Kamala Harris: Democrats have high hopes based on her qualifications and heritage

Kamala Harris is now seeking to become the first female vice-president of the United States.
Kamala Harris is now seeking to become the first female vice-president of the United States.PHOTO: NYTIMES

WASHINGTON - Senator Kamala Harris, who was picked on Tuesday (Aug 11) by Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden as his running mate, is a prominent establishment Democrat with the qualifications and heritage which many believe will hold her in good stead to address the issues of race and criminal justice reform in the nation. 

The daughter of Indian and Jamaican immigrants, Ms Harris, 55, is the first Black woman and the first American of Indian descent to run on a major party’s presidential ticket. 

Should Mr Biden win, she will not only be the country’s first female vice president from a minority race but its first female vice president as well. 

Observers note that her nomination stands in stark contrast to the Republican Party, which is doubling down as a party that caters to white voters, particularly men. President Donald Trump has frequently been criticised for making comments that stoke racial divisions to shore up support from his predominantly-white base, and alienating minority voters in the process.

EARLY LIFE

Ms Harris’ mother, Shyamala Gopalan, was a civil rights activist and the daughter of an Indian diplomat from the state of Tamil Nadu, who moved to Berkeley, California to study in the 1960s. 

She met her husband Donald Harris, an economics student from Jamaica, at civil rights protests on campus.
They had two daughters, Kamala and her younger sister, Maya.

Ms Harris’ parents divorced when she was seven, and her mother, by then a breast cancer researcher, raised her and her sister alone. 

 
 
 

Ms Harris frequently cites her mother, who died from cancer in 2009, as having a deep influence on her life and force of nature, despite her small stature. 

The elder Ms Harris, who was 1.52m tall, made sure her daughters kept in touch with their Black and Indian heritage, taking them to a nearby Black cultural center weekly, and on visits to India and Jamaica over the course of their childhood.

Ms Harris also experienced the tail end of the racial segregation of schools as a young girl, recounting the experience during the Democratic presidential debate in June last year, when she slammed Mr Biden for opposing bussing as a way of desegregation. 

“There was a little girl in California who was part of the second class to integrate her public schools and she was bussed to school every day. That little girl was me,” said Ms Harris, in the most electric moment of the debate.

When she was 12, the family moved to Canada where Ms Harris’ mother had a job teaching at McGill University.

LAWYER-POLITICIAN

After graduating from high school in Quebec in 1981, she moved to Washington DC to study at the historically black Howard University, where she chaired the economics society and protested against apartheid in South Africa during weekends, a time she credits with shaping her world view. 

She graduated with a bachelor’s degree in political science and academics in 1986, and went on to get her law degree from the University of California, Hastings College of the Law in 1989. 

From 1990 to 2004, she worked as a public prosecutor in California before being elected as San Francisco’s District Attorney, becoming California’s first district attorney of a minority race.

She was elected as California’s Attorney General - the first African American and Asian woman to hold the position - in 2010, and was elected again for a second term in 2014.

During this time, she worked closely with Mr Biden’s late son Beau, who was Attorney General of Delaware at the time, and became a family friend of the Bidens. 

The younger Mr Biden died of brain cancer in 2015. Over a year later, Ms Harris spoke at the California Democratic Party’s convention in 2016, praising the elder Mr Biden and his family as one that “truly represents our nation’s highest ideals, a powerful belief in the nobility of public service”.

Ms Harris ran for California’s empty Senate seat that year, endorsed by the then Vice President Biden and President  Barack Obama, and won.

Ms Harris married entertainment lawyer Douglas Emhoff in 2014, and is stepmother to his two adult children, Ella and Cole, from his previous marriage. They call her “Momala”, a name she proudly displays on her Twitter profile.

TACKLING RACISM

Throughout the recent civil rights protests triggered by a white policeman’s killing of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, Ms Harris has been a leading voice in her party on tackling anti-Black racism. She was instrumental to the Democrats’ Justice in Policing Act, a bill that banned no-knock raids and beefed up investigations into the excessive use of force by policemen.

Observers say that her experience as a prosecutor and as the top law enforcement officer of California, the most populous US state, places her in a good position to work on criminal justice reform from the White House.

Her record, however, is also a bit of a double-edged sword. Some progressives are unhappy that she did not do more to prosecute police brutality and investigate police shootings during her time in office, and critics also question her policies that led to higher rates of incarceration among African Americans. 

Her defenders have pushed back, arguing that Ms Harris was progressive for her time, and limited in what she could realistically push for by the “tough on crime” political climate of the 1990s and early into the millennium.

In that regard she is like Mr Biden, not embraced by progressives and seen as an ideologically centre-left candidate who can appeal to moderate voters. This has not stopped the Trump campaign from painting her as a “hardcore progressive” who will “embrace the radical left”, in statements and an advertisement on Tuesday.