Sen. Kamala Harris on Tuesday became the first Black and South Asian American woman chosen for national office by a major political party, when former Vice President Joe Biden named the moderate former prosecutor to be his running mate this fall.
Harris, 55, has spent her career breaking barriers.
In California, she was the first woman, and first Black woman, to serve as the state’s top law enforcement official. She is the first Black woman from California to serve in the US Senate, and second from any state, after Illinois’ Carol Moseley Braun. Harris is also the first person of Indian descent to appear on a presidential ticket.
And if Biden defeats President Donald Trump in November, Harris would become the first woman in US history to serve as vice president.
Harris follows Democrat Geraldine Ferraro, in 1984, and Republican Sarah Palin, in 2008, as only the third woman to be chosen as the running mate on a presidential ticket. Both of those campaigns lost to icons of the opposing parties – Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama, respectively.
During the Democratic presidential primary, Harris, who would drop out before the first round of voting, often found herself stuck in between the Democratic Party’s progressive wing, led by Sens. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, and its moderate establishment, headlined by Biden. The left criticized Harris’ record on criminal justice, from her election as district attorney in San Francisco to her time as California’s attorney general.
Those concerns were amplified after Harris’ spectacular entry into the race in January 2019, when her announcement was greeted by an adoring crowd of 20,000 outdoors in Oakland, California. Her campaign would become the most expansively waged by any Black woman in American political history. Decades after Shirley Chisholm ran for president in 1972, Harris amassed more than $35 million dollars over 11 months, despite the challenges that Black women candidates face raising in money.
Harris spent her childhood in that cradle of American left-wing activism: Berkeley and Oakland, where she was born in 1964. Her mother was a cancer researcher and her father, who is of Jamaican descent, a professor of economics – both were involved in the Civil Rights movement and Harris, along with her younger sister, Maya, who chaired her presidential campaign, have spoken about growing up in a world of activism.
After their parents divorced, the Harris sisters moved with their mother, Shyamala Gopalan Harris, to Canada, after Gopalan took a position teaching at McGill University and continued her cancer research at Jewish General Hospital in Montreal, where Harris would graduate high school. Harris had an especially close relationship to her mother, which she has discussed often in public.
“My mother, she raised my sister Maya and me, and she was tough,” Harris once said of Gopalan, an acclaimed breast cancer researcher who died in 2009. “Our mother was all of 5 feet tall, but if you ever met her, you would’ve thought she was 10 feet tall.”
Harris attended Howard University in Washington, DC, a leading historically black college and university. There, she joined the Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, the country’s oldest Black sorority.
In June 2009, Harris spoke about her experience at Howard in a campaign video.
“At an HBCU, a young person is shown that they can be anything. You step out of the minority and you become the majority,” Harris said. “Everything tells you exactly what Aretha (Franklin) told us: You are young, gifted and Black.”
After graduating from Howard, Harris returned west, where she attended the UC-Hastings College of the Law, before setting off on a career as a prosecutor in Northern California, which eventually led her into politics and, by 2003, Harris had been elected district attorney in San Francisco.
Harris’ record in San Francisco and then as California attorney general, the top law enforcement official in the state, came under close scrutiny during the run-up to the 2020 primary. She has described herself as a “progressive prosecutor” and won her first term as district attorney on a platform opposing capital punishment – a position, even in one of the most liberal cities in America, that would lead to an early clash with local and state leaders.
Shortly after she took office, Harris announced she would not seek the death penalty against a suspect accused of killing a police officer. Speaking at his funeral, Harris’ future colleague, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, called for the death penalty. The dispute opened a rift between Harris and some police leaders, but she would mend those fences over the coming years, as she walked a narrow line in advancing her trailblazing political career.
Her criminal justice record came under heavy scrutiny during her presidential run, with advocates and progressive activists questioning a series of decisions she made during her time as a prosecutor. In 2014, as California attorney general, she launched an appeal against a federal judge’s ruling, which she called “flawed,” that the state’s implementation of the death penalty was unconstitutional.
A year later, she chose not to support a push by the Legislative Black Caucus to require all police officers wear body cameras, though she would eventually mandate all her office’s agents to use them, and pushed back against calls for her office to probe all deadly police-involved shootings, saying that decision should be kept in the hands of local prosecutors.
In her first speech upon becoming attorney general, she also expressed support for a new California state law that would impose fines, and potential jail time, on the parents of chronically truant young students – a tactic she had embraced as San Francisco’s top prosecutor.
“As unacceptable as this problem is – I know we can fix it,” Harris said in her inaugural speech. “In San Francisco, we threatened the parents of truants with prosecution, and truancy dropped 32 percent. So, we are putting parents on notice. If you fail in your responsibility to your kids, we are going to work to make sure you face the full force and consequences of the law.”
Last April, Harris in an interview with the liberal podcasters at “Pod Save America,” expressed remorse over the practice.
“My regret is that I have now heard stories where, in some jurisdictions, DAs have criminalized the parents. And I regret that that has happened,” Harris said. “And the thought that anything that I did could have led to that, because that certainly was not the intention – never was the intention. Never was the intention.”
Harris has been more inclined to discuss her role in a $25 billion national settlement with the big banks in response to their practices during a housing and foreclosure crisis.
On the stump and during her run for Senate in 2016, Harris touted her role in that tough negotiation with the nation’s five largest mortgage service firms, including JPMorgan Chase and Citigroup, and her work to strengthen – with mixed results – protections for homeowners targeted by predatory lenders.
Harris pulled California out of the 2011 talks during a crucial moment, arguing that the deal coming into sight at the time – hammered out with other state attorneys general – was not strict enough on the banks, a decision that earned her praise at the time and in the years after from Elizabeth Warren, who would go on to be her Senate colleague and a 2020 presidential rival.
During that period, Harris also became close with Biden’s older son, Beau, who was Delaware’s attorney general during the talks.
“We had each other’s backs,” Harris wrote of Beau Biden in a 2019 memoir.
“There were periods, when I was taking the heat, when Beau and I talked every day,” Harris recalled, “sometimes multiple times a day.”
That relationship endured, Harris and others have said, until Beau Biden’s death in 2015. When Harris attacked Joe Biden in pointed terms over his record on race issues, including his position on desegregation busing in the 1970s, during a primary debate last year, there were suggestions that the families’ bonds had frayed.
In an interview with CNN after the debate, Biden confessed that he had been taken aback by Harris’ words.
“I was prepared for them to come after me,” Biden said. “But I wasn’t prepared for the person coming at me the way she came after me. She knew Beau, she knows me.”