Meet Kamala Harris, Democratic Presidential Candidate
Update: Kamala Harris announced on December 3, 2019, that she was ending her presidential campaign. On August 11, 2020, former Vice President and presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden selected her as his running mate. Harris is the first woman of color—and just the fourth woman—to be named to a major party’s presidential ticket.
Government prosecutors often have political ambitions. The list of prosecutors who became mayor (think Rudy Guiliani) or governor (think Chris Christie) is long. But the last president to have any experience as a prosecutor, and even then only for a year, was William Howard Taft. Kamala Harris hopes to change that. She served for eight years as the district attorney for San Francisco before being elected attorney general of California. Of course, if Harris makes it to the White House, she will be better known for achieving two notable firsts. She would be the first woman president and the first president of Indian and Jamaican descent. She would also be the first president since Andrew Jackson to be the child of immigrants.
Name: Kamala Devi Harris
Date of Birth: October 20, 1964
Place of Birth: Oakland, California
Political Party: Democratic Party
Marital Status: Married (Douglas Emhoff)
Children: Two stepchildren (Ella and Cole)
Alma Mater: Howard University (BA); University of California, Hastings (JD)
Career: Lawyer; District Attorney of the City and County of San Francisco (2004-2011); Attorney General of California (2011-2017); U.S. Senator (2017-present)
Campaign Website: https://kamalaharris.org/
Twitter Handle: @KamalaHarris
Kamala Harris announced her presidential bid on January 27 in her hometown of Oakland. Some twenty thousand supporters turned out to cheer her on. That enthusiasm caught President Donald Trump’s eye. He told the New York Times that among the declared Democratic presidential candidates “the best opening so far would be Kamala Harris."
Harris highlighted the divisiveness plaguing American politics today in her announcement speech. Borrowing and slightly changing a famous line from Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, she said, “I'm running to be a president of the people, by the people, for all the people.”
Harris didn’t dwell on foreign policy in discussing her reasons for running. She did say: “America’s position in the world has never been weaker. When democratic values are under attack around the globe, when authoritarianism is on the march, when nuclear proliferation is on the rise, when we have foreign powers infecting the White House like malware.”
She likewise vowed to stop foreign interference in American politics: “I am running to fight for an America where our democracy and its institutions are protected against all enemies, foreign and domestic. Which is why I will defend this nation against all threats to our cybersecurity. We will secure our elections and our critical infrastructure to protect our democracy.”
Harris said she wants an America “where we welcome refugees and bring people out of the shadows and provide a pathway to citizenship.”
Harris was born in Oakland and spent her early childhood in Berkley. Her name comes from the Sanskrit word for “lotus flower.” Her mother was a cancer researcher who emigrated from India and her father was an economics professor born in Jamaica. Her parents divorced when she was seven. When she was a teenager, she moved with her mother to Montreal, where she attended high school.
Harris moved back to the United States in 1981 to attend Howard University. She studied political science and economics, and became involved in campus politics and the debate team. She then returned to California to attend to law school. She flunked the California bar on her first attempt in what she has called “the most half-assed performance of my life.” She made it on the second try and became a deputy district attorney.
Harris was elected district attorney of the City and County of San Francisco in 2003. Eight years later she was elected attorney general of California. She was the first African-American and the first woman to hold the post. She prosecuted drug traffickers, won a $20 billion settlement for homeowners who faced foreclosure, focused on consumer rights, and fought passage of California’s Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriage.
In 2016, Harris ran for an open Senate seat. She led the field in California’s open primary, and then beat fellow Democrat Loretta Sanchez with 62 percent of the vote in the run-off election. Harris sits on the Senate Judiciary, Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, and Intelligence committees.
Harris married Douglas Emhoff in 2014. He has two adult children from a previous marriage. They call Harris “S-Mamala."
Harris’s slogan, “For the People,” builds on her campaign announcement speech and refers to her time as a prosecutor. When she addressed the court, she introduced herself as “Kamala Harris, for the people, your honor.”
The opening video on her website says "Justice. Decency. Equality. Freedom. Democracy. These aren't just words. They're the values we as Americans cherish. And they're all on the line now."
Harris looks to be putting values rather than specific policies at the heart of her pitch to voters. In her campaign kickoff, she said “As we embark on this campaign, I will tell you this: I am not perfect,” adding “But I will always speak with decency and moral clarity and treat all people with dignity and respect. I will lead with integrity and I will speak the truth.” In pitching herself as a fighter for the American people, Harris invoked a classic Bob Marley lyric: “You’ve got to get up and stand up and don’t give up the fight.”
Harris’s Foreign Policy Views
Like most declared and potential Democratic presidential candidates, Harris has little foreign policy experience. That’s not surprising. Prosecutors and attorneys general seldom are asked to assess trade deals or arms control agreements, and she has been a senator for only two years.
It’s also not surprising that Harris dislikes President Trump’s leadership style. She says “we cannot conduct our foreign policy through tweets.” She also dislikes how he often makes decisions without consulting his national security advisors. After the president announced his decision in December to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria, Harris said:
My concern is that when we make decisions about what we will do in terms of our military presence, much less our diplomatic priorities, that we do that in a way that will involve consultation with our military leaders, in a way that would involve some kind of consultation, or at least outreach to our allies around the globe.
Harris was one of eighteen senators who signed a letter to President Trump last February stating that he lacked the “legal authority” to carry out a preemptive strike on North Korea.
Harris’s criticism of what might be called Trump’s “process” fouls doesn’t mean she always opposes him on the substance of policy. To the contrary. Her views on some issues parallel Trump’s even as she criticizes his tactics. After visiting Afghanistan in December 2018, she said “I remain eager to find a political solution to the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan so we can bring U.S. service members and national security professionals home.” When asked a more specific question in January 2019 about whether U.S. troops should stay in Afghanistan, Harris responded, “I do not, and I believe that we need to do it though in a responsible way and that is not what the President has done.” She then criticized Trump for not consulting with U.S. generals, foreign policy experts, allies, ambassadors, and State Department officials, without noting that many of those officials and experts counsel against an Afghan withdrawal.
Harris likewise opposed the Trans-Pacific Partnership, though for different reasons than Trump did. During the 2016 election, she argued that its adoption meant “invalidating California’s landmark climate change and environmental laws.” She also argued that the agreement wasn’t transparent. Like Trump, she also believes that China isn’t playing by the rules on trade. In August 2018, she and fellow California Senator Diane Feinstein sent a letter to U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, accusing China of engaging in “unfair industrial policies and outright theft of American intellectual property.” As might be expected of senators worried about their constituents, the letter also warned that tariffs on electronics would “be particularly harmful for California.”
Syria is another issue on which Harris has found herself on the same side as Trump. Earlier this month, she voted against a sense of the Senate resolution offered by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell rebuking the president for withdrawing U.S. troops from Syria. Harris didn’t immediately explain the reasoning behind her vote. Some of her fellow Democrats—Elizabeth Warren comes to mind—voted against the McConnell resolution because they want U.S. troops out of Syria. Others suggested, however, that they voted no because they didn’t want to appear to be endorsing U.S. combat activities that they believe Congress has not authorized.
Does this mean Harris favors a kinder, gentler version of America First? Not quite. She opposes Trump on many issues. One is his call for a southern border wall. She has tweeted that “Instead of wasting money on a concrete border wall, let’s spend that money on infrastructure, health care, and tackling climate change.”
Climate change is another issue where Harris hopes to reverse Trump’s policies. When he announced that he would be withdrawing the United States from the Paris climate agreement, she called it “an irrational decision that is a disastrous step backward, threatens the future viability of our planet for future generations, and abdicates our role of leadership.” Harris had a similar reaction when Trump announced he was withdrawing the United States from the Iran nuclear deal. She acknowledged that “This nuclear deal is not perfect, but it is certainly the best existing tool we have to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons and avoid a disastrous military conflict in the Middle East.”
Harris likewise opposes U.S. support for the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen. In December, she joined with fifty-five other senators to support a resolution directing the White House to end all U.S. military actions in Yemen that aren’t aimed at defeating al-Qaeda. Harris spelled out her reasoning for opposing U.S. policy toward Yemen a tweet months earlier: “More than 10,000 people have been killed in this conflict that was not authorized by Congress. I believe we must reassert our constitutional authority to authorize war and conduct oversight.”
Harris has been building a record on cybersecurity issues. She says that as California’s attorney general she was “one of the first to focus on what we need to do around digital forensics and cybersecurity.” She has introduced, co-sponsored, and supported legislation regarding election security, economic espionage, and privacy.
More on Harris
Yes, Harris has a campaign book. It’s entitled, The Truths We Hold: An American Journey. In what may be a first for a presidential candidate, she has also just published a children’s book. It’s called Superheroes Are Everywhere. She has also written Smart on Crime: A Career Prosecutor's Plan to Make Us Safer, which was released in 2009.
San Francisco Magazine profiled Harris back in 2007. The piece recounts a story of how she reacted upon the first poll results in her initial run for district of attorney. “I was at 6 percent. And that wasn’t good. So I was told what you all have probably heard in your life, and that you will certainly hear in your future. I was told that I should wait my turn. I was told that I should give up. I was told that I had no chance. Well, I didn’t listen. And I’m telling you, don’t you listen either. Don’t listen when they tell you that you can’t do it.”
POLITICO Magazine has a piece recounting how Harris won her first election to be district attorney. The takeaway quote comes from the former president of San Francisco’s police union. He said of Harris: “She’s an intelligent person. She is a—let’s see, I better pick this world carefully: Ruthless.”
Vogue has profiled Harris. It found that she “has an air of celebrity that, under normal circumstances, a freshman senator wouldn’t have had time to acquire.” The article also observed that “Harris is a courtroom litigator. This means that, although she is warm and funny, she is also comfortable with confrontation—at home with it, even—and a casual conversation can become a rapid-fire deposition without warning.”
The New York Times Magazine profiled Harris while she was running for the Senate in 2016. Its takeaway was that Harris’s law-enforcement career “embodies the party’s ambitions and contradictions on this issue as its leaders try to navigate a swing in the opposite direction.”
The New Yorker reviewed Harris’s campaign book after she declared her candidacy. “The phrase ‘no false choices’ recurs throughout the book; at one point, Harris describes it as a mantra. She seems to mean it mostly as a warning against ideological categorization: you may be told that you have to choose between seeing criminals as evildoers or as decent folk who have had bad luck, but that isn’t true—it is possible to take each as it comes.”
The New York Times recounted Harris’s time as a district attorney, describing her as “trying to be all things to all people” and asking whether a self-described “progressive prosecutor” can win the support of Democrats critical of how she handled “the shifting politics of crime and race—and the expectations they bring with them.”
Corey Cooper and Elizabeth Lordi assisted in the preparation of this post.