn of a Democratic Party whose politicians looked more like its racially diverse voters. Yet beyond Obama and Hillary Clinton, the party’s highest officeholders — in the Senate and in governors’ mansions — remain conspicuously white and mostly male. As attorney general, Harris is already one of only two black female Democrats in the country elected to a statewide post. “For a black woman looking for pathways and validation that you’re not crazy, you can do this, she’s incredibly important,” says Stacey Abrams, the Democratic minority leader in the Georgia House. “There is no one else.”
Harris’s timing and record have made her worth watching in another respect. She has made her career in law enforcement, elected twice as the district attorney in San Francisco. As the state attorney general for five years, she sits atop a giant law-enforcement apparatus, with a staff of almost 5,000 in a state with the country’s second-largest nonfederal prison system, with about 135,000 inmates and a death-row population of almost 750. The rise of Black Lives Matter and the protracted protests in New York, Cleveland, Baltimore and Ferguson, Mo., have propelled criminal-justice reform onto the national agenda. But when it comes to politics and policy, most Democrats (like Republicans) haven’t fully grasped the new sense of possibility.
In the 1970s, California’s rising crime rates fueled Ronald Reagan’s law-and-order rhetoric when he was governor, shaping the conservative revolution waged in his name as he ascended to the White House. Twenty years later, the public’s fear of urban gangs and the plague of crack cocaine led another crop of California politicians, Democrats among them, to promote the kind of harsh sentencing laws that soon swept the country. Now the failures of that approach, in terms of both efficacy and human rights, have come sharply into view. Harris embodies the party’s ambitions and contradictions on this issue as its leaders try to navigate a swing in the opposite direction.
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In September 2012, Harris took the stage at the Democratic National Convention to the chords of “Don’t Stop Believin’ ” by Journey and a roar from the crowd. “Let’s get right down to business,” she said.
What followed, however, was a pro forma critique of Obama’s Republican opponent: a rundown of the laws and rules that “Mitt Romney would roll back.” She praised Obama and ended on an evocation of the American dream: “It belongs to little girls who have the joy of watching their mother, like I did, buy her first home.” Aside from this note, the speech was notably impersonal — especially in comparison with Obama’s career-making convention speech in 2004 detailing his family history. Harris’s biography resembles his in some of its contours and is also inextricably tied to her political identity.
Harris’s Indian-born mother, Shyamala Gopalan Harris, the daughter of a diplomat, came to the United States at 19 in 1958, to attend the University of California, Berkeley. On her way to earning a doctorate in nutrition and endocrinology, she met Donald Harris, a Jamaican fellow graduate student. He joined the economics faculty at Stanford, and she became a noted breast-cancer researcher. After Kamala was born, her parents wheeled her in a stroller to civil rights marches. They divorced when she and her sister, Maya, were young. The girls saw their father every other weekend, but it was Shyamala who shaped their upbringing.
She brought up her daughters, in the late ’60s and early ’70s, in a black neighborhood in Berkeley, sharing a house with a friend who ran a small preschool. “She had two black babies, and she raised them to be two black women,” Harris says of her mother’s choice of community. Stacey Johnson-Batiste, one of Harris’s oldest friends, remembers Shyamala turning ingredients like chicken or okra into either Indian dishes or soul food, depending on the spices she used. The girls sang in a Baptist choir, and every two years, Shyamala took her daughters to India.
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Harris at the Pitchess Detention Center. Credit Preston Gannaway for The New York Times
Shyamala’s extended circle included intellectuals who were tuned in to the black political consciousness of the era, like the scholar Mary Lewis, whom Harris knew as “Aunt Mary” and who hosted a salon attended by Fannie Lou Hamer, Maya Angelou and Malcolm X, who visited the year before Harris was born. For the most part, though, Harris lived among working-class families. One of her proudest accomplishments as attorney general involved “helping folks like the folks I grew up with” by holding out for a higher settlement with the country’s five largest mortgage servicers over their foreclosure practices during the financial crisis. Most of her counterparts around the country — and the Obama administration — wanted her to sign off on a deal that would have brought $4 billion to California. With Attorney General Eric Schneiderman of New York, Harris refused, and in the end California homeowners got $20 billion. “She was determined that the people of California would not get cheated on her watch,” Senator Elizabeth Warren told me in an email.
After attending the historically black Howard University, Harris returned to California for law school at Hastings in San Francisco and went to work at the Alameda County district attorney’s office in Oakland. (She failed the bar exam the first time she took it. Harris says she recently consoled a young law graduate who also didn’t pass; “I told her, it’s not a measure of your capacity.”) Many days she walked up the courthouse steps where in 1968 the Black Panthers chanted “Revolution has come!” and “Off the pigs!”
When Harris began working as a deputy district attorney in 1990, violent crime was on the rise in Oakland, and the fear of gangs and drugs flooding the streets was at a fever pitch. As some Democrats (including President Bill Clinton) tilted toward a tough-on-crime response — by backing mandatory minimum sentences, for example — Harris’s job as a young prosecutor was to help stem the tide of disorder and violence. Some civil rights activists in her Berkeley circle found her career choice “curious,” she told me. Her mother, who had taken an unexpected path herself, understood. “She got it,” Harris told me. “She was the original rejecter of false choices.”
This is one of Harris’s favorite expressions; the point was that she could work in the D.A.’s office without betraying her roots. She could see the importance of agitating for change from outside the system, but she wanted to be on the inside, she says, “at the table where the decisions are made.” And she had a perspective on crime, shared by some other black leaders at the time, informed by the burden it imposes on black neighborhoods: “Let’s be clear who the victims of crime are — they come from the same communities.”
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Harris at the Pitchess Detention Center. Credit Preston Gannaway for The New York Times
Harris saw how much power prosecutors have, and sometimes she relished it. “When I was prosecuting child-molestation cases, I will tell you, I was as close to a vigilante as you can get,” she told me. But she also quickly learned about the unthinking damage the law could do. One Friday, when she was a 23-year-old intern, she sat in a courtroom for hours so she could ask the judge to release a woman from jail before the weekend. “I remember saying: ‘She can’t be here. She has kids.’ ” As a prosecutor, Harris saw her peers making race-based assumptions when considering punishment. “I remember being in my office and hearing a group of my colleagues outside my door talking about whether to bring a gang enhancement,” she told me, referring to the more severe penalty that prosecutors could ask for if the defendant was part of a gang. “They were talking about how these young people were dressed, what corner they were hanging out on and the music they were listening to. I remember saying: ‘Hey, guys, you know what? Members of my family dress that way. I grew up with people who live on that corner.’ ” She laughed. “I still have a tape of that kind of music in my car.”
At the time, Harris lived as well as worked in Oakland, near her mother and her younger sister, Maya. “They were this power trio, very enmeshed with each other,” says Amy Resner, a longtime friend. Maya married Tony West, previously the No.3 official in the United States Justice Department, and she is now a senior policy adviser to Hillary Clinton. Discussing her family, Harris is effusive about topics like the character of her mother, who died in 2009, and their favorite recipes, but she steers the conversation away from anything complicated. In the day and a half I spent with her, she was warm but wary of spontaneity and, like Hillary Clinton, attuned to the particular challenges that the personal poses for women in politics. She didn’t want to talk about her past relationship with Willie Brown, the fabled former mayor of San Francisco and speaker of the California Assembly, whom she dated in the mid-1990s, when she was about 30 and he was 60. (Brown is married but has lived apart from his wife for decades.) Harris married for the first time two years ago, to Douglas Emhoff, an affable Los Angeles lawyer. He has two children, ages 16 and 21, and he and Harris recently took them on a family trip to Yosemite. “They call me S-Mamala,” Harris said of her stepchildren. “I love that.”
After the Saturday labor breakfast in January, Harris’s driver took her through the hills north of Los Angeles to a beachfront inn for the annual lunch of the Ventura County Women’s Political Council. Getting out of the S.U.V., Harris did a quick stretch (she had worked out early that morning) before heading inside, past a sign featuring the council’s logo: a high-heeled pump with the stars and stripes of the American flag. “We used to call it ‘stiletto justice’ when I was the D.A.,” she told her greeters.
It’s not a coincidence that Harris shares a background in law enforcement with five of the 20 women who are already in the Senate. “The image of toughness that comes from being in law enforcement may help candidates repel the biases against electing women to higher office,” says David Axelrod, Obama’s former senior adviser and strategist. “It’s an advantage as a launching pad.” But Harris was also keen to place her law-enforcement work in a broader context. Addressing her Ventura County audience, she brought up the issue of early-childhood education: Children who are chronically truant in elementary school are three to four times as likely as others to drop out of high school, she said, citing a statewide study she ordered as attorney general. And, she continued, high-school dropouts nationally account for more than 80 percent of state-prison inmates. “They’re expensive,” she told the audience. “As taxpayers, you pay $46.4 billion a year because of the burdens high-school dropouts place on our criminal-justice system and our health system and our social services.”
Improving the public “return on investment” for criminal justice, as Harris puts it, is central to her philosophy. “If we were talking about any other system where you have a failure rate of about 70 percent, the investors would say, at the very least, do a wholesale reconstruction, if not shut it down,” she told me, referring to California’s estimated rate of recidivism. In her 2009 book, “Smart on Crime,” she argued for re-entry services for prisoners returning home and programs to help children in violent neighborhoods deal with trauma, in the name of crime prevention. As district attorney in San Francisco, Harris started a program that offered first-time offenders caught selling drugs the chance to earn a high-school diploma and get a job instead of going to prison. The initiative is small, with fewer than 300 graduates over eight years, but has a strikingly low recidivism rate. Around the country, other district attorneys and Obama’s Justice Department have embraced a “smart on crime” approach similar to Harris’s — a data-driven riposte to Reagan’s enduring rhetoric.
But during Harris’s tenure as attorney general, reformers in California have taken far bigger whacks at what they see as a fundamentally broken system. “The carceral state — prisons, prosecutors and police — is having its biggest legitimacy crisis in 40 years,” says Jonathan Simon, a law professor at Berkeley. “She could exercise significantly more leadership.” In 2011, the Supreme Court found that lack of access to medical care in California’s prisons due to overcrowding amounted to cruel and unusual punishment. Harris represented Gov. Jerry Brown in fighting to release fewer prisoners than the lower courts initially ordered. “I have a client, and I don’t get to choose my client,” she said. In 2012 and 2014, Harris took no position on two sentencing-reform measures on the state ballot, saying she had to remain neutral because of her responsibility for writing the text that goes to the voters. One of her predecessors as attorney general, John Van de Kamp, a fellow Democrat, told me that rationale was “baloney.”
The ballot measures passed easily, suggesting that Harris is more cautious about addressing mass incarceration than California voters. “ ‘Smart on crime’ is still a good phrase,” says Natasha Minsker, the director of the Center for Advocacy and Policy at the A.C.L.U. of California, “but the support for more significant reform has gotten broader and gone farther than where she is.”
Harris’s critics also charge that she has failed to take on prosecutorial misconduct — a responsibility that is “core to the attorney general’s job,” Simon says. In 2015, judges called out her office for defending convictions obtained by local prosecutors who inserted a false confession into the transcript of a police interrogation, lied under oath and withheld crucial evidence from the defense. “Talk to the attorney general and make sure she understands the gravity of the situation,” federal appellate Judge Alex Kozinski instructed one of Harris’s deputies in court last year. Harris says that as a career prosecutor, she takes allegations of misconduct very seriously. “My office evaluates each case based on the facts and the evidence,” she told me.
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Harris in her office in Los Angeles. Credit Preston Gannaway for The New York Times
Harris has also been criticized for her response to accusations of misconduct by prosecutors and sheriff’s deputies in Orange County. Two years ago, Scott Sanders, an assistant public defender in Orange County, discovered hidden records showing that sheriff’s deputies in the local jails were placing coveted informants in cells next to inmates who were awaiting trial — and for decades maintaining a secret database about them. The district attorney’s office also appears to have repeatedly failed to disclose evidence from its own files on some informants. Defendants were convicted based on the testimony of informants whose credibility, the secret records showed, prosecutors and the police questioned, unknown to the judge and jury. One informant labeled “unreliable” helped convict a man who was executed in 1998 for a murder he insisted he did not commit. Last March, following the revelations about the database, a judge described the performance of the Orange County district attorney’s office, in the murder case before him, as “sadly deficient” and instructed Harris and her office to take over the case.
Harris could have conducted a far-reaching inquiry. Instead, she appealed the judge’s order on behalf of Tony Rackauckas, Orange County’s controversial district attorney, while promising a narrower criminal investigation into the case at hand. When I asked about it in January, Harris said, “We’re not walking away.” But John Van de Kamp and Erwin Chemerinsky, the dean of the law school at the University of California, Irvine, have effectively given up on Harris by asking for a federal investigation, in a letter to the Justice Department signed by roughly two dozen former prosecutors, law professors and advocates. “All the parts of the criminal-justice system failed here, for a very long time,” Chemerinsky says. “As far as I know, she’s not doing anything about it.” In January, Rackauckas invited the Justice Department to investigate, saying there was no evidence of “sensational wrongdoing.”
Aspects of Harris’s policy record point to the limits of the smart-on-crime philosophy, for her and other Democrats. They also most likely reflect the power of California’s police, sheriffs and local prosecutors, a force in statewide elections. Harris has had to work particularly hard to win their favor, ever since she was San Francisco’s district attorney. Being a black woman made her stand out then too: 95 percent of the country’s roughly 2,400 elected district attorneys are white, and 83 percent are men. State Senator Holly Mitchell of Los Angeles, who has endorsed Harris’s Senate campaign, argues that running for office as a black woman, “you’re held to a different standard.” And Harris has had to contend with the aftershocks of perhaps the boldest move of her career.
In April 2004, four months after she took office in San Francisco, a 29-year-old police officer, Isaac Espinoza, was shot and killed on patrol. The city’s police union urged Harris to seek the death penalty for the suspect. Three days after Espinoza’s death, Harris announced that she would not. More than 2,000 uniformed police officers packed St. Mary’s Cathedral for the funeral. With Harris in the front row, Senator Dianne Feinstein, one of the state’s most powerful Democrats, took the pulpit and called for the death penalty. Waves of cops rose to their feet and applauded. Shyamala sent white roses to her daughter’s office with a card that read “Courage!” Harris held firm, and Espinoza’s killer received a sentence of life in prison. “Our members never forgave Harris,” says Gary Delagnes, then the president of the union.
Harris felt the reverberations of that anger statewide when she ran for attorney general for the first time in 2010. Only one law-enforcement group endorsed her, and she barely squeaked by her Republican opponent. Once in office, she made a point of building bridges, and some of the law-enforcement leaders I spoke to praised her support (as they saw it) for Rackauckas in Orange County and the distance she has kept from sentencing reform. They also said she reassured them on the death penalty. In 2014, Harris appealed a federal judge’s decision striking down California’s system of capital punishment as unconstitutional. By the time of her re-election campaign two years ago, she had the endorsement of four dozen law enforcement groups, and she won easily.
Some of Harris’s critics in California are betting that if she’s elected, her Senate seat will be secure enough — Democrats have held it since 1968 — that she’ll have the freedom to move beyond what she has tried in her home state. “She’ll be an ally to progressive change on criminal justice,” Simon told me. “I’m not saying that based on her record. I’m saying that because she’ll see that the future isn’t some money for re-entry services or letting out nonviolent drug offenders. The future is challenging the draconian nature of our entire system.”
Cory Booker, the Democrats’ strongest voice in the Senate on criminal justice, takes the long view. “I know some people might think she’s not checking every box on the list for criminal-justice reform,” he told me. Still, “I see her as a valued activist and ally.”
Correction: June 5, 2016
An article on May 29 about attorney general Kamala Harris of California included an erroneous detail about her first race for attorney general, in 2010. While the outcome of that election took weeks to determine, there was no formal recount.