Kamala Harris's tenure as California's 32nd attorney general
got off to a shaky start. In fact, on election night her opponent, Los Angeles District Attorney Steve Cooley, actually declared victory. Harris was trailing by several thousand votes at the time - and it took another three weeks to count the remaining ballots and prove she had won, albeit by a fraction of a percentage point.
By that point Harris, now 47, had been the DA of San Francisco for almost eight years. Though her candidacy clearly brought both glamour and charm to the campaign, she also carried the political baggage of being a liberal, anti-death penalty, Bay Area native who at times clashed with her own city's police force. That largely explains why she had to sweat out one of the closest elections in state history in a year that saw Democrats win every other statewide race comfortably.
After Cooley finally conceded defeat, Harris seemed eager to make the most of her new office. She assembled an unusually large transition team of more than 400 people to help define her agenda. By contrast, when Arnold Schwarzenegger became governor in 2003 he invited fewer than 70 supporters to assist him, and after Jerry Brown was elected AG in 2006 he had no formal transition team at all. But Harris's group didn't just have numbers, it also packed star power - it included a who's who of big-name lawyers, a police chief, a school superintendent, and even two former secretaries of state.
"These were experts in their fields, and they were not just there in name only, they were engaged," Harris enthused one recent afternoon. "It was fabulous."
But even some of Harris's closest allies say that while her transition team may have been impressive, her actual transition into office was anything but. Though no one was willing to speak on the record, several knowledgeable sources described an atmosphere of discontent within the agency over her leadership style and concern among Democratic political operatives over the slow pace of her adjustment to the job. One high-level supporter blamed these troubles on the breadth of her ambition.
"There needs to be focus that, in the minds of some, does not yet exist. The really good AGs figure out what they're going to focus on. They don't abandon everything else, but they put most of their efforts into two or three things."
In September, however, Harris's public fortunes took a dramatic turn when she rejected a national settlement proposal the Justice Department had struck with the country's five largest mortgage servicers - Bank of America, JP Morgan Chase, Wells Fargo, Citi, and Ally Financial - over alleged foreclosure abuses. Although the move may have irritated her allies in the Obama administration, Harris was widely celebrated for standing up for her state's distressed homeowners. (A handful of other AGs - including New York's Eric Schneiderman - joined her in holding out for better terms.) By February the final settlement offer not only added billions to the pot but also denied banks the immunity that they had sought from further prosecution under California's False Claims Act.
"What she did was extraordinary," declared Los Angeles attorney and Democratic Party stalwart Thomas V. Girardi, after the deal was done. "Here she is, this young woman against all these old guys with gray hair on the other side, and she got the best deal for California."
Even some Republicans began to sing her praises. "We don't necessarily agree on all the policy issues," allowed Ventura County District Attorney Gregory Totten, who had backed Cooley for AG. "But one of the things she's doing an outstanding job on is the issue of mortgage fraud. To have the courage to walk away from the settlement that wasn't going to be the best for California, that's what I would want the attorney general to do."
As the daughter of a Jamaican-born father and an Indian-born mother,
Harris knows what it means to be a pioneer. But apart from her status as both the first woman and the first person of color to be California's AG, her background as a career prosecutor no doubt defines her best. (The last career prosecutor to be elected attorney general in the state was John Van de Kamp, whose tenure ended in 1991.)
"The beauty of these [prosecutorial] positions," Harris observes, "is that you've got a carrot and a stick. Hopefully, we can encourage people with a carrot, but we also have a stick. We hate to pull it out too often, but when we have to we will."
Of course, as the DA of San Francisco, Harris was hardly immune to criticism. One of the more common refrains was that she had a habit of "pleading out" too many defendants, while at the same time cherry-picking cases for trial that would boost her conviction rates. (Harris countered at the time that she was simply making the best use of the office's limited resources.)
She was also given credit for several policy innovations in San Francisco. Her alternative-sentencing and job-training program called "Back on Track" won praise for lowering recidivism rates among first-time drug offenders, though it attracted controversy after reports surfaced that several undocumented immigrants had been given slots.
"She's a very creative thinker," says Tim Silard, Harris's former chief of policy as DA. He remembers how she would pull out a stack of legal pads and literally draw up new programs from scratch - a practice that she has brought with her to the AG's office. "It's the way I think," she explains. "I'm big on flow charts and outlines."
Since her days as district attorney, Harris has tacked to the right on some issues. For example, when she was DA she received a great deal of heat for refusing to seek the death penalty for a man accused of killing a police officer. But as a candidate for AG, she pledged not to interfere with the agency's work on capital crimes. And by all accounts, she has followed through on that promise since taking office.
"I can tell you as a prosecutor that we have not seen any change whatsoever in the handling of death penalty cases," says Ventura County's Totten. He cited Harris's retention of longtime death-penalty litigator Dane Gillette as one of her chief deputies as "a sign that she has sent to prosecutors across the state that she is still going to do her job regardless of what her personal philosophy is."
Moreover, a spokesman for her office recently indicated that she is not taking a position on any ballot initiatives at this point, including the November measure to repeal the death penalty.
Her expressed support for California's medical marijuana statute has also become more complicated since her election. During her AG campaign, pro-cannabis groups mounted an aggressive get-out-the-vote effort on her behalf that was undoubtedly crucial to her victory. But as federal authorities ramped up their raids on California marijuana dispensaries last year Harris, in the eyes of many advocates, reacted far too passively. In December she issued a statement calling on the Legislature to clarify the state's medical marijuana laws. However, four months later she said nothing when federal agents effectively shut down Oaksterdam University, the downtown Oakland trade school for the medical marijuana industry.
"I think her inaction emboldened the U.S. Attorneys to say, 'It looks like we can do what we want,' " says Dale Sky Jones, who ran the Oaksterdam facility. "Our community took pride in helping get her elected. We brought a lot of people to the polls.
"This is a devastating blow to downtown Oakland," Jones adds in reference to the Oaksterdam shutdown. "She should be shouting through a megaphone about this."
Meanwhile, Harris has also had to deal with California's deepening budget crisis, which last June hit the Justice Department hard when Gov. Jerry Brown announced a series of cuts to its law enforcement divisions totaling $71 million. Harris had virtually no support from law enforcement during her election campaign, and now she faced the prospect of having to lay off hundreds of investigators who work with local agencies to coordinate task forces and other operations. In the end, Harris and her staff were able to restore a majority of those positions, but it required a time-consuming lobbying effort.
"I spent months and months dealing with the budget issue," says Suzy Loftus, one of Harris's top deputies. "The other work I do has to do with human trafficking, but I couldn't get to that until we were done with the budget."
"It was a crazy year," Loftus adds with a weary grin. "It was like building an airplane while you're taking off."
Even before the 2010 election, Harris had become something of a national figure.
When she was still DA of San Francisco, Newsweek
named her one of the 20 most powerful women in America. And more than a full year before she became AG, journalist Gwen Ifill, appearing on the Late Show with David Letterman
, famously touted her as "the female Barack Obama."
"She has all the advantages and disadvantages of being perceived as the next star," observes the same supporter who was concerned about her early lack of focus. "The advantages come with publicity, ability to raise money, media coverage, and the talent that's attracted to her. The disadvantages are: She has very little room for error, and other pols will look very closely at what she's doing."
As a consequence of that heightened scrutiny, perhaps, Harris is noticeably guarded in her relations with the press. Unlike her predecessor Brown, who is known for speaking off-the-cuff, Harris tends to maintain a professional coolness in her public appearances. And though she hardly hides herself from the media, since taking statewide office she has rarely granted interviews that stray beyond well-defined topics. For this story, it took months of persistence to schedule a general interview - and in the end her staff agreed to only 30 minutes.
"Kamala is not someone who is just going to tell you everything about herself," says civil rights attorney Eva Paterson, a long-time friend of Harris who helped her get started in politics.
"I wouldn't call her reserved necessarily, but I would say that she's conscious of her audience at all times," says Paul Henderson, who was chief administrator for Harris in her district attorney days. "She's aware of who people are around her."
Harris's current office, which sits atop the State Building in San Francisco, is surprisingly Spartan except for one conspicuous flourish: Resting on a stand to one side of her desk she keeps an ornate silver sword that was given to her as a gift by the attorney general of Thailand.
"My staff has asked me to stop pulling it out to show reporters," she jokes, before doing just that.
After resheathing the blade, she talks a little bit about her background, specifically the close relationship she shared with her late mother, an accomplished breast cancer researcher who raised Harris and her younger sister Maya as a single parent.
"I grew up with a mother who was a scientist," she says, "and there was a word that was used often in our home: hypothesis
. You don't start out with 'the idea' but with a hypothesis. ... Scientists and people in Silicon Valley, they've all figured out that there will be glitches when you first roll something out, so the culture accommodates it. When you're in politics, that glitch will be on the front page of the paper. So you have to have a combination of courage and political capital to withstand that."
Those assets obviously paid off for Harris last fall and winter during the protracted foreclosure settlement talks. As she stood before a crowd of reporters in Los Angeles to announce the renegotiated deal she had struck with lenders, she proudly promised that homeowners in California alone could expect to see as much $18 billion, and she pledged that her office would continue to investigate alleged abuses.
She also pointedly called for the resignation of Edward DeMarco, the chief regulator for the government-sponsored mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. DeMarco has consistently blocked proposals to lower the amount of principal that distressed borrowers would be required to repay on their mortgages.
"I've said before and I say again, he should step aside, because the guy can clearly not figure out what his job requires," she declared.
Harris had good reason to single out the federal mortgage firms. They control more than 60 percent of the home loans in California - and they were not parties to the settlement. Also, for all of the positive coverage Harris has received for her negotiating prowess, she was unable to secure a moratorium on foreclosures in the deal. And some experts believe that California may actually see an increase in foreclosures over the next year or two as banks seek to clear the backlog of cases that built up during the talks. Moreover, despite the eye-popping $18 billion provided for state homeowners, people who have already been booted out of their homes probably will receive no more than a couple thousand dollars compensation. Also, for current homeowners facing the prospect of foreclosure, the relief they get could be fairly modest as well. (According to the New York Times
, while the average person in this situation is under water by about $50,000, they will only receive $20,000 in aid.)
Still, the admiration that people express for Harris's accomplishment remains largely undiluted.
"It can't be overstated what she has accomplished," state Senator Mark Leno gushed after the deal was announced.
But even on the mortgage front Harris faces serious challenges ahead. Aside from her ongoing battles with DeMarco, the Homeowner Bill of Rights (which is actually a series of bills that would codify into state law many of the settlement's provisions) is still making its way through the legislative process. And Democratic lawmakers are counting on Harris's formidable lobbying skills to help put the bills over the top.
In the final analysis, though, Harris's success as attorney general may depend at least as much on her ability to focus. "I have reluctantly but now fully embraced the concept of triage," she says with a smile. "I'm not going to be able to end world hunger. I'm not going to be able to do it all. But hopefully we can use the resources we have and focus on a few things and get them done."
J. B. Powell is a San Francisco-based freelance writer.