Kamala Harris is a busy woman. On the day I spoke with her, she was coming off the heels of a 24-hour oppose-athon against Sen. Jeff Sessions’ nomination for attorney general. She also spoke against his nomination on the day of his vote. By the time we would speak, it would be well into the evening of her day, but Harris wasn’t tired; she was focused.
“Every day is busy,” she said, but not with the exhaustion that should come with being a first-time junior senator out of California who’s fighting against arguably one of the most combative and divisive administrations in the history of the United States.
But this is Harris, a 52-year-old Oakland, Calif.-born daughter of immigrants (her mother is from India and her father is Jamaican) who grew up attending civil rights protests with her parents; so standing up for what she believes is embedded in her DNA.
In fact, she can still recall her first tough election: the time she ran for freshman class representative of the liberal arts student council at Howard University.
“I ran for that office and it was difficult. I ran against someone from Newark,” she said, leaving hanging in the air the implied meaning of toughness for which New Jersey is known.
“In the end,” Harris noted, “it worked out for both of us.”
Worked out indeed. As the attorney general of California, Harris took on big banks for their role in the subprime-mortgage crisis that rocked the nation and left many forced to lose their homes after massive rate increases. In fact, against the wishes of some of her counterparts, Harris turned down an initial settlement of $4 billion and fought to get California residents a larger payout to the tune of $20 billion.
She opposed California’s Proposition 8 ban on same-sex marriage and fought to obtain a $1.1 billion judgment against the now defunct Corinthian Colleges, Inc. for its for-profit predatory-lending practices.
Harris’ jovial nature and easy laugh can lull you into a sense of relaxation, but that might be your last mistake. Harris is a beast, and she’s relentless at pursuing what she knows to be right.
She was one of the first attorneys general, if not the only one, to stand in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, and she wasn’t afraid of what that might have meant for her politically.
“I’m acutely aware of the bias that exists in some of these systems. I am acutely aware of the history that exists in our country, where law enforcement was used to enforce segregation laws,” she said. “I am aware that all people bring bias into the way that they form and make decisions. I’m aware that when you are in a position of authority, and when that decision can have a profound impact on somebody else’s life, we need to acknowledge that and address it and fix it.”
So during her time as attorney general of California, she worked with law-enforcement officials to address implicit bias.
For Harris, this is the work, and the work continues no matter how difficult the fight, which will include failures along the way, and she’s fine with that. In fact, in this political climate where our president brags on Twitter with an ego that would put your favorite rapper to shame, Harris’ story includes her failing the bar her first go-round.
“There are so many people who try for something, and there are times when we don’t achieve what we’re going for, but that’s not a reason to give up,” Harris said.
On Thursday, a day after our conversation, I would get a press release announcing that Harris, a member of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, would introduce the Access to Counsel Act, which would require all Muslims stopped by the president’s Muslim ban to have access to an attorney. She didn’t mention this during our call, which makes me think she didn’t sleep and spent extra hours working on her first piece of legislation.
And, look, Harris is aware that she shares an uncanny number of similarities with former President Barack Obama: mixed-race background, dynamic speaker, lawyer; she even has a unique first name (pronounced “comma-la”). But Harris isn’t here for that fight, at least not yet.
“I’ve got votes up ahead. I just gave a big speech opposing Jeff Sessions, and I’m prepared to vote against him on the Senate floor; like, literally, there is so much that is right in front of us that is demanding my full attention,” she said. “Frankly, I think too many people get distracted from the task at hand with visions of wonder about their future, and it’s misguided and a bad use of current time.”
And as far as Harris working with the Trump administration, she said: “I will work with anyone where we can find common purpose on mutual ground. But at the point where we differ based on values, then we’re not going to be working together, and we may be fighting.”
And Harris is fine with that.