Who is Kamala Harris?

By , K24 Digital
On Wed, 12 Aug, 2020 11:44 | 4 mins read
Kamala Harris
Democratic Party presidential candidate Joe Biden and his running mate Kamala Harris.
Democratic Party presidential candidate Joe Biden and his running mate Kamala Harris.

Months after her own presidential dreams sputtered to a halt, Kamala Harris will now get another shot at the Democratic ticket.

A year ago, the California senator had surged to the front of a crowded field of candidates on the back of a series of strong debate performances - and a searing critique of her rival Joe Biden over race. By the end of 2019, however, her campaign was dead.

Now, with Mr Biden as the presumptive Democratic nominee, the 55-year-old has been chosen as the vice-presidential pick.

Here's a look at Kamala Harris, as she faces a different type of run for the White House.

Who is Kamala Harris?

The California Democrat was born in Oakland, California, to two immigrant parents: an Indian-born mother and Jamaican-born father.

After her parent's divorce, Ms Harris was raised primarily by her Hindu single mother, Shyamala Gopalan Harris, a cancer researcher and civil rights activist.

She grew up engaged with her Indian heritage, joining her mother on visits to India, but Ms Harris has said that her mother adopted Oakland's black culture, immersing her two daughters - Kamala and her younger sister Maya - within it.

"My mother understood very well that she was raising two black daughters," she wrote in her autobiography The Truths We Hold. "She knew that her adopted homeland would see Maya and me as black girls and she was determined to make sure we would grow into confident, proud black women."

Senator Harris' early years also included a brief period in Canada. When Ms Gopalan Harris took a job teaching at McGill University, Ms Harris and her younger sister Maya went with her, attending school in Montreal for five years.

She attended college in the US, spending four years at Howard University, one of the nation's preeminent historically black colleges and universities, which she has described as among the most formative experiences of her life.

Ms Harris says she's always been comfortable with her identity and simply describes herself as "an American".

In 2019, she told the Washington Post that politicians should not have to fit into compartments because of their colour or background. "My point was: I am who I am. I'm good with it. You might need to figure it out, but I'm fine with it," she said.

Climbing the law and order ranks

After four years at Howard, Ms Harris went on to earn her law degree at the University of California, Hastings, and began her career in the Alameda County District Attorney's Office.

She became the district attorney - the top prosecutor - for San Francisco in 2003, before being elected the first woman and the first black person to serve as California's attorney general, the top lawyer and law enforcement official in America's most populous state.

In her nearly two terms in office as attorney general, Ms Harris gained a reputation as one of the Democratic party's rising stars, using this momentum to propel her election as California's junior US senator in 2017.

Since her election to the US Senate, the former prosecutor gained favour among progressives for her acerbic questioning of then-Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh and Attorney General William Barr in key Senate hearings.

White House aspirations

When she launched her candidacy for president to a crowd of more than 20,000 in Oakland, California, at the beginning of last year, her 2020 bid was met with initial enthusiasm. But the senator failed to articulate a clear rationale for her campaign, and gave muddled answers to questions in key policy areas like healthcare.

She was also unable to capitalise on the clear high point of her candidacy: debate performances that showed off her prosecutorial skills, often placing Mr Biden in the line of attack.

A California Democrat with a law enforcement resume, Ms Harris tried to walk the fine line between the progressive and moderate wings of her party, but ended up appealing to neither, ending her candidacy in December before the first Democratic contest in Iowa in early 2020.

In March, Ms Harris endorsed the former vice-president, saying she would do "everything in my power to help elect him the next President of the United States".

Her record on crime and policing

Ms Harris' 2020 run put her record as California's top prosecutor under the spotlight.

Despite leftward leanings on issues like gay marriage and the death penalty, she faced repeated attacks from progressives for not being progressive enough, and was the subject of a withering op-ed by University of San Francisco law professor Lara Bazelon.

Penned at the start of Ms Harris' campaign, Ms Bazelon wrote that Ms Harris has largely dodged progressive fights involving issues like police reform, drug reform and wrongful convictions.

The self-described "progressive prosecutor" tried to emphasise more left-leaning parts of her legacy - requiring body cameras for some special agents at the California Department of Justice, the first state agency to adopt them, and launching a database that provided public access to crime statistics - but she still failed to gain traction.

"Kamala is a cop" became a common refrain on the campaign trail, spoiling her attempts to win over the more liberal Democratic base during the primaries. But those same law enforcement credentials may prove beneficial in the general election when Democrats need to win over more moderate voters and independents.

And now, as the US grapples with an ongoing racial reckoning and there is scrutiny over police brutality, Ms Harris has taken a front row seat, using her sizable microphone to amplify progressive voices.

On talk shows, she calls for changes to police practices across the US, on Twitter, she calls for the arrests of the police officers who killed Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old African-American woman from Kentucky, and she speaks frequently about the need to dismantle systemic racism.

When it comes to the contested progressive push to "defund" the police - the call for police departments' budgets to be slashed and funds diverted to social programmes - which is opposed by Mr Biden, Ms Harris hedges, calling instead for a "reimagining" of public safety.

Ms Harris has often said that her identity makes her uniquely suited to represent those on the margins. Now that Mr Biden has named her as his running mate, she might get a chance to do just that from inside the White House.