written by Valerie Morales
It feels as if Kamala Harris has been a Senator longer than two years. Her aggressive resistance to the current president and his policies, particularly immigration, have earned her affection, supporters, social media followers, and for her benefit, financial backers. Since winning the California Senate seat in 2016, her national profile has risen beyond California, as have her ambitions. The only mild surprise is announcing her presidential aspirations so early in her Washington career. In the past, she was known for her caution.
If successful in this bold new move, Harris would unseat a president who has exiled the kind of people that raised Kamala Harris to want to be president in the first place.
Her mother Shyamala left India to study at UC Berkeley and she met an immigrant from Jamaica, a black man named Donald. They married and Kamala, which translates into Lotus Flower, was born in Oakland, California. If back then was right now and the young Harris couple were trying to make a life in a country different than their birthplace, most likely, Donald Trump would have tried a variety of ways to deport them. Spared that kind of punishment is a relief all the way around. We wouldn’t be talking about Kamala Harris running for president.
But first some history. On a wintry, slick January day in 1972, Shirley Chisholm did the same thing Kamala Harris is doing now, galvanizing women by charting tenuous waters.
Chisholm, the daughter of Caribbean parents, and a seven term congresswoman from the 12th District (NY), was the first black woman to seek the presidency. That she didn’t win missed a larger point about pioneers and their responsibility to make a bright idea- a woman in the White House- seem possible and necessary.
14 years after Shirley Chisholm’s death, Kamala Harris has stepped into her footprints, a familiar kind of valor blowing at her sails. It’s a privileged place to find oneself, the daughter of immigrants seeking the highest office. Like Chisholm, Kamala Harris can be sentimental about her country. Her parents chose to come to a welcoming place. They were not kidnapped, dragged in chains and systemically abused. They didn’t have to recover from a history of malice and violence, nor fume about an apology that was never forthcoming from oppressors who deny their behavior.
Shyamala and Donald’s baby girl was born one year before the Voting Rights Act was signed, and one year after John F. Kennedy was assassinated. Her father was a professor at Stanford and her mother a breast cancer researcher. The family lived in a working class black neighborhood in Oakland.
Despite perception, California has the same percentage of black residents as the state of Minnesota. A chilling 6%. But when Kamala Harris ran for Barbara Boxer’s senate seat in 2016, she was the front runner. At the state Democratic Party Convention, Harris won 78% of the votes when only 60% was needed.
When she entered the Senate race, Kamala Harris was the Attorney General of California and was responsible for the 2nd largest non-federal prison system in the United States with 136,000 inmates and 740 on death row. But like all political people and people in general, there were messy crumbs.
Her ex-boyfriend, Willie Brown, a powerful San Francisco Democrat, was bitterly despised or beloved, and Harris, who was the recipient of appointments, many believe because of Brown, was considered the beneficiary of nepotism. Like all women, she was saddled with the baggage that she didn’t belong, she didn’t earn what she had received, she had been granted privileges men had to work much harder for. But Kamala Harris was also spared. She was never denounced in quite the same way as Representative Maxine Waters, or labeled with the slander, “too black.”
When she won her Senate race, political observers took notice. California is a state of white and Latino voters. San Francisco and Los Angeles are liberal cities. San Diego is conservative. And the rest of the state is agricultural and Republican. That Kamala Harris was overwhelming elected provided insight on her national appeal.
Voters in a 40% Latino state weren’t bothered by her race. Her willingness to confront the racist, the bully, the liar and the criminal, and to deny them social capital and parity, is particularly soothing. She has protective instincts and is like an older sister who promises to beat up the boyfriend who hurts us in the dark. Women just respond to her.
But will they vote for her for President?
“When we look at where we are at this moment in the history of this country, I think our founders gave us the right charge. We are all here because we stand on other people’s shoulders. My mother taught us long ago, she would say to me ‘Kamala, you may be the first to do things, but make sure you are not the last.’ ”
Black women are tribal and vote hyper-aware of the sister next to them, understanding when one of us rises, all of us do. White women vote individually and often with sabotage in mind while considering men and their approval. These are the gender stairs the 54-year old Kamala Harris must traffic and remain fluent in but unlike Hillary Clinton, Kamala Harris isn’t the recipient of lopsided bitterness, spite, and shallow name calling.
Kamala Harris enters the presidential race with the energy of the young and untested, new to the national stage, experienced in liberal California but a neophyte elsewhere. In Washington, she has put people on notice with her prosecutorial style and her march for and towards justice. She is going to speak truth to power- and in double-time so beware. She believes in Medicare for all, and supports policy on behalf of immigrants, those similar to her parents who desire a better life for their family. Although she doesn’t have children, she herself was the product of divorce. When marriages end, women and children have their lives changed. There are small cruelties that damage the needle. Kamala’s mother moved to Canada for work and so Kamala left Oakland and went to high school in Montreal.
Is she more relatable than Hillary? Because voting is a humanistic exercise, we more often than not vote for people we like, and for people we think are like us, and people we’d like to spend an hour with, as much as we vote for policy and programs and platforms.
“Senator Harris has an advantage, but it would be a mistake for her campaign to assume that advantage will take her over the finish line. She will need to work, just like all the other candidates” warned Gilda Cobb-Hunter, Democratic state representative from Orangeburg, South Carolina, and the first black woman to represent the county of Orangeburg in the state house.
Kamala Harris is bilingual, as comfortable with Hindu as she is in a Baptist church singing in the choir. Multiethnicity is second nature to her, just as whiteness is second nature to the many women she is asking to vote for her, and, who voted for Trump. Her husband is a Jewish white man. Is that enough to sway some? Or, turn others off?
Very few white women- even the ones who say they are liberal- voted for Stacy Abrams when she was running for Governor of Georgia. There is still a fragile, somewhat paranoid boundary between black women and white women, a cynical mistrust.
Earlier in the month, Dianne Feinstein publicly and proudly announced she would cast her vote, when the time came, for Joe Biden, who has not officially announced his candidacy for president. The optics played like a back stab to Kamala Harris, who, at the time, had not officially announced her candidacy either, but everyone knew it was coming. It forced the Feinstein camp to came out later with a fasle and accommodating gush. “Oh, I love Kamala.”
She didn’t love her in 2004. The then District Attorney Kamala Harris pulled the death penalty off the table as her office prosecuted David Hill for the AK-47 murder of San Francisco Police Officer Isaac Espinoza. (He was murdered the day before Easter). Harris was publicly condemned for saving one life while mourning another. At Espinoza’s funeral, Dianne Feinstein stood in the pulpit and demanded that Kamala Harris change her mind. 2,000 mourners were in attendance. They gave Feinstein a standing, roaring ovation as she publicly shamed the District Attorney sitting in the front row. For many, a public stoning like Feinstein gave Harris, a senator powerfully objecting to a city district attorney, would have made them quiver.
Kamala Harris didn’t blink at the demand despite the public swell of animosity towards her. She refused to give the death penalty, despite the brutality of the Espinoza murder.
The 29-year old Espinoza was just finishing his shift when he encountered Hill who appeared suspicious. Espinoza asked him to stop. Hill didn’t. He turned. He fired 14 rounds. Two hit Espinoza, one hit his partner. Three hours later, it was Easter Sunday. Isaac Espinoza was dead.
When Kamala Harris was running for district attorney she pledged she would not seek the death penalty. And so, she didn’t.
When she ran for re-election after the Espinoza uproar, Kamala Harris ran unopposed. She leaned on her accomplishments. The felony conviction rate rose to 67% and 85% for homicides. Drug dealers went to jail 75% of the time. But she was dogged by accusations of prosecutorial misconduct on her watch- and worse- a thinning of the moral line, that when prosecutors lie or they withhold evidence to get a conviction, the end justifies the means. Check her record: she fought a court order to release inmates because of prison overcrowding. She’s complicit in wealth-based incarceration and the new Jim Crow. Justice matters as long as her side benefits.
Last week, she tweeted “to the transgender community: you deserve to move through the world with the utmost respect and dignity. You are not alone. We fight with you.” Her past reveals a mixed LGBTQ advocacy. She created a Hate Crimes Unit when she was District Attorney. She chaired a conference on the gay-transgender panic defense which was used to justify murder of LGBTQ. But she opposed giving a trans prisoner funds for sex reassignment surgery on the specious argument that hormone therapy, which the state was already providing, was enough. Either she didn’t understand the gravity of sex reassignment surgery, or, she didn’t care.
In 2015, she created the Bureau of Children’s Justice to attack the systemic problems of foster care, trauma, and truancy (but no such bureau was created to explore and revise bail and sentencing inequality). A year later, she targeted Backpage CEO Carl Ferrer, charging him with pimping and accusing him of sex trafficking minors. After she became a Senator, the FBI, the U.S. Postal service, the IRS, the Department of Justice became involved and Ferrer pled guilty to facilitating prostitution and money laundering.
She announced she was running for president on MLK Day. Some objected. King was an advocate against the prosecutorial reaches her office was known for and for which she rarely apologized. Yes, she believes in law and order. But does she believe in mercy?
Stylistically, she makes men nervous. Her Senate colleagues tried to silence her on two separate occasions, annoyed by her prosecutorial questioning and her unyielding tone. The optics were damning. White men scolding her for the very thing California voters wanted her to do in Washington in the first place. Work for justice. Be aggressive. The irony of the moment, masculine arrogance denying female empowerment like a father hushes a temperamental child, was familiar and a reminder of why Kamala Harris was elected Senator two years ago.
Hillary Clinton and Kamala Harris share many a thing. Both are lawyers and are aggressive on the topic of justice. Both were senators representing large states. Both introduced and initiated pilot programs that benefited children. Both were devoted public servants their entire adult lives. But where the commonalities end is at a familiar feminist arc. Hillary failed the art of being a submissive woman on screen and was unlikable to a horde of many, and because of the buttons she pushed that veered far from nice, respectful, courteous, she was systematically and virulently attacked. She was a trigger point. Why don’t you like her? I don’t know. I just don’t.
Kamala Harris is new to the national political scene, too new to be beloved or despised, and young in this kind of political career. Whatever her platform fleshes out to be when we reach 2020, accusations that she was, in years past, a black woman who loved locking up her own people, will drag her candidacy into the dark mud. She has to explain her prosecutorial behavior and its effect on the black and brown while District Attorney of San Francisco for seven years and Attorney General of California for six years. Her black college (Howard University) and black sorority (Alpha Kappa Alpha) inclusion doesn’t excuse or redeem her. It’s not a rationalization for extreme imprisonment of people of color.
“I am not perfect. Lord knows I am not perfect. But I will always speak with decency and moral clarity and treat all people with dignity and respect.” It was a promise made in front of 20,000 supporters in Oakland.
But what is real, separate from the venality of Donald Trump and Kamala Harris’ candidacy, is that ambitious women, competent women, confrontational women, smart women are forced into duplicity. They are required to be both the insider and the outsider, the feminine on Monday, and the aggressor on Tuesday. Asked to speak truth to power when power is misogynist or racist or rapist is one specific and brutally honest thing. Expecting to prioritize men and children first is another. In essence, be human and motherly and bestow empathy but be strategic and precise. Have soft edges. Or get dogged. Women are required to fulfill dreams men benefit from, to give in luxuriously, and then have the temerity to enjoy life as a monument. It reeks, I dare say, of contempt.
In the 24 hours after announcing her presidency, the Kamala Harris campaign raised $1.5 million. She already has a constituency. But where she has struggled in the past is her tendency to be forceful but cautious and in that way she is the opposite of the man she is trying to send back to New York and she is different from Hillary Clinton too.
A Kamala Harris candidacy means her progressive ideas are up for debate by the very people who sent Hillary Clinton to her ruin. Her niceness will be weighed and sorted just like her health policies will be judged and analyzed. Grading on the feminine curve as the media and voters like to do- even when they deny it- is a pathetic chauvinistic exercise. Hillary couldn’t pass that test and patriarchy won.
It’s the Kamala Harris challenge for the next fifteen months. Pick up the disaster of the Hillary Clinton election night while remembering these are urgent and outrageous times. Perception is reality more often than not. If voters think Kamala Harris can’t beat Trump, can’t get white women support, can’t explain her institutional support of mass incarceration, her candidacy will come to a screeching dying halt and she will be an anecdote, a trivia question, a face to a name of what happened when Kamala Harris wanted to be president.