(The Root) — Why is California's attorney general stumping for President Obama in the battleground state of North Carolina in the last days of a contentious presidential campaign? "One, because I'm one of the national co-chairs for the campaign," she told The Root, "and two, because the outcome of the election in North Carolina will directly impact my constituents in California."
From advocating for health care reform to helping broker a settlement in the foreclosure crisis, Kamala Harris has been as out-front on issues as she has in her vocal backing of Barack Obama. "I've been supporting the president for a long time; he's been supporting me for a long time."
A pioneer in her current position as well as in her previous post as district attorney of San Francisco, the Howard University graduate is the daughter of an Asian-Indian mother, a breast cancer specialist, and a Jamaican-American father, a Stanford economics professor. Harris said she grew up "surrounded by a bunch of adults who spent full time marching and shouting about this thing called justice."
So it was only fitting that in Charlotte — where she spoke at the Democratic National Convention in September — Harris energized volunteers Wednesday at an Obama campaign office by paraphrasing Coretta Scott King. "The fight for civil rights must be fought and won with each generation," she told the workers who have spent days and weeks canvassing and phone-banking. "Folks need to be touched, and isn't that the beauty of the system?" She said it's time to "roll up our sleeves, not throw up our hands."
Before she headed to campaign stops in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Ohio, Harris spoke with The Root.
The Root: Your name has been mentioned as a possible Supreme Court candidate if Obama wins re-election and a seat becomes vacant, and also as a future candidate for California governor. What are your goals?
Kamala Harris: I love my job as California attorney general, and that's what I think about, aside from re-electing our president … I'm also superstitious. I've seen too many people trip over this thing because they're so focused on that thing out there. Life is too short; it's not worth it. Do what's in front of you, and hopefully the right thing will happen next.
TR: Issues you have favored, from prison reform to marriage equality, would seem to put you at odds with opinions in other parts of the country. Is California ahead of the country?
KH: There are just certain issues that should not be thought of as partisan … When you're talking about the issue of marriage, we have one group in society that legally we are treating differently. That's not right. On the issue of choice, we can all differ about what each one of us would do in that situation … Let that woman make the decision in counsel with her minister, with her family, with her physician …
A lot of the big issues, controversial issues, they're false choices. On this issue of criminal justice policy, I think it's a false choice to suggest that you're either soft on crime or you're tough on crime. We should be asking, are you smart on crime? And that means everybody agreeing murderers, rapists, child molesters — lock them up for as long as we can. But when it comes to low-level offenders, first-time offenders, 18- through 24-year-old offenders, we need to figure out a way to cycle them out of the system before they become the career criminal.
TR: You've taken up the cause of online privacy, putting a number of mobile-app makers on notice. Why is this so important to you?
KH: The technology that is changing the world was created right in my backyard. My mother was a scientist. It was her plan to do two things: to raise her two daughters to be successful and to end breast cancer. I grew up, because she was a single mother, going to the lab with her on weekends. And it's very exciting to watch people and, in this case, the industry be unburdened by what has been, and being so creative and innovative in producing devices and approaches and systems that are changing the way the world works …
I'm also a career prosecutor, and I strongly believe that we have to create systems where vulnerable people are protected … And in this exciting new world there are vulnerable people who need to be protected, and there are also predators that need to face consequences and accountability. So I created an eCrime unit in my office last year, and then this year created the office of privacy and protection. That's about making sure … that when they are creating their genius around letting me have a flashlight in my cell phone, when they're creating all this fabulous stuff, let's remember also that the consumer has a right to know what they may be giving up for the convenience of what they get.
TR: What is your current stance on illegal immigration and the DREAM Act? Has your experience growing up as a child of immigrants informed your opinion in any way?
KH: I completely support what the president did in terms of young people who were brought into this country, who have lived a law-abiding life, who have gone to school, graduated college, served in our military; we need to give them a path.
On immigration in general, we've got to fix it in this country. We have somewhere between 11 million and 12 million people in this country who are undocumented. They are not leaving, and I don't think anybody would agree with a public policy that says, let's find them all and then kick them out … So let's figure out a way to integrate them and, like the president says, do it in a way that they have to get in the back of the line … We should not allow ourselves to compartmentalize that population in a way that we decide that because they are undocumented they are criminals.
TR: Recent polls have pointed to an increasingly polarized electorate, with prejudice against blacks and Hispanics rising since 2008. What do you believe that says about America since the historic election of an African-American president?
KH: The issue of race is a complex one … One of the very special things about Barack Obama is that he believes in — as he talked about so eloquently in the first campaign and has been consistent in his presidency — he believes in one United States of America. And he understands as a leader that we have to fight for it, but we know we can achieve it, an America where one's gender or race or religion does not subject you to any unfairness … If we think that it is not possible then we will never fulfill our promise as a country.
TR: What is your message to voters?
KH: I'm here to just remind folks that their vote matters, and that more than anything it's important for people to have their voices be heard, and the best way to do that is to vote … As attorney general of the biggest state [in population] in the country, when I look at what we needed to do to defend the president's groundbreaking reform of the health care system, the Affordable Care Act, we fought to defend its constitutionality. And why? Because this president pushed through what administrations for 100 years had literally tried to do … and failed … That is one of many examples of how he has been a true leader in some of the most difficult times our country has seen.
Mary C. Curtis, an award-winning Charlotte, N.C.-based journalist, is a contributor to the Washington Post's "She the People" blog, The Root, theGrio, Fox News Charlotte, Creative Loafing, and has worked at the New York Times, Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter.
Mary C. Curtis is a Roll Call columnist and contributor to NPR and NBCBLK. She has worked at the New York Times, the Baltimore Sun, the Charlotte Observer and Politics Daily and as a contributor to the Washington Post. She is a senior facilitator for the OpEd Project at Cornell and Yale universities. Follow her on Twitter.