What I love the most about Kamala Harris is how much other women love her. When she was first nominated for vice president on the presidential ticket of Joe Biden, I watched Rachel Maddow interview other women, many of them in positions of power and politics, about it and the response was sheer glee. The Indian-American women she interviewed were over the moon. The smiles on these women’s faces were large, genuine and infectious.
As time moved forward, when I would hear prominent women running non-profits or holding high office interviewed asked about her nomination, many of them confessed full disclosure to the interviewer that, “Kamala is my very good friend.” It happened over and over again. So many women love this woman and she is a very good friend with and to so many of them.
This cut through a trope that I have lamented all my life: women don’t support women. In this case, it seemed I was experiencing the opposite. I’m not saying that Kamala Harris does not have people who do not like her and that other women are never mean to her or there is never conflict, or even that there are not women she does not like, but something about this was different, whole hearted and very calming to my nervous system. To see a woman of power treated in such a way, loved so dearly and wished the best so authentically is heart warming. And this fabulous woman is now our Vice President.
I have had the honor of watching Kamala Harris’ career since I moved to the Bay Area of California almost 20 years ago. She caught my eye immediately as someone to watch. I loved her confidence, her articulations and her palpable power. I had the opportunity of voting for her for Attorney General of CA and U. S. Senator.
For anyone who wants to know more detail about her career and what she has been able to accomplish thus far, where her priorities are, and clarity around the issues that have sprung up around her as “controversial” or even the negative press and slander going on, I recommend reading her memoir written in 2019, The Truths We Hold: An American Journey. In that book you will also be able to read about her constant work for the rights of the LGBTQ+ community, including same sex marriage. She also speaks to her controversial work on the truancy issue where she “was willing to be the bad guy if it meant highlighting an issue that otherwise would have received too little attention. Political capital doesn’t gain interest. You have to spend it to make a difference”(123).
For those concerned with what they have heard about her with regard to transgender rights, here are some articles that address that issue in particular: From Out Smart Magazine : Kamala Harris is not Transphobic. From The 19th: Kamala Harris is a Complicated Choice for Some LGBTQ+ People
There is detailed and complex information in The Truths We Hold, information about the courts, what it means to be a prosecutor, what they are up against, what it’s like to run for public office, and what the job of being an attorney general is. Then on to the U.S. Senate in 2016. It’s demanding and hard work and fifty-six year old Harris has been at it a long time.
She also gives us a peek into her love life. Her meeting, dating and eventually marrying Doug Emhoff in 2014. The description of the evening he proposed to her and her response had me crying. I loved how she was able to include the proposal after this paragraph:
She had just returned home from a trip to Mexico where she was “coordinating with senior officials in the fight against transnational criminal organizations and human traffickers”(131). She and Doug were about to head out for a vacation in Italy the next day.
“Just like my mother, I’ve internalized the idea that everything I do deserves 100 percent, but sometimes it feels like the numbers won’t work. There just isn’t enough of me to go around. This was one of those times. I had a hundred things racing through my mind in the aftermath of the Mexico trip, and a hundred more as I contemplated the work I’d missed while I was away. Meanwhile, I was trying to shift mental gears for a getaway with my sweetheart—but my packing list and my to-do list were competing for real estate in my brain. I was beating myself up for trying to do too much, even as I worried that I wasn’t doing quite enough, and all of this stress coalesced in the form of a search for my black pants.
Which I couldn’t find. My closet was a mess”(133).
And while she was in this frazzled state Doug proposed.
“I looked at him there, on one knee, and burst into tears. Mind you, these were not graceful Hollywood tears streaming down a glistening cheek. No, I’m talking about snorting and grunting, with mascara smudging my face”(134).
She said Yes.
Harris has actively mentored and continues to mentor many women.
“My mother used to say … ‘You may be the first. Don’t be the last.’ My mother had gotten to where she was because of the help of mentors. I had gotten to where I was because of mentors, too. And I intended to be a mentor to as many people as I could during the course of my career”(278).
In the beginning of the book, Harris tells the story that made her want to become a prosecutor. It was when she was a summer intern at The Alameda County District Attorney’s Office. There was one case that summer in which the police had conducted a drug bust and arrested a lot of people “including an innocent bystander: a woman who had been at the wrong place at the wrong time and had been swept up in the dragnet. I hadn’t seen her. I didn’t know who she was or what she looked like. I didn’t have any connection to her, except for the report I was reviewing . But there was something about her that caught my attention”(2).
Harris realized that it was Friday afternoon, and this woman who had young children and a job would have to spend the entire weekend in jail and that would have devastating consequences for her. Harris fought for the case to be heard that afternoon. She was successful and the woman was set free.
“It was a defining moment in my life. It was the crystallization of how, even on the margins of the criminal justice system, the stakes were extraordinarily high and intensely human. It was a realization that, even with the limited authority of an intern, people who cared could do justice. It was revelatory, a moment that proved how much it mattered to have compassionate people working as prosecutors. Years before I would be elected to run a major prosecutor’s office, this was one of the victories that mattered the most. I knew she was going home”(3).
This story helped me understand what a radical and deliberate choice it was to become a prosecutor. She could have chosen a variety of other options, but that intimate moment set her on the track of her career. The one that has led her to where she is today. For me that story reveals a pattern in Harris’ life that matters. The choices she makes are not the easy ones, not the simple ones, and often at the root of them is true care for others and firm dedication to change. She also makes no apology for wanting access to power.
In fact Kamala Harris is a #NastyWoman who does not have the habit of apologizing for herself. A good role model for us all.
“When I realized I wanted to work in the district attorney’s office—that I had found my calling—I was excited to share the decision with my friends and family. And I wasn’t surprised to find them incredulous. I had to defend my choice as one would a thesis.
America has a deep and dark history of people using the power of the prosecutor as an instrument of injustice. I knew this history well—of innocent men framed, of charges brought against people of color without sufficient evidence, of prosecutors hiding information that would exonerate defendants, of the disproportionate application of the law. I grew up with these stories—so I understand my community’s wariness. But history told another story too.
I knew the history of brave prosecutors who went after the Ku Klux Klan in the South. I knew the stories of prosecutors who went after corrupt politicians and corporate polluters. I knew the legacy of Robert Kennedy, who, as U.S. attorney general, sent Department of Justice officials to protect the Freedom Riders in 1961, and sent the U.S. Marshals to protect James Meredith when he enrolled at Ole Miss the next year.
I knew quite well that equal justice was an aspiration. I knew that the force of the law was applied unevenly, sometimes by design. But I also knew that what was wrong with the system didn’t need to be an immutable fact. And I wanted to be part of changing that”(25).
She worked nine years at the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office, eventually moving to felonies and homicides as well as working on behalf of children who had suffered abuse. Then she was “recruited to the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office in the career criminal unit which focused on violent and serial offenders”(32). Moving on from there to leading a division for family services at the City’s Attorney’s Office where she “co-founded a task force to study the issues of sexually exploited youth”(34) with Norma Hotaling. “One of our priorities was creating a safe place for prostituted youth to get love and support and treatment”(35).
Her positive experience of being able to make change in this position allowed her to want to make changes at the district attorney’s office and she knew the only way she could make meaningful change there was to run for office. Thus her career as elected official began. She ran for district attorney of San Francisco. She was inaugurated in 2003, the same day that current Governor of California Gavin Newsom was inaugurated for Mayor. An interesting look at both of their trajectories.
“I had run because I knew I could do the job—and I believed I could do it better than it had been done. Still, I knew I represented something much bigger than my own experience. At the time, there weren’t many district attorneys who looked like me or had my background. There still aren’t. A report in 2015 found that 95 percent of our country’s elected prosecutors were white, and 79 percent were white men”(47).
Daughter of immigrants, her father, Donald Harris, was born in Jamaica. He came to school at UC Berkeley and taught economics at Stanford for many years. Her mother, Shyamala Gopalan, was born in India. She came to a graduate program at Berkeley in 1958 to pursue a doctorate in nutrition and endocrinology. Shyamala became a breast cancer researcher. The couple bonded over civil rights and married young but the marriage did not last. Harris grew up in Oakland CA, moving to Montreal, Canada with her mother and sister, Maya, for most of her teen years because of a job opportunity for Shyamala. She went to Howard University and Hastings Law School in San Francisco.
In her time as District Attorney for San Francisco, she created the highly successful program called “Back on Track,” to help first time offenders get their lives back on track by offering supportive programs of education, community service and job placement. This program was expanded to statewide once she became CA Attorney General in 2011.
While Attorney General of CA, she also instituted an implicit bias training program which was eventually offered to law enforcement agents statewide which “became the first statewide implicit bias procedural justice course offered anywhere in this country”(69). Under her leadership as state attorney general she also made sure CA
“was the first state law enforcement agency to require body cameras for its agents. I did it because it was right things to do. But I was able to do it because the Black Lives Matter movement had created intense pressure. By forcing these issues onto the national agenda, the movement created an environment on the outside that helped give me the space to get it done on the inside. That’s often how change happens. And I credit the movement for those reforms just as much as anyone in my office, including me”(73).
In 2011 she fought hard for a better settlement from the banks for the whole country, in the housing and mortgage foreclosure crisis that was gripping the nation, changing the outcome for all of us.
“I knew part of making change was what I’d seen all my life, surrounded by adults shouting and marching and demanding justice from the outside. But I also knew there was an important role on the inside, sitting at the table where the decisions were being made. When activists came marching and and banging on the doors, I wanted to be on the other side to let them in”(25-26).
And now that door is the door of the White House. Someone inside for #NastyWomen when we come knocking.
Kamala Harris is a #Nastywomanwriter, prosecutor, activist and now Vice President of the United States.
©Theresa C. Dintino 2020
Harris, Kamala. The Truths We Hold: An American Journey. Penguin Books, 2019.