Two months before the first Democratic primary for the 2020 election took place, California Senator Kamala Harris suspended her once promising campaign for the presidency.
Since winning her Senate seat in 2016, the former attorney general of California has expanded her public profile, thanks in part to her fierce criticism of President Donald Trump, but she was unable to build enough momentum to stay in the race.
Despite her early exit, Harris’ chances of being picked to run as vice president by presumptive nominee Joe Biden have arguably increased in recent days. Her relative youth would be a counterbalance to Biden, who is currently 77 years old. Most importantly, as a woman of color, Harris could help shore up Biden’s support among non-white voters.
Yet, like so many of the other possible candidates for VP, Harris comes with her own share of baggage.
The early years of Kamala Harris
Harris was born in Oakland, California, in 1964 to Donald Harris, a Stanford University economics professor originally from Jamaica, and Shyamala Gopalan Harris, a cancer researcher who was born in India. The two met at the University of California, Berkeley, and were married for less than a decade, producing both Kamala and her sister, Maya.
Harris cites her family’s history of pursuing social justice as having inspired her public service, and especially singles out her mother as being an early hero. She also says she wanted to be a lawyer from a young age because lawyers “were the architects of the civil rights movement.”
Harris’ mother moved Kamala and her sister to Montreal, Quebec, where Harris attended high school. Following graduation, she returned to the United States where she attended Howard University in Washington, DC, before moving back to California to complete a law degree at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law.
Kamala Harris’s law career
Harris’ career in law followed soon after when, in 1990, she began prosecuting child sexual assault cases for the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office, which included Oakland in its jurisdiction.
Eight years later, Harris became an assistant district attorney at the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office where she also led the San Francisco City Attorney’s Division on Children and Families.
Harris was then twice elected as the District Attorney of San Francisco, in 2003 and 2007. During her time as San Francisco’s top prosecutor, she vehemently opposed the death penalty, a position that earned her considerable criticism, even from fellow Democrats.
Nonetheless, in 2010, Harris rode her success in the city into an election for California District Attorney. She narrowly beat her Republican opponent, receiving just 50,000 more votes.
At the time, Harris was nicknamed “the female Obama” by media figures, a reference to President Barack Obama, who was the first black president. As Attorney General of California, Harris also achieved several notable firsts. She was the first woman to fill the position, as well as the first black person, and the first Asian-American person.
Harris identifies as black and has pushed back against those who have questioned her blackness because of her mixed-race background and time growing up in Canada.
While serving as the state’s District Attorney, Harris met and married her current husband, Douglas Emhoff, who is also a lawyer. Harris is the stepmother to Emhoff’s two children from a previous marriage.
Kamala Harris’ time in the Senate
In 2016, the same year Trump was elected president, Harris decisively won her election to the US Senate. Once again, her victory represented a first, as she was the first Asian-American woman to be elected to the Senate and only the second black woman.
Harris has proven to be a consistent opponent of Trump’s in the Senate, voting against his position nearly 85% of the time. She voted against both of Trump’s nominees for the Supreme Court, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, both of whom were ultimately appointed.
During Trump’s impeachment trial, Harris used her platform to repeatedly criticize him. She has also used her position to cross-examine multiple figures in Trump’s orbit, including Attorney General William Barr, eventual Supreme Court Justice Kavanaugh and then-Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen.
Harris’ fiery and methodical approach to questioning witnesses as a senator reflects her background as a criminal prosecutor.
Ever since Harris publicly endorsed Biden for president, and Biden subsequently vowed to pick a woman as his VP, Harris’ name has regularly appeared in the VP conversation. Despite the fact that Biden and Harris clashed during the presidential debates in 2019, some believe Harris would ideally balance out the ticket, especially as the country confronts racial inequality in law enforcement.
However, Harris’ record as California’s Attorney General was a stumbling block during her own campaign and could be a hurdle for Biden if he picks her for VP.
Online, criticism of Harris has usually been reduced to a pithy sentence: “Kamala is a cop.” The point of this phrase is to criticize Harris’ actions as California’s top prosecutor, including an anti-truancy law said to have overwhelmingly hurt families of color.
Much of the criticism alleges that Harris acted too closely with state authorities, at times failing to punish police misconduct.
In a speech from 2016, Harris even referred to herself as California’s “Top Cop.” That self-designation has struck some as tone-deaf, at best, with prominent voices in the black community regularly calling out unfair treatment by law enforcement.
In the wake of the killing of George Floyd, a black man, by a white police officer, and the protests that have resulted, Harris’ perceived chumminess with the police may continue to be a liability.
Harris still has her defenders in the black community. Acknowledging that the “Kamala is a cop” meme helped end her campaign, Frederick Joseph, writing for The Independent, called the attacks on Harris’ record a “racist narrative” that unfairly targeted a black woman with a better record than many of her opponents in the Democratic primary.
Lamenting the treatment of Harris, Joseph compared her to the lineage of black women “who work twice as hard and are twice as good, yet still receive less.”
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