Influential Women

Kamala Harris Aims to Make History in California, Again

State attorney general could be second ever African-American woman in Senate

Kamala Harris was the first woman, the first African-American and the first person of South-Asian descent to be elected attorney general in California. (Jason Merritt/Getty Images for Variety file photo)

Kamala Harris broke down barriers in California politics during a decades-long career in criminal justice. In 2016, she’s on track to do so again — this time on the national stage.  

A career that began in the Alameda County district attorney's office is now poised to take Harris — if things go right this November — to the United States Senate.  

The Senate candidate will take on fellow Democrat Rep. Loretta Sanchez this fall after she finished first in California’s top-two primary last week by a wide margin, winning more than 40 percent of the vote in a 34-candidate field.  

The daughter of a Jamaican father and an Indian mother, Harris identifies as both African-American and South Asian-American. If she wins, she would be just the second African American woman to serve in Congress’s upper chamber.  

But for Harris, being a pioneer would be nothing new. She was San Francisco’s first female district attorney when elected in 2003.  

In 2010, Harris was elected as the state’s attorney general. She was the first woman, the first African-American, and the first person of South Asian descent to hold the job, arguably the second-most prominent law enforcement position in the country.  

And it made her an instant star, drawing praise from President Obama and even stoking speculation that she could be a future vice-presidential nominee.

A trailblazer

A post in the White House will have to wait for now, as Harris focuses on trying to replace retiring Sen. Barbara Boxer in the Senate. But the importance of her first-of-its-kind achievements isn’t lost on Harris.  

"My mother had a saying — 'you may be the first to do many things, make sure you aren't the last,'” Harris told CQ Roll Call. “The truth is there is a lot more work to be done, and we need elected leaders who represent the diversity of our nation.  

“We need to work to ensure the leaders reflect the people they are supposed to represent, and until we achieve that full representation, I think we should understand we are falling short of the ideals of this country,” she said.  

Born in Oakland, the 51-year-old Harris received her undergraduate degree from Howard University in Washington, D.C.. She got her law degree from the University of California, Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco.  

She worked her way through the criminal justice system quickly, first as a deputy district attorney in Alameda County and then in the San Francisco district attorney’s office.  

A two-term stint as the city’s district attorney — she wasn’t yet 40 when she won her 2003 race — preceded her election in 2010 as the state’s attorney general. She barely won that race, defeating a Republican opponent by less than a percentage point in a race with more than 9 million votes cast.

Strong work ethic

As California’s top law enforcement official, Harris focused on privacy issues in the Silicon Valley-driven technology industry and consumer protection. In 2012, she drew national attention for helping the state win a larger-than-expected settlement from big banks over home foreclosure abuses.  

Allies of Harris attribute her success less to her star appeal than to a model work ethic.  

“When it comes to being successful, for her, it’s putting one foot in front of the other in a methodical manner,” said Michael Trujillo, a veteran Democratic operative in California. “And checking the boxes of what she needs to do every day.”  

He added: “I’d love to say there was some secret sauce to it, but I would argue that it’s just a lot of hard work and determination. She’ll sweat the small stuff.”  

Harris’ rise to the top of California politics hasn’t been an entirely smooth one: She received criticism last year for spending lavishly out of her campaign account on pricey airfare, ground transportation, and hotels. Republicans have accused her of being ultra-liberal and overly hostile to business.  

And she’s not the only candidate in the California Senate race whose candidacy is of historical significance.  

Sanchez is vying to become the first Latina senator in United States history. (Another Latina, Democrat Catherine Cortez Masto, is running in the Nevada Senate race.)  

But it isn’t lost on the attorney general that she’s running in the year the Republican Party nominated Donald Trump to be its presidential nominee. The New York billionaire has ignited a firestorm of criticism of late with his accusation that Gonzalo Curiel, a federal judge overseeing a case against Trump University, is biased because of his Mexican heritage.  

Harris said Trump’s comments about Curiel make him “unfit for office” and “represents the worst of our politics.”  

"We live in a time where too many politicians are eager use fear and hate to try to divide us,” Harris said. “I firmly believe that our unity is our strength, and our diversity is our power. More than anything, I think this election is about rejecting the politics of division.”  

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