After winning what was described as a “razor close” election for California attorney general in 2010, Kamala Devi Harris and her team have been busy tackling issues as wide-ranging as truancy, transnational gangs, Medi-Cal recovery and mortgage fraud in a state so large that she sometimes flies six planes a week to cover it all–from her air-conditioned Sacramento offices to the air-conditioned tunnels in Calexico designed for trafficking guns, drugs and humans under the border.
But somehow, the state’s 32nd attorney general was able to squeeze in a little extra job as national co-chair of the campaign to reelect President Barack Obama.
“I have a long history of supporting President Obama and when I was asked to be co-chair, I absolutely said yes,” Harris said during a recent phone interview. “I was also co-chair of the rules committee for the convention. There’s a lot we have to get done and I’ll do whatever I have to.”
Harris said she was humbled and honored to be asked to speak during prime time and represent California at the Democratic National Convention. In fact, when they held a mic check in the empty arena beforehand she shouted “Where’s the California delegation?”
As the presidential debates got under way last night, some believed that President Obama would try and take down his opponent with a negative attack. But Harris thought differently.
“I think the president is going to present a clear message of going forward as a country,” Harris said during the interview several days earlier. “I think we’re going to hear the words and see the man who is Barack Obama, and it’s going to be about a plan for the country and about someone who has a connection with all people. He has empathy and understanding.”
In her speech from the convention stage, Harris illustrated the stark differences between the two presidential candidates.
“I believe Mitt Romney would roll back rules that prevent the kind of recklessness that got our economy in this mess in the first place,” she told the gathering in Charlotte, N.C.
“President Obama stood with me and 48 other attorneys-general in taking on the banks and winning $25 billion for struggling homeowners,” she said, referring to the National Mortgage Settlement against five big banks–Ally, Wells Fargo, Bank of America, Citibank and Chase. “That’s leadership!”
“Obama will fight to level the economic playing field, while Romney has a philosophy that tilts the playing field to help the wealthiest few,” she added. “He subscribes to the cynical logic that the American dream belongs to only some of us.”
The AG is a member of an accomplished family. Her parents met while they were both active in the Civil Rights Movement. Her mother, Shyamala (Gopalan) Harris, Ph.D., was a renowned breast cancer researcher. She was born in the Tamil state of southern India, graduated from Delhi University at 19, and earned her Ph.D. from UC Berkeley at 25. Her Jamaican American father, Donald Harris, is a Stanford University economics professor. They divorced when Kamala was very young.
“My family has a long history of civil service” she said during an interview published on Desiclub.com. “My parents met when they were taking part in the Civil Rights Movement in Berkeley, Calif. Growing up, I was therefore surrounded by people who were always passionately fighting for this thing called ‘justice.’ I was ultimately inspired to make my own contribution to this noble cause through public service… After law school, instead of joining most of my friends and classmates at the big downtown firms, I decided to go to the Alameda County district attorney’s office, the same office once headed by the great Earl Warren. It was the best decision I ever made. I decided to run for San Francisco district attorney in 2003 because I knew what a difference this office could make for the victims of crime and for the communities most plagued by violence.”
“I grew up in a family where I had a strong sense of my culture and who I am, and I never felt insecure about that at all,” she told the Associated Press. “Slo-wly, perhaps …, people will start to understand the diversity of the people.”
Her younger sister, Maya, is currently the vice president of the Ford Foundation and is married to Tony West, the acting U.S. associate attorney general under Eric Holder. Her grandfather Rajam Gopalan was a diplomat and one of the original “freedom fighters” in India.
“I was raised by a proud Indian mother to be a proud Black woman,” Harris, 48, has said.
She and her sister grew up in a household that blended Hindu and Baptist teachings, which she admits influenced them greatly.
“I grew up with adults who were spending their time marching and shouting for equal rights and dignity, fighting to give a voice to voiceless people,” she said. “That, in all probability, in every way modeled and shaped the way I’ve been doing my work.”
Born in Oakland and raised in Berkeley and Montreal, she and her sister were encouraged to drop the baby talk, speak up and defend their opinions with fact. That upbringing planted confidence in both her and her sister, who ultimately became lawyers.
She was also inspired by such people as Thurgood Marshall, Charles Hamilton Houston and Constance Baker Motley, and was influenced by how Marshall’s life was dedicated to ensuring that the voiceless receive the dignity they deserve.
During her convention speech, Harris recounted how, as a teenager of 14, she proudly witnessed her mother purchase their first home. That memory has pushed her to work hard for past, current and future homeowners in the state.
“We have to make common sense corrections to a broken system,” she said. “This is not regulation, it’s just fixing the rules.”
California was one of the hardest hit states in the housing crisis. Last year, nine of the 10 hardest hit foreclosure cities were located in California and more than half a million families received foreclosure filings. Harris’ office introduced the California Homeowner Bill of Rights, and in spite of the banking industry’s lobbying against her efforts, Gov. Jerry Brown signed the final part of the legislation into law on Sept. 27.
“I’m very, very happy,” she said. “This is really landmark legislation.”
“The California Homeowner’s Bill of Rights is a six-bill package of measures that gives homeowners more options when fighting to keep their home. It bans the practices of dual-tracking and the ‘robosigning’ of automatic loan approvals while providing homeowners with a single point of contact at their lending institution.”
The new bill also gives the California attorney general more power to investigate and prosecute financial fraud and to convene special grand juries to prosecute multi-county crimes, instead of prosecuting a single crime county by county.
A number of different Sacramento legislators played a part in the bill’s passage. In addition to two bills which came out of a two-house conference committee, Sen. Loni Hancock (D-Berkeley); Assembly member Wilmer Carter (D-Rialto); Assembly member Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley); and Assembly member Mike Davis (D-Los Angeles) each sponsored a bill.
“Each of these legislators wanted to be part of leadership,” Harris said. “We were glad to have partners and collaborators.”
“This bill complement gives me and my office additional powers around misconduct and consequently makes the banks accountable,” she said. “We need to reduce the blight in our communities.”
All aspects of the California Homeowner Bill of Rights will take effect on Jan. 1, 2013.
“We needed to fix the process of dual-tracking,” she said, referring to the fact that even though some homeowners had modified their loans and were paying on them and playing by the rules, they ended up being foreclosed upon anyway for the first loan.
“Many have lost their faith in the American dream,” she said. “There needs to be fair and transparent rules for everyone.”
Harris created the first-ever Mortgage Fraud Strike Force to investigate and prosecute fraud at every step of the mortgage process–from origination to securitization.
The central theme of her 2010 campaign for California attorney general, however, was to bring innovation to the state’s criminal justice system and work to curtail the state’s recidivism rate, which is the highest in the country.
Harris looks at criminal justice from a different angle and believes that we must attempt to reduce temptation and access for criminals, rather than build more prisons and enforce the death penalty.
“From my perspective as California’s attorney general, I know that our criminal justice system is broken and that people of color are disproportionately represented as both victims and perpetrators,” she has said. “Nearly half of all homicide victims in the United States are African American and the numbers for Latino victims are just as bleak.”
Harris believes the answer lies not in getting tougher on crime, but smarter; working on correction of the problem instead of collecting more prisoners in jails. Nearly 90 percent of those before-mentioned homicide victims were high school dropouts. Harris firmly believes that elementary school truancy is at the root of most crime problems.
“Fix it and you’ll fix so many bigger issues,” she has said. “We as a society claim to care about education, but not so much the education of other people’s children.”
Harris encourages adults to attend and participate in school board meetings and get involved in local nonprofits that work for youth.
“We once had a model school system in California. Now we’re close to being the worst in the U.S.,” she said. “Everyone has a role to play for the community’s children.
“We can debate all day long about the quality of education kids get when they’re in school, but they get no education at all when they’re not in school,” she added. “Elementary school truancy is fixable and cost-effective.”
From the start, Harris’ supporters believed she had future ambitions beyond the AG’s office. She is a graduate of Howard University, a member of the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority, received her juris doctor from UC Hastings College of Law and passed her bar exam on the second try.
She is an author (“Smart on Crime: A Career Prosecutor’s Plan to Make Us Safer”), former deputy district attorney of Alameda County (1990-1998) and was elected as San Francisco district attorney in both 2003 and 2007. Wikipedia lists her as the first female, African American and Asian American attorney general in California, as well as the first ethnic Indian American attorney general in the United States.
After her 2010 election to AG, Harris chose quite an impressive transition team that included former LAPD Chief Bill Bratton, former ACLU executive Connie Rice and former secretaries of state Warren Christopher and George Shultz. She is featured as a “political activist” in this month’s Essence magazine. This first ever “Style and Substance Awards” article lists 25 African American women as deserving of special recognition.
Many see the California AG as an up-and-coming star on the political horizon, but Harris contends that she is more than content in her current position.
“I’m just interested in focusing on being the attorney general for the great state of the California,” she said. “It’s probably one of most powerful elected positions in country and has the capacity to improve the lives of very many people. I love my job.”
Between airline flights up and down her populous state, when she finds a few moments to spend with Kamala Harris, one may find the attorney general cooking in her kitchen, or reading a good book–about cooking in the kitchen.
“I love to cook,” she said excitedly. Even on a recent brief vacation to New Orleans, it was all about the food and shopping for exotic seasonings to stock in her pantry.
She does have a brand-new pastime, which not too many know she has taken up.
“I’m taking golf lessons,” she said.
Harris insists that she is not out to become Tiger Woods, nor is she learning the sport to make big business deals on the links with powerbrokers.
“It’s one of the most civilized of sports,” she said wistfully just before she was called away to attend another meeting. “You walk in beautiful outdoors for hours, and it’s a mild form of exercise. I like nothing better than to walk in the outdoors.”