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Great Blue Hope: Kamala Harris faces high expectations as California's new senator

Updated: Jan 4, 2022

Jan. 3, 2017

Attorney General Kamala Harris answers questions about her 2016 Senate run in San Francisco, Calif., on Thursday, April 16, 2015. Sarah Rice/Special to The Chronicle

WASHINGTON — Kamala Harris will take the oath of office Tuesday as California’s 45th U.S. senator and the Democratic Party’s Great Blue Hope.

Harris, the state’s first new senator in 24 years, its first African American senator and its first Indian American senator, arrives in Washington carrying heavy expectations as a symbol of her party’s new generation and a defender of California’s interests in an unknown new political order.

As the representative of a state where 1 of eight Americans lives, and one that voted against Donald Trump in a landslide, Harris is expected to take a leading role against any Republican policy proposals that run counter to California’s interests.

That she is coming onto the national stage at a time when the Democratic Party is looking for new, young leadership raises the stakes even higher for the 52-year-old Harris.

No sooner had she won the Senate seat vacated by the retirement of Barbara Boxer than pundits began floating her name as future vice presidential or even presidential material, a kind of incarnation of President Obama, with whom she shares similar personal histories — both were born to immigrant black economist fathers, raised by their mothers in middle-class homes, and spent some of their childhoods out of the country, Obama in Indonesia and Harris in Canada.

“Incredible expectations are on her shoulders,” said Sacramento political consultant Doug Elmets, a Republican who opposed Trump’s candidacy.

In an interview Monday, Harris dismissed presidential talk as a “distraction” and said she is “entirely focused” on defending California’s interests amid an aggressive policy agenda shaping up under the GOP-led Congress and the new Trump administration.

“There’s no question the stakes are very high,” Harris said. “This is going to be a moment, as I’ve been thinking and talking about it, (that will be) challenging all of us to fight for the ideals of our country.” Harris said she will “make a go” of working in a bipartisan way, “but where we differ on policy or principle, then we’re going to have to fight. I think that’s where we are.”

California has a disproportionate stake in huge areas of federal policy — immigration, the environment and health care, to name just three — and conflicts loom with a Trump administration filled with a deeply conservative Cabinet and a Republican-led Congress determined to roll back Obama administration policies across the board.

•California has an estimated 2.3 million immigrants living here without permission, 20 percent of the national total and more than any other state, and they would be vulnerable should Trump follow through with his promised crackdown. California also has more “Dreamers,” or children of immigrants in the country without permission, than any other state, and they, too, could be subject to deportation.

•The state has nearly 5 million people enrolled under the Affordable Care Act, which Republicans have pledged to repeal as their first order of business.

•California has the most aggressive climate targets in North America and many state environmental regulations that exceed federal standards. Republicans could move to preempt these with weaker federal rules, denying California waivers to go beyond federal policy as they did during the George W. Bush administration when California sought tougher rules on tailpipe emissions.

Harris is positioned to be at the center of Democratic resistance in the Trump era. Republicans control all branches of government, but their weakest grip is in the Senate, where their 52-48 majority is far short of a filibuster-proof 60 votes, giving Democrats leverage to block legislation.

Although she will be but one minority-party freshman in a chamber of 100, Harris is “no shrinking violet,” Elmets said of the former San Francisco district attorney and California attorney general.

“She didn’t get to the U.S. Senate by not taking chances,” he said.

Harris described her approach as examining how a policy affects Californians “on every level, including how it will affect a child.” Democrats have tools beyond the filibuster, she said, including educating the public about the implications of policy proposals and what she called “the sorely underused power to convene.”

“Most people have the majority of issues in common,” Harris said. “We can break through the silos ... and do a better job, frankly, of creating coalitions.”

Yet if there’s a rap on Harris, it’s that she has been too cautious as the state’s attorney general for the past six years. Critics said she failed to act aggressively to investigate police shootings in San Francisco, prosecutorial misconduct in Orange County and other areas of criminal justice.

Harris’ backers strongly dispute the charge.

“I hate that description,” said Tim Silard, who worked with Harris as a prosecutor in Alameda County, where she began her career. “She’s a lawyer. ... Is she very thorough and meticulous in her process? Absolutely.”

Silard, now president of the Rosenberg Foundation, a San Francisco philanthropy, said many people mistake thoroughness for caution. Harris, he said, “did things that no other district attorneys in the country were doing,” attacking crime through job programs for low-level drug dealers and truancy prevention for elementary schoolchildren.

Harris outlined those approaches in her 2009 book, “Smart on Crime.” At the time, they ran counter to prevailing 1990s orthodoxy that demanded prison time for low-level offenders, but have since been widely embraced by top national law enforcement figures.

“She had done her homework,” producing evidence, Silard said, that the vast majority of young homicide victims and perpetrators are high school dropouts, a pattern that begins with truancy in elementary school and winds up costing taxpayers billions.

“All of her criminal justice stuff was incredibly groundbreaking back in the early 2000s,” he said.

Harris’ allies also point to one of her last acts as attorney general, when on Dec. 22 she opened an investigation — the first of its kind in California — into alleged police misconduct, including use of excessive force, at the Bakersfield Police Department and Kern County Sheriff’s Office.

Friends and former colleagues describe Harris as hard working and demanding.

“Fierce is an understatement. Seriously,” said Lateefah Simon, executive director of the Akonadi Foundation in Oakland, whom Harris met when Simon operated a peer-run group for troubled girls, and later hired in the San Francisco district attorney’s office.

“Kamala is the toughest boss anybody will ever work for,” Simon said. “She’s always the first in the office and the last to leave. She reads everything.”

For fun, Harris said she loves to cook and starts many mornings at SoulCycle.

“I love SoulCycle,” she said of the fitness chain. “It’s like going to the club.” When things get “really stressful,” she said, “I read recipes.”

Born in Oakland on Oct. 20, 1964, Harris was raised with her younger sister, Maya, in an African American neighborhood in Berkeley and later in Oakland and Montreal. Her father, Stanford University economist Donald Harris, and her mother, Shyamala Gopalan Harris, a renowned breast cancer researcher, met in graduate school at UC Berkeley, and divorced when the children were young. The girls were raised by their mother, who sent them to Baptist choir and Hindu temple. She died in 2009.

Harris described her mother as by far one of the biggest influences on her life. “Her general philosophy was speak the truth and be honest and be clear of purpose,” Harris said. Describing California’s enormous ethnic, geographic and economic diversity, she said, “What my mother would definitely advocate is you’ve got to go in and be true to the people who brung ya.”

Harris got her undergraduate degree at the historically black Howard University in Washington, D.C., and her law degree at UC’s Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco. In 2014, Harris married Los Angeles attorney Douglas Emhoff. The couple live in Los Angeles County.

She gained national recognition in 2011 when she rebuffed pressure from the Obama administration by refusing to sign off on a mortgage settlement with banks reached by a coalition of state attorneys general. Harris prevailed, ultimately raising the payout for California homeowners from $4 billion to $20 billion.

Seven years earlier, Harris had tangled with Sen. Dianne Feinstein, now her California Senate colleague, after refusing to support the death penalty for the killer of San Francisco police Officer Isaac Espinoza. At Espinoza’s funeral in St. Mary’s Cathedral, packed with more than 2,000 uniformed police officers, Feinstein famously called for the death penalty as Harris sat in the front row. Harris, then 39, didn’t budge, but spent years afterward wooing back police unions.

Feinstein has welcomed Harris to the Senate, letting the incoming junior senator use her “hideaway” office as a temporary work space. Feinstein will walk Harris “down the aisle” in the Senate chamber Tuesday to take her oath of office.

For all the expectations on Harris to be an instant leader, political professionals say she might be better served by taking a more low-key approach, modeled on Hillary Clinton’s freshman year in the Senate. The celebrated former first lady morphed into a dutiful freshman, quietly learning the ropes, broadening her portfolio and cultivating allies in the clubby institution, moves that later paid dividends.

“A lot of the base in California is going to expect adamant opposition and outrage” at Trump’s policies, said Stanford University political scientist Bruce Cain. While senators are expected to defend their states’ interests, Cain suggested that Harris avoid grandstanding, and instead build coalitions with unlikely allies from Trump-friendly red states that also stand to lose billions of federal dollars from such policies as dismantling the Affordable Care Act.

“There’s a lot of possibilities for creating coalitions to stop some of the things that Trump has said he’s going to do,” Cain said. “But it can’t just be because it’s unfair to California. It’s got to be more clever than that.”

Simon is confident her former mentor will succeed. “She is the most powerful African American elected woman in the country,” Simon said. “The most powerful Indian American woman in the country. That’s a lot of weight. But can’t nobody take this on like Miss Harris.”

Carolyn Lochhead was the Washington correspondent for the San Francisco Chronicle, where she covered national politics and policy for 27 years. She grew up in Paso Robles (San Luis Obispo County) and graduated from UC Berkeley cum laude in rhetoric and economics. She has a masters of journalism degree from Columbia University. Twitter: @carolynlochhead

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