The 2016 race to replace four-term U.S. senator Barbara Boxer of California, one of Congress’s most liberal politicians, appears likely to result in the election of an even more liberal successor: state attorney general Kamala Harris. In an increasingly polyglot state that exalts appearance and symbolism over substance, the ever-stylish and multiracial Harris—she is the daughter of an Indian mother and a Jamaican-American father—finds herself in the right place at the right time. She’s enjoyed a meteoric rise in California politics—the first woman, African-American, or Asian-American elected as the state’s top law-enforcement officer. Whether the Senate will be a political stepping-stone for Harris or a final destination depends on how credibly she portrays herself as a politician with national stature. Her fans compare her with President Barack Obama; her detractors do the same.

Now 51, Harris cruised to reelection as attorney general in 2014, after eking out a close victory over Los Angeles County district attorney Steve Cooley in 2010. (Before becoming attorney general, she served two terms as district attorney of San Francisco, where she unseated popular incumbent Terence Hallinan.) The outcome of the 2010 contest, which took nearly a month to resolve, was decided by just 74,000 out of 8.8 million votes, or a margin of 0.8 percent—one of the closest statewide elections in California history. Cooley, a moderate Republican, had been the front-runner in most preelection polls, and he even declared victory on election night. But the results proved too close to call, and Harris eventually prevailed when all provisional and mail-in ballots were counted. And so a position formerly held by Republican law-and-order stalwarts such as George Deukmejian and Dan Lungren, as well as a relatively tough-on-crime liberal like Jerry Brown, fell into the hands of an outspoken opponent of capital punishment whose campaign drew almost no law-enforcement support.

Belying the “aspiring governor” nickname for state attorneys general, Harris set her sights on the Senate early in 2015, when the 75-year-old Boxer announced that she would retire rather than seek a fifth term in office. California’s liberal hegemony means that the establishment Democrat who wins the primary election this June is practically assured of victory in the November general election. Democrats routinely win statewide contests by more than 1 million votes. The last Republican governor was uber-celebrity Arnold Schwarzenegger, first elected in 2003 by a plurality to replace the reviled Gray Davis in an unusual recall election. So far, Harris’s only Democratic competition is Loretta Sanchez, a Latina congresswoman from Orange County with little hope of winning. In her ten terms in Congress, Sanchez has earned a reputation as a backbencher prone to gaffes, including scheduling a fund-raiser at the Playboy Mansion and allegedly mocking Native Americans with a “whooping” gesture, reminiscent of a crude war cry. A potentially more formidable opponent for Harris, Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom, declined to run, likely eyeing the governorship in 2018.

The Republican Party is currently so weak in California, and the declared GOP candidates for Boxer’s seat so unimposing, that Harris will probably face Sanchez again in the November general election. (The state’s open primary system means that the top two primary vote-getters run against each other, regardless of party affiliation.) Early on, Harris won the endorsement of Massachusetts’s progressive heroine Elizabeth Warren, prompting MSNBC pundit Lawrence O’Donnell to declare: “Kamala Harris has this thing won.” Harris also received the endorsement of the influential Spanish-language newspaper La Opinión and of the formidable Emily’s List, a national fund-raising organization for pro-choice women candidates. Thus, the path is clear for Harris to succeed Boxer in the Senate—and from there, who knows? Even before Harris had announced her Senate bid, the commentariat floated her name as a possible cabinet secretary and future Supreme Court justice. Her name even pops up as a someday presidential contender.

But first, what type of senator would Harris be, if elected? She’s not a scrapper or a yeller like Boxer. Nor does she display the independence—let alone the occasional fit of moderation—of California’s senior senator, 82-year-old Dianne Feinstein. Impeccably dressed, usually adorned with a string of pearls, Harris cuts an attractive figure. President Obama sheepishly apologized in 2013 for calling her “by far the best-looking attorney general in the country.” But the Senate is full of inflated egos and preening peacocks, so Harris’s fashion sense and glamorous mien won’t suffice to distinguish her in the upper chamber.

Lacking prior legislative experience, and with a résumé short on federal issues, Harris will have to work hard and display smarts to stand out. So far, she has shown little appetite or aptitude for imaginative initiatives; she prefers to take predictable (and not particularly cerebral) positions on the issues, reflexively advocating the interests of immigrants, unions, and trial lawyers. As The Economist noted, “She offers few bold or risky ideas.” The Washington press corps will be harder to impress and less forgiving of mistakes than the California reporters she has charmed up to now. While surpassing Boxer in effectiveness isn’t an especially high bar, Harris might be hard-pressed to do it.

Yet Harris is nothing if not ambitious and opportunistic. Early in her career, the 29-year-old Harris dated California Assembly Speaker Willie Brown, who was 60 at the time—and married. (Brown went on to become San Francisco’s first black mayor after term limits ended his storied run as “Speaker for Life” in Sacramento.) As speaker, Brown appointed Harris—then a young deputy district attorney in Alameda County—to high-profile, lucrative positions on the state’s Unemployment Insurance Appeals Board and the California Medical Assistance Commission. These cushy sinecures paid her more than $400,000 between 1994 and 1999.

After Brown and Harris split, Brown continued to support her politically, using his mayoral perch to help her become San Francisco’s first black (and first female) district attorney. To get there, she took out Terence Hallinan, “an old lefty firebrand” and two-term incumbent seemingly perfectly suited to the City by the Bay. Hallinan’s political fate was sealed in 2002, however, when he indicted the San Francisco Police Department’s police chief and nine senior officers in a scandal that the local media dubbed “Fajitagate.” Hallinan claimed that the department’s leadership covered up a deputy chief’s son’s involvement in an alleged fight and theft at a Mexican restaurant. Eventually, most of the charges were dropped, the two officers put on trial were acquitted, and an embarrassed Hallinan lost his reelection bid to Harris by 12 points.

The Washington Post has called Harris “the next Barack Obama,” and the two have many things in common: they’re about the same age, were both trained as lawyers and activists, and exude a certain movie-star charisma, at least to liberal supporters. Like Obama’s parents, Harris’s divorced when she was young, and both Obama and Harris grew up in comfortable circumstances. Harris’s father, Donald, was one of the first black economics professors at Stanford. It’s no surprise that Harris became the first public official in California to endorse Obama for president. Further, Harris’s younger sister, Maya, the former head of the Northern California chapter of the ACLU, is married to Tony West, who served as one of Eric Holder’s chief lieutenants at the Justice Department. Harris lacks Obama’s rhetorical skills, however. Her prime-time speech at the 2012 Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, elicited lukewarm reviews, and she seldom strays from prepared remarks. Nor can Harris boast Obama’s Ivy League credentials. She earned her undergraduate degree from the historically black Howard University and graduated from the University of California’s second-tier Hastings College of Law in San Francisco.

Like Obama, though, Harris is a committed progressive. She’s a reliable supporter of liberal policies and—as Obama did when he sought the presidency—generally avoids high-profile controversies, maintaining a “centrist” public image (by California standards). For example, she has declined to take a position on Governor Jerry Brown’s much-derided Los Angeles–to–San Francisco high-speed rail project, which will cost at least $68 billion, according to recent estimates.

Harris’s political caution doesn’t always trump her deep-seated progressive instincts. She made a potentially disastrous misstep early in her tenure as San Francisco D.A., when she decided not to seek the death penalty for a cop killer. In 2004, during a routine traffic stop, a black gang member, David Hill, ambushed a popular young SFPD officer, Isaac Espinoza, gunning him down with an AK-47 assault rifle. Espinoza, who left behind a wife and young daughter, had no chance even to draw his weapon; his partner was wounded but recovered. The San Francisco Police Officers Association, which had endorsed Harris in 2003, vigorously opposed her decision. In her campaign for D.A., Harris had run as an opponent of capital punishment, contending that it gets applied disproportionately to members of minority groups. Yet even anti-death-penalty liberals often make an exception for cop killers. Not Harris. Spurning pleas from Espinoza’s family, she said: “I approach the work of being a prosecutor as the responsibility to do justice. It’s not about the responsibility to lock people up for the maximum amount of time. It is the responsibility to make sure the criminal justice system has integrity.” Harris’s stand probably would have derailed the career of a district attorney in any other city in California.

California attorney general Bill Lockyer (a liberal Democrat) reviewed Harris’s decision but didn’t overturn it, concluding that she hadn’t abused her prosecutorial discretion—though he noted that he would have sought a death sentence if he were the D.A. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer publicly disagreed with Harris’s decision. Boxer went so far as to urge that Hill be prosecuted under federal death-penalty laws. Even Gavin Newsom, San Francisco’s mayor at the time, said that the case “rattled” his opposition to capital punishment. But Harris, while damaged by the case, didn’t lose the support of San Francisco’s famously liberal voters.

Harris’s dogged refusal to seek the death penalty led to further controversy in 2009, when she announced that she would seek life imprisonment, rather than capital punishment, against Edwin Ramos, an illegal alien from El Salvador and MS-13 gang member who murdered a father and two of his sons in a drive-by shooting the year before (a third son, critically wounded, survived). The victims were returning home from a family picnic when Ramos opened fire, apparently mistaking them for gang rivals.

Harris tried to overcome the soft-on-crime stigma by prosecuting more murderers than had her predecessor, who relied more often on plea bargains. She launched heavily hyped anticrime initiatives such as “Back on Track,” which reportedly reduced the recidivism rate for certain categories of offenders (including some illegal aliens) by providing job training and education in lieu of incarceration. Even so, under Harris, the San Francisco district attorney’s incarceration rates—the number of prison terms per arrest—were among California’s slightest, fully ten times lower than in San Diego County.

As liberal as Californians may be otherwise, they have often favored tough-on-crime policies, including the death penalty. In 2012, for instance, Golden State voters defeated Proposition 54, which would have abolished capital punishment. Yet despite Harris’s apparent laxity toward criminals, voters narrowly elected her to the attorney general’s office in 2010.

California has never had an attorney general less interested in punishing criminals. Harris has continued to manifest her hostility to capital punishment. In 2014, when a federal district judge in Orange County, Cormac Carney, quixotically ruled California’s death penalty unconstitutional because of delays and uncertainty (only 13 inmates have been executed since 1978, out of hundreds on death row), Harris didn’t publicly condemn the risible decision. She grudgingly decided to appeal, but only on the grounds that she was obligated to do so by “professional duty.”

In 2014, every professional law-enforcement organization in California and 55 of 58 county district attorneys opposed Proposition 47, a ballot measure that, by reducing several felony offenses to misdemeanors, would result in thousands of prisoners going free. Harris refused to take a position one way or the other. Prop. 47 passed. Predictably, crime in California has increased; but so far, Harris has taken no action to reform the ill-conceived measure. Instead, a group of district attorneys led by San Bernardino County’s Mike Ramos are working to repeal Prop. 47. (Ramos, a Republican, announced in January 2015 that he would run to replace Harris.) Harris similarly infuriated law-enforcement agencies in 2015 when she decided not to enforce a provision of Proposition 83, a measure that voters passed in 2006 to bar the state’s approximately 6,000 paroled sex offenders from living within 2,000 feet of schools and parks. The California Supreme Court had ruled that the residency restrictions violated the constitutional rights of sex offenders living in San Diego County because of a dearth there of “compliant housing.” The court declined to rule on the legality of the restrictions in the state’s 57 other counties. Harris, however, concluded that the residency restrictions were invalid everywhere—and then refused to make public her legal reasoning. She unilaterally waived legal restrictions supported by more than 70 percent of California voters, without a word of explanation.

The attorney general has also refused to enforce federal immigration laws, vigorously defending San Francisco’s sanctuary-city ordinance and opposing California’s participation in the federal Secure Communities program, which requires local authorities to detain criminal suspects for deportation if they’re illegal aliens. Even in the wake of the highly publicized killing in 2015 of Kate Steinle by Jose Francisco Lopez-Sanchez, an illegal alien from Mexico with a string of prior felonies and five previous deportations, Harris wouldn’t criticize San Francisco Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi for his earlier refusal to deliver Lopez-Sanchez to the immigration authorities. In contrast to San Francisco mayor Ed Lee and Senator Feinstein, who lambasted Mirkarimi, Harris insisted that he acted legally and “within his discretion.” “What needs to be looked at,” she told the San Francisco Chronicle, “is comprehensive immigration reform.” Harris added: “Immigration policy in our country has to be reformed, and it has to be based on the fact that we have 11 million undocumented in this country—and California has the largest numbers of undocumented, in excess of 2 million people. In California, one in two Californians was born outside the United States, or has a parent born outside the U.S.—including myself.” In response to Donald Trump’s criticism of illegal immigration, Harris declared, “an undocumented immigrant is not a criminal”—ignoring the fact that being “undocumented” in the United States is, in fact, a federal crime.

In a strikingly left-of-center intervention in 2014, Harris agreed to a settlement with Rodney Quine, a litigious transgender prisoner serving a life sentence for murder without possibility of parole, allowing him to have a costly sex-change operation at taxpayer expense. Quine’s attorneys argued that forcing him to retain the genitals he was born with while in prison violated the Eighth Amendment’s ban on “cruel and unusual punishment.” Harris praised the settlement as “an important step forward in the ongoing effort to protect transgender rights in California.” Nearly 400 male prisoners in California currently taking female hormones may now be eligible for such operations in the future, if recommended by medical experts.

Beyond law-enforcement issues, Harris has been a reliable advocate for the progressive agenda. She favors gun control and has criticized Congress for failing to pass restrictive legislation following the mass shooting at Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, in 2012. As district attorney, Harris filed an amicus brief with the U.S. Supreme Court in District of Columbia v. Heller, arguing that the Second Amendment does not protect an individual’s right to own firearms.

After she became state attorney general, Harris continued her predecessor Jerry Brown’s refusal to defend on appeal Proposition 8, a voter-approved state constitutional amendment supporting traditional marriage, because of her personal disagreement with it. The measure’s proponents had to litigate the appeal on their own. In Hollingsworth v. Perry (2013), the U.S. Supreme Court then ruled that the proponents lacked the “standing” to defend the law on appeal, which left in place a federal district court ruling that the amendment was unconstitutional. The Los Angeles Times astutely noted that Prop. 8 “died only for lack of a defender, not because the court reached the serious constitutional questions at the heart of it.”

Harris has shown disdain for California’s initiative process in other ways. One of the attorney general’s responsibilities is assigning a short name and description for proposed ballot initiatives, ahead of the signature-gathering process. The name and description are supposed to be accurate and unbiased. When citizen-driven initiatives have run counter to certain Democratic special interests, however, Harris has been willing to cast them in a negative light, to hamper their chances—as she did for a recent pension-reform initiative, sponsored by former San Jose mayor Chuck Reed and former San Diego city councilman Carl DeMaio. The measure would have required voter approval for defined-benefit pension plans for future public employees, which drive up public costs by guaranteeing pension returns, regardless of market conditions. Harris issued a misleading description suggesting that the measure “eliminates constitutional protections” for current employees, among them “those working in K–12 schools, higher education, hospitals, and police protection.” Reed and DeMaio withdrew the measure rather than promote it under such a misleading description.

Harris has used her authority over the initiative process to put her thumb on the scale in favor of Democratic Party interests, as well. In 2014, she sanitized the trial-lawyer-backed Proposition 46, a transparent attempt to remove the cap on noneconomic damages in medical malpractice cases put into place by the landmark Medical Injury Compensation Reform Act of 1975. Harris’s deceptive ballot description characterized the measure as requiring “drug and alcohol testing of doctors,” but voters overwhelmingly rejected the ploy. Even liberal newspapers such as the San Francisco Chronicle criticized Harris’s manipulation of Prop. 46. “Voters should not be fooled by the title and summary put together by Attorney General Kamala Harris’s office that focuses on the testing as if it were the centerpiece of the measure,” the paper editorialized. “It is not. (Harris has been a less-than-stellar steward of ballot titles and summaries throughout her term, often skewing them with loaded language for political effect. Her descriptions of everything from pension reforms to tax increases have been so egregiously unfair that they raise the question of whether the responsibility should rest with a less-partisan officeholder).” The more conservative San Diego Union-Tribune accused Harris of “intentionally deceiving” voters “by highlighting one of the fig leaves that trial lawyers attached to the measure to hide their real intent. It’s in keeping with her long history of using misleading ballot titles and summaries to help measures her allies like and hurt measures they don’t.” Not often is a statewide elected official pilloried by both ends of the political spectrum in the Golden State.

As her intervention with Prop. 46 suggests, Harris enthusiastically curries favor with labor unions. For example, her position grants Harris broad authority to review and approve transactions involving nonprofit hospitals, and she has used that power to protect unionized employees at the expense of fiscal sanity. The nonprofit Daughters of Charity in Los Angeles County run six hospitals in low-income urban areas, including a well-trafficked trauma unit that handles the highest rate of gunshot and stab wounds in the county. With a largely uninsured clientele and high labor costs, the hospitals lose about $10 million a month and are headed for bankruptcy. The Daughters of Charity found a buyer for the hospitals: for-profit operator Prime Healthcare, which specializes in pulling troubled hospitals into the black. But hospital employees, represented by the powerful Service Employees International Union—which has endorsed Harris for the Senate—were unwilling to make concessions to Prime Healthcare. At SEIU’s behest, Harris imposed more than 300 conditions on the sale, requiring Prime Healthcare to continue all existing services for ten years, in order to protect union jobs. Prime officials complained that “the attorney general is telling Prime Healthcare to operate the hospitals exactly as [Daughters of Charity] has and expect different results.” Prime Healthcare abandoned its $834 million bid but has filed suit against Harris, alleging that the conditions she imposed were a quid pro quo for SEIU’s financial support. The Daughters of Charity reapplied with the state last August, this time in a proposed deal with New York–based BlueMountain Capital Management, a hedge fund. On December 3, Harris put similar conditions on the proposed investment by BlueMountain, which chose to proceed with a three-year option to purchase despite the conditions. The long-term viability of the hospitals remains in doubt.

In 2014, Harris and her union allies supported legislation (SB 1094) that would have made the A.G.’s authority over such transactions essentially unlimited, final, and unreviewable. The state legislature—beholden to organized labor—obligingly passed the law. Governor Brown vetoed the bill, explaining that the existing regulatory scheme—in place for “nearly two decades” and subject to judicial review—was working fine.

Polls for the 2016 Senate race show Harris leading Sanchez, 30 percent to 17 percent, among likely voters (followed by Republican state assemblyman Rocky Chavez, with 9 percent). Harris has raised $6 million for her run so far, compared with Sanchez’s roughly $1 million and Chavez’s paltry $100,000. With a statewide media presence, Harris has a significant edge over Sanchez, who competes for attention with roughly two dozen other members of Congress in the Los Angeles media market.

In September 2015, Harris exploited that advantage by announcing an investigation into Volkswagen’s use of fraudulent diesel-emission devices to defeat smog tests. Earlier in the year, she launched a high-profile investigation of Michael Peevey, who had resigned as president of the California Public Utilities Commission after 12 years. Peevey allegedly offered leniency to Pacific Gas & Electric in exchange for donations to political causes of his choosing when he oversaw the commission’s inquiry into a 2010 PG&E pipeline explosion that killed eight people. Angry voters respond well to prosecutors pursuing white-collar miscreants. Meantime, Harris touts her progressive policy agenda, including support for expanding access to family leave, sick days, and preschool child care, all popular items among California voters. Harris also favors amnesty for illegal immigrants, a higher federal minimum wage, greater protection of “abortion rights,” and an end to the federal ban on medical marijuana.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of Harris’s Senate bid is the extent to which political commentators and once-inquisitive reporters are willing to overlook her performance and repeated betrayals of her oath, while obsessing about her good looks, Chanel handbags, and Manolo Blahnik shoes. The media’s obeisance to identity politics puts Harris in an enviable position. California is poised to elect a candidate to the left of Barbara Boxer and more nakedly ambitious than Hillary Clinton (whom Harris has endorsed for president). Yet interviewers focus on the trivial. “I desperately want her wardrobe,” enthused Dana Perino in Harper’s Bazaar. Another adoring interviewer cooed, “I’m a little embarrassed to admit how much I like Kamala Harris,” littering a puff piece with adjectives such as “gorgeous,” “personally dazzling,” and “inspiring.” We have not seen such starstruck credulity since Barack Obama emerged on the national scene in 2008 and Chris Matthews admitted that he “felt this thrill going up my leg.” In this respect, Harris is indeed the female Obama—one whose poor track record in public office needs much greater scrutiny as she prepares to assume the national stage.

Photo: The glamorous attorney general has been a relentless activist for left-wing causes. (MARCIO JOSE SANCHEZ/AP PHOTO)


City Journal is a publication of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research (MI), a leading free-market think tank. Are you interested in supporting the magazine? As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, donations in support of MI and City Journal are fully tax-deductible as provided by law (EIN #13-2912529).

Further Reading

Up Next