Big Ambition

For Democrats in desperate search of new national stars, Kamala Harris is a potential contender for the 2020 presidential nomination.

sen kamala harris
Sen. Kamala Harris

In the VIP backroom of Tosca Cafe, San Francisco’s ancient bohemian bar, Bruce Springsteen and Sean Penn were playing a manly game of pool. The cranky proprietress, Jeannette Etheredge, body-guarded the door. Metallica’s Lars Ulrich slouched in, grieving over a crumbling marriage.

I’d seen this kind of overheated fiesta at Tosca before, but on this night in 2004 there was also a quiet presence. Practically hidden in the choking pall of tobacco and celebrity, a young woman was perched on a bar stool watching the game, waiting, calculating. She was almost sedate, nursing a glass of wine and smoking cigarettes while others rubbernecked The Boss and the mercurial Penn.

The quiet observer was Kamala Harris, the woman whom many now think is an odds-on favorite to be President of the United States. But on this night, she was a political rookie, barely a year into her first term as San Francisco district attorney: focused, reserved, undistracted, emotions in check. And mysterious.

Back then, early in her political career, she often seemed low-key. At fundraisers, she spoke well enough but stiffly, without passion, reading off three-by-five index cards and asking anxiously afterward how she’d done. She seemed like just one of several local next-gen Democrats. But privately, always privately, she may have had other ideas. Could she conquer her feelings of vulnerability and open herself more to a sea of voters?


Fast forward. Today, U.S. Senator Kamala Harris is a powerful political force, locally and nationally. There is no hiding for her or from her. She’s a regular on every cable news channel — except maybe Fox. She’s a staple of social media. Turn on C-SPAN, and there she is on the rostrum of the Senate Intelligence Committee — how DID she get those plum assignments as a Washington freshman? — tearing another Trump official a new eyehole.

When Attorney General Jeff Sessions appeared before the committee, he complained that Harris’ prosecutorial questioning “makes me nervous.” The old white male Republican committee chair tried to shut her up.

Good luck with that, Mr. Chairman. That approach just leads to more Harris idolatry, particularly on social media, but also with those handicapping the Democratic presidential field.

According to the British betting site Betfair, Harris leads all her potential rivals for the 2020 Democratic nomination for president. At 5-to-1 odds, she leaves in her dust Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Cory Booker, Joe Biden and The Rock.

Even her prospective opponents can admire her. Booker, the New Jersey senator, gets absolutely giddy when he talks about Harris. He says she’s “really empowered because of her own life journey. As someone who’s her friend, I see she has a very courageous, almost empathetic, force about her.”

Sonoma State political science professor Dave McCuan calls her “the Democrats’ badass.”

Harris, a leading Congressional proponent of the Dream Act, which would grant work permits and deportation protection to thousands of undocumented immigrants’ children, spoke in favor of it at a rally at UC Irvine last October.
Harris, a leading Congressional proponent of the Dream Act, which would grant work permits and deportation protection to thousands of undocumented immigrants’ children, spoke in favor of it at a rally at UC Irvine last October.

And then there are her recent speeches. My, oh my. Whether at the First Congregational Church of Atlanta, which has hosted the most fire-breathing of civil rights preachers, at the Women’s March last January or even at a wonky local government meeting in Stockton, her presence is the same — and strong — a far cry from the reserved campaigner of a decade or so ago. She rocks back and forth on her heels, arms jabbing and grabbing in all the air and force she can summon, with her words delivered in an evangelical cadence that can burn down the house — with passion flying off her like sprays of sweat.


Given Harris’ reputation for keeping it elegant but cool, this feels like part of a larger transformation. But how, and why, exactly?

Her core interests haven’t changed: criminal justice reform, immigration, civil rights, inequality. Her comfort with her identity as an African-American, Indian-American woman is what it is — everlasting. Forged in the vicious, knife-fighting crucible of San Francisco politics, Harris now is knocking on the biggest door in the world — though she’ll never concede that.

Despite San Francisco’s stiff political hierarchy, Harris has never waited her turn. She largely has made her own turns. And you’ll hear from her, and all her friends and fans, the importance of the words, “having a seat at the table.” More about that shortly.

As someone who’s known her for 15 years, I think things beyond simply maturity and experience have stirred in her. I’d say we’re friends (at least until she reads this story), but she remains enigmatic to me.

Harris has been immensely private. Her extended family and friends, for the most part, clam up about her. While a source in her office says she has not been doing many journalistic interviews — despite requests ranging from Vanity Fair to “The View” — she agreed to two 30-minute phone interviews with me for this story because she knows me and knows she can use this magazine to speak to California. She’s our senator and insists only that “I do the work that’s in front of me.” But does she never think about higher office?

I know from the hackneyed “sources close to …” and my own knowledge that she’s fearful of losing elections, afraid of not being uber-prepared (a nightmare from her trial prosecutor days). She’s worried about wearing her personal experiences on her sleeve. And, I’m guessing, she’s fearful of being pigeonholed as something other than who she is, which is a complex equation.

Recently, a Business Insider story referred to her as “an establishment centrist” Democrat. Meantime, California Republican Party Chairman Jim Brulte describes Harris as “an ultra-liberal San Francisco Democrat.”

But Brulte is also a political pro who can express grudging admiration, and he praises her toughness and drive in her campaigns for attorney general and the Senate. Bottom line: “She has the potential of being the Democratic Party’s rock star.”

High praise from someone “who has absolutely nothing in common with her politically.”


Harris’ personal life is suffused with the issues consuming our society: race, gender, immigration and inequities writ large. Where is the power and who holds it? How do you get a seat at the table that matters?

It’s as if she was born to take on these existential quandaries. She was steeped from stroller age in the cauldron of civil protest and activism.

Harris’ grandparents were militants fighting for human rights in India. Her mother, Shyamala, with whom she was deeply close, traded her family’s upper-caste privilege to come to Berkeley at 19, studied for her doctorate in endocrinology and nutrition and joined the surging civil rights movement. Donald Harris, Kamala’s Jamaican-born father, met Shyamala during the heady turmoil of the 1960s. But her parents split when Kamala was seven, causing a sense of dislocation and sadness, friends say.

She and her younger sister, Maya, shuttled from Oakland to their dad’s house in a mostly white Peninsula neighborhood, where kids wouldn’t play with the black Harris girls. Life could be painful and unpredictable. Who wouldn’t want to know how to change that world?

When we talked, she would only tell me that her memories of the time were “pretty, fairly good.” No elaboration.

But the seamless bond among Harris, her mother and sister endured. So did her resistance to opening herself up beyond her small circle. She kept her political persona determinedly separate from her personal life.

In 2014, Harris married for the first time, to attorney Douglas Emhoff, gaining something she had thought about for a long time: kids of her own —albeit grown stepchildren. Colleagues refer to Harris’ preference for the “long game,” usually meaning politics. But with a settled domestic life in her early 50s, she finally has consistency and an expression of optimism, a phrase she used about her mother marrying her father, in her private life.


Harris’ career began counterintuitively. After getting her law degree from UC Hastings, she apprenticed at the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office, where she would later work full time as a prosecutor.

“People were saying, ‘What are you doing? You should go be a public defender,’” she says. “But I had people who I really respected who also understood the power of the prosecutor, especially for someone aligned with civil rights, somebody who is black, someone who understands criminal justice inequities.”

Alameda was her first real “seat at the table,” where, she says, “decisions were made whether people would be charged with a crime or not.”

Harris developed a very keen eye for mentors, just as they saw in her a promising raw talent. She describes as her “godfather” Judge Henry Ramsey Jr., who was portrayed in his San Francisco Chronicle obituary as a “warrior for justice.” Ramsey had been the dean of Howard University’s law school and wrote a letter that she believes helped her get into the D.C. school as an undergrad. She also became very close to Richard Iglehart, a towering attorney who helped get her hired in Alameda. When Iglehart went to the San Francisco D.A.’s office, Harris followed him.

Five years later, after moving to the city attorney’s office, she decided to run against her boss, Terence Hallinan, who ran a distinctly wild old-style S.F. leftie shop that had become mired in scandal.

Harris wasn’t expected to even make a runoff, and friends and advisers urged her not to try. She ran. She won.

She attributes at least some of her win to “total serendipity. Things just happen. It wasn’t my intention when I got there to challenge Terence.”

Now she sat at a more expansive table, where she could impact criminal justice policy, and she did. Among her mentors then was Willie Brown, the most diabolically astute player in the state. He and Harris briefly had a romantic relationship and remained friends and allies.


Harris’ idealism and fortitude were tested quickly. On her 100th day as district attorney, she waited on the steps of St. Mary’s Cathedral, preparing for one of the hardest things public officials have to do: mourn the murder of a police officer.

Soon after the killing of Officer Isaac Espinoza, she had declared that she would keep a campaign promise not to seek the death penalty. The cops were furious.

Walking toward Harris that day: Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the city’s political doyenne, whose law-and-order tenure as mayor included rides in fire trucks to midnight blazes. The two women acknowledged each other and entered the church.

Inside, Harris faced the wrathful glares of some 600 uniformed officers. And then Feinstein tossed a giant side of red meat into the crowd. “This is not only the definition of tragedy, it’s the special circumstances called for by the death penalty,” she said. A sea of blue rose to applaud.

This was a direct and public scolding of Harris and a painful lesson in the consequences of standing her ground on unpopular positions. It took nearly both of her terms as make things better with the police — and Feinstein.

The Espinoza case was perhaps her greatest test. She did not waver on her principles, even when she felt and understood the full force arrayed against her.


Feinstein and Harris are now California’s congenial Senate team, with Kamala endorsing Dianne for re-election and Dianne lending Kamala her prestigious tiny hideaway in the Capitol as a workplace.

Once again, Harris’ notion of “the long game” has been reinforced. She may have felt slighted by Feinstein or capped by the San Francisco-based political royalty that also included Nancy Pelosi and Barbara Boxer. But she endured and even thrived through the savvy she was accumulating.

Even when she was advised by political insiders not to run for state attorney general in 2010 — to wait her turn for office while the Democratic elite met in closed rooms to decide whose turn it was — Harris, again, would not wait.

She was expected to lose, and her opponent, Republican Steve Cooley, even declared victory on election night. A decisive count took three weeks. The final result was another Harris victory. But it was not without a grievous personal loss. Her mother, Shyamala, who had stuffed mailers for her daughter’s campaigns, died during the race.

During her two terms as attorney general, Harris went against her colleagues in other states and her friend President Obama to hold out for a much richer settlement against the nation’s biggest banks over foreclosure practices. Our A.G. brought home $25 billion.


Harris’ public profile was expanding exponentially. She decided to take the next step. In 2015, when Boxer announced her retirement from the Senate, Harris saw not only a new table at which to take a seat but also a whole new platform for her issues. She easily defeated the opposition and went to Washington, already a heroine in her party.

Suddenly, it seemed, she was everywhere, a bona fide Democratic star in a party badly needing heroes. “There’s been a shift” in Harris, says political analyst Jessica Levinson, a Loyola law professor. “She seemed awkward running for attorney general. She was very incremental and careful in what she was doing leading up to the Senate race. She kept things close to the vest. She now appears to be a lot freer than she was before. She’s had to prove herself over and over. It seems like a weight has been lifted off her shoulders.”

Then-Attorney General Harris speaking to a fifth-grade student during a visit to Baldwin Hills Elementary School in Los Angeles in 2014.
Then-Attorney General Harris speaking to a fifth-grade student during a visit to Baldwin Hills Elementary School in Los Angeles in 2014.

Not everyone falls dreamily into Harris’ mosh pit. Some people who worked for her at the city attorney’s office thought she was condescending and disrespectful. A source close to Jerry Brown told me the governor expressed frustration at how long it took Harris to make decisions in state cases. Even Harris’ friends concede she’s hard to work for. She can be very tough and demanding.


But Harris also has a genuinely softer side, which I’ve seen firsthand.

Several years ago, I did a stage interview with Harris for the annual dinner of Project Avary, a program that helps youngsters of incarcerated parents have better lives. It was an event without fanfare, the opposite of the glittery Hollywood-to-Hamptons fundraising she often does. This was all about the kids, and Harris talked openly about her own life and feelings.

Robbie Manuel, an Avary Project participant, joined us. After talking with Harris, Robbie said on social media, “I felt something I’ve never felt before. I was thankful for the life I live. I was in a place where … influential people were all listening to me and my story.”

So is Harris now comfortable extending herself and her private life more into her public persona?

“Kamala has a great ability to be vulnerable, meaning open,” says her longtime friend Mimi Silbert, the founder of the Delancey Street Foundation, which helps ex-felons reintegrate into civilian life. Harris throws all her victory parties there, demonstrating empathy for people she may have put in jail.

“It can be extremely hard to keep warmth, openness and an incredibly empathic style while standing for what she believes,” Silbert says. “If you’re open and talking, people can hurt you. But she’s found a way to do that and still keep her heart sometimes a little protected.”

This is the transformation that Harris’ other friends won’t talk about publicly. But all believe she has developed through her noteworthy life a greater ability to be herself in any crowd — on stage, at the pulpit, in the Senate and among the public, in speeches and ceremonies — while not sacrificing what she holds most dear.

I asked her about the Atlanta church appearance, at which a congregant had called her “a prophet.” “I’m absolutely not comfortable with that!” she said.

Then I asked about the relevance to her of a Bible passage someone read before she spoke, about living a life worthy of the calling you’ve been given, to be humble, to do works of service, despite the “cunning and craftiness of people and their deceitful scheming.”

She said: “Yeah. It’s living a life of service. There are so many people without hope, without trust.” And the deceitful scheming? “I like to focus on service rather than crafty people. … You just have to kinda move beyond them and not let the bad guys ruin your day.”

Flash back again to that 2004 Springsteen-Penn pool game at Tosca.

As the game went on, I watched Kamala quietly observing and analyzing, trying to decide if she wanted to challenge the winner. Finally, I imagine, she made her decision. Not the right time, not the right players. She left the room.

Later, she explained simply, “I wish I could shoot pool as well as they do.”

Phil Bronstein was named executive chair of the board of The Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR) in April 2012, when the organization merged with The Bay Citizen.
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