Hours before Kamala Harris took the stage for the first time as Joe Biden’s vice presidential pick, she received a text message from a childhood classmate with photos from their school days.
In one of the pictures, a racially diverse group of first-graders are gathered in a classroom. Some had taken the bus from their homes across town to join white students from the affluent hillside neighborhoods in Berkeley, California. A pensive Harris sits on the floor, dutifully looking ahead, a child in the center of an experiment in racial integration.
“That’s how it started. There’s no question!” Harris, 55, texted back to Aaron Peskin, the former classmate who is now a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.
Fifty years after she was part of the second class to integrate Berkeley’s public schools, Harris is now the first Black woman and first Asian American woman named to a major party presidential ticket.
From her earliest years, Harris’ path toward the second-highest office in the United States has tracked the nation’s struggle for racial equality. The start-and-stop progress and sometimes messy debate have shaped her life, from an upbringing by immigrant parents, a childhood among civil rights activists, a career at the helm of a flawed criminal justice system and her rapid ascent to the top of Democratic politics.
Those experiences forged a politician who is unafraid to buck the political powers that be, but also charts a cautious course through policy debates. As a senator and candidate, she’s emerged as a leader who knows the power of tough questioning and a viral moment, and also the weight of her role as a voice for women of color.
“She’s the right thing at the right time in this country,” said Peskin. “She understands how complicated life is, and what the promises of America are.”
Harris’s political rise, while fast, has not been without criticism and setbacks.
She’s been criticized for shifting policy positions. She faced questions familiar to women in politics, particularly women of color, about her ambition. Republican President Donald Trump labeled her “nasty” for her piercing interrogation of his nominees, including now-Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. Some progressive Democrats, meanwhile, view her work as a prosecutor skeptically, questioning her use of policies they say are discriminatory.
Her own presidential bid, announced before 20,000 people in her hometown of Oakland, California, flamed out before primary season voting began. She struggled to raise money and present a clear vision.
Now she’s back in an election she calls the most consequential of her lifetime.
“My mother Shyamala raised my sister Maya and me to believe that it was up to us and every generation of Americans to keep on marching,” Harris said Wednesday in her first speech after Biden announced his selection. “She’d tell us: Don’t sit around and complain about things. Do something.”
Harris seemed bound to rise in politics from the very earliest days of her career.
She was a Howard University graduate without family wealth or high-powered ties when she returned to her native Bay Area for law school and took a job at the Alameda County District Attorney’s office in 1990. She quickly began making connections in San Francisco’s tightknit and competitive political circles.
She served on the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art board, where she reached out to Libby Schaaf, now Oakland’s mayor, who was running a volunteer program in Oakland’s public schools. They launched a mentoring program to connect inner-city students interested in fine arts with museum members, giving the kids access to one of the city’s elite institutions.
“I love to say that Kamala has been fighting for the people long before anyone was looking,” Schaaf said.
Among Harris’s friends and later political backers were members of the Getty family of oil fortunes and then-California Assembly Speaker Willie Brown. In 2001 Harris joined a group of women working to enhance their political representation in the city.
Brown, whom Harris briefly dated, appointed her to two state boards in 1994 and 1995. It was her first foray into state politics, and it came with accusations of political favoritism that would surface in 2003, when Harris made her first political run for San Francisco district attorney.
Harris, then working for the city attorney, challenged her former boss, San Francisco District Attorney Terence Hallinan. He backed legalization of medical marijuana and other progressive issues. But critics questioned his priorities. Harris tacked right on the issues to run against him, pledging to be tough on crime and repair relationships with police.
Harris had the backing of monied donors, but the public barely knew her. So she used an ironing board as a pop-up table outside grocery stores to meet voters. She promised to bring more attention to domestic violence cases and to Black mothers who had lost their children to homicide, issues she felt Hallinan was neglecting.
Debbie Mesloh, a longtime friend and adviser, said Harris cut her teeth in that first race, learning lessons that she would carry into national politics. Harris faced both the scrutiny of her personal life and the resistance to her rise as she raced past rivals from more well-connected families.
“She had to be strong, she had to be bold, she had to be ambitious,” Mesloh recalled. “There was a big question, too, of ‘Who do you think you are?’”
Harris, then 39, won handily.
Just months into her tenure, Harris decided not to seek the death penalty against a man charged with killing a police officer. That decision angered law enforcement officers and drew rebuke from Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the city’s former mayor and a force in California politics. But Harris had run as a death penalty opponent and her move made good on a campaign promise.
The issue would later fuel Harris’ reputation as a political shape-shifter. Years later, when she ran for California attorney general and needed support beyond her liberal home base, Harris tempered her stance on capital punishment.
She pledged to uphold the death penalty if elected, then stayed silent when ballot measures to repeal it went before voters in 2012 and 2016. She said it would be inappropriate to weigh in because her office was responsible for writing the measures.
In 2014, she had a chance to effectively abolish the death penalty when a federal judge said it was so rarely used that it amounted to cruel and unusual punishment for those languishing on death row. Harris appealed the decision and won, keeping capital punishment on the books. She now calls for a federal moratorium.
Observers and critics point to these episodes as evidence of Harris’s penchant for staking out cautious positions that uphold the status quo.
“There was nothing about the way she carried herself as a prosecutor, the way she handled cases, that made you say, ‘Oh wow, she’s really shaking things up,’” said John Raphling, a former public defender in California who is now a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch. But, he added, the debate over criminal justice reform was different at the time. “The whole idea of a progressive prosecutor is a pretty recent phenomenon,” he said.
Harris’ allies argue that she worked within the confines of the system and the politics of the time. Harris found ways to make change when possible, they say. As district attorney, she launched a reentry program that connected nonviolent offenders to jobs and education that became a national model.
“I remember the first time I visited the county jail. So many young men, and they were mostly Black or brown or poor,” she wrote in her 2019 book, “The Truths We Hold,” recalling her time as a young prosecutor. “They represented a living monument to lost potential, and I wanted to tear it down.”
But she also focused on issues that activists said punished poor and minority families. She took on truancy and supported a statewide law modeled on her city initiative that threatened parents with jail time, fines and lost public benefits if parents failed to send their children to school.
“We took the relationship between a school, a parent and a child — instead of making a metric out of it, to improve the opportunities to get to school, to understand the barriers to get to school — we made them criminals,” said Jessica Bartholow, a policy advocate at the Western Center on Law & Poverty.
Harris only barely won her race for state attorney general in 2010, claiming the title of California’s “top cop” during a period of rapidly shifting views on criminal justice. Soon the Black Lives Matter movement was taking hold, along with outrage over police brutality, prompted by the killings of Black people such as Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown.
Harris declined to support state legislation that would have required her office to conduct independent investigations of officer-involved shootings. While she made state law enforcement officers wear body cameras, she did not support forcing local departments to do so. As a former prosecutor, she believed the decisions were best made locally, she said.
Now Harris supports outside investigations of police shootings, one of several shifts on policing policies she’s made in the U.S. Senate.
It was also as attorney general that she became friends with then-Vice President Joe Biden’s son, Beau, who was Delaware’s attorney general.
Harris and the younger Biden worked together on a settlement with the nation’s five largest mortgage lenders following the foreclosure crisis. The deal would reduce loans for roughly 1 million households, but Harris and Biden were among the last attorneys general to sign on, arguing it let the lenders off too easily.
They talked nearly every day, Harris said, with Beau Biden supporting her decision to keep fighting despite political pressure to take the deal. Joe Biden said this past week that relationship was key in his decision to tap Harris as his running mate, and he was visibly emotional Wednesday when she talked about his son, who died of a brain tumor in 2015.
Harris won her Senate seat in 2016 as Trump won the presidency, setting off an immediate scramble among Democrats about who would run to replace him. Within a week of her swearing-in ceremony, Harris turned to her prosecutorial skills to grill retired Gen. John Kelly, then Trump’s nominee for homeland security secretary, about the new administration’s handling of some young immigrants personal information.
“We would not use this information against them?” she asked. Kelly fumbled his answer.
The moment was an early demonstration of the kind of senator Harris would be — one unafraid to battle Trump and good at creating viral moments that energized Democrats.
Nearly all of the Democratic senators joined Republicans in voting for Kelly. But Harris was among 11 Democrats, and just three first-term senators, who did not. Nathan Barankin, then Harris’s chief of staff and a longtime aide, recalled Harris making an aggressive case to her colleagues that they should not be satisfied by Kelly’s answers despite his record as a well-respected military officer.
“I don’t think there are too many freshmen that do that,” Barankin said.
Harris was quickly viewed as a Democrat with White House potential. By 2017, Harris was feeling out a run in the Democratic primary. It wasn’t her initial plan, Barankin said, but Trump’s brief tenure had convinced her that perspective, particularly as a Black woman, should be represented in the Democratic primary field.
That perspective was steeped in Harris’s upbringing by two immigrant parents.
Her father, Donald Harris, who is of Afro Caribbean descent, left Jamaica to study economics at the University of California at Berkeley. Shyamala Gopalan, the daughter of an Indian diplomat who had fought for India’s independence, came to Berkeley for graduate school and stayed.
The couple had two daughters, Kamala Devi and Maya Lakshmi. The parents told their daughters stories, she writes in her book, of being met by police with fire hoses as they marched for civil rights and against the Vietnam War, of meeting Martin Luther King Jr. when he spoke at Berkeley, of forming reading groups to study Black intellectuals.
The couple split soon after Harris started school. The girls continued to see their father, but Gopalan became the main force in their lives. They moved to the Montreal area for several years while she worked at McGill University.
In Berkeley, Gopalan immersed the girls in the Black community she and her ex-husband had embraced. They lived above a daycare center with posters of Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman on the walls, even as they celebrated their South Asian heritage through their names, their close ties with their mother’s family in India and occasional visits to her homeland.
They attended a Pentacostal church on Sundays and, on Thursdays, a Black cultural space called the Rainbow Sign that was a gathering spot for artists, intellectuals and activists. Many of her mother’s closest friends were Black men and women who became “aunts and uncles” to the girls, later influencing Harris’s decision to attend a historically Black university, Harris said.
“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,” Harris wrote of her mother.
At Howard, Harris joined Alpha Kappa Alpha, the nation’s oldest sorority for Black women. Its network, along with those of eight other Black fraternities and sororities known as the Divine Nine, now offers Harris a powerful base of support.
She’ll also have her sister, Maya, who has been one of her closest advisors, and husband, entertainment lawyer Doug Emhoff, who led a band of Harris supporters known as the #Khive during her presidential primary bid. The couple married in 2014, after her friend set them up on a date. His two adult children call her “Momala,” a play on her name and the Yiddish word for “little mother.”
Harris also bolstered her assets with the marriage, according to Senate finance records. She earns $174,000 from the Senate and reported an additional $277,000 in income from book advances in 2019. But their combined net worth, excluding real estate, ranges from $2.8 million to as much as $6.3 million, the records show.
Harris, mindful of her history-making role, on Friday called Biden bold for choosing a Black woman to join him on the ticket.
“I have not achieved anything that I have without the support of many who believed in the possibility of someone who has never been there before,” she said in an interview with the news outlet The 19th.