She's been called the "female Barack Obama." But just who is Kamala Harris? Born Oct. 20, 1964, to a black Stanford University professor and a Tamil Indian physician mother, Harris became the first California Attorney General with African American or South Asian ancestry after defeating Republican rival Steve Cooley in the 2010 election for the position. Harris--formerly San Francisco's District Attorney--is also the first woman to serve in the role.
Upbringing and Education
Kamala Devi Harris was born and raised in San Francisco's East Bay where she attended public schools, worshipped at black churches and lived in predominantly African American communities. Her immersion in African American culture didn't prevent her from being exposed to Indian culture, though. Her breast cancer specialist mother took Harris to Hindu temples to worship. Moreover, Harris is no stranger to India, having visited the subcontinent on several occasions to see relatives. Her bicultural heritage and travels around the globe have inspired political insiders to compare her with President Barack Obama. Although Obama sometimes struggled with identity issues, as he describes in memoir "Dreams from My Father," Harris evidently didn't experience growing pains in this vein.
"I grew up in a family where I had a strong sense of my culture and who I am, and I never felt insecure about that at all," she told the Associated Press. "Slowly, perhaps…, people will start to understand the diversity of the people."
After graduating from high school, Harris left the East Bay to attend Howard University, a historically black academic institution. She earned a bachelor's degree from Howard in 1986 and then returned to the Bay Area in Northern California. Upon her return, she enrolled at Hastings College of the Law, where she earned a law degree. Following that accomplishment, Harris proceeded to leave her mark on the legal arena of San Francisco.
Law degree in tow, Harris began prosecuting child rape, robbery and murder cases as deputy district attorney for the Alameda County District Attorney's Office, serving in the position from 1990 to 1998. Then, as managing attorney of the Career Criminal Unit of the San Francisco District Attorney's Office, a position she filled from 1998 to 2000, Harris prosecuted cases involving serial felons. Later, she headed the San Francisco City Attorney's Division on Families and Children for three years. But it was in 2003 that Harris would make history. At that year's end, she was elected as the San Francisco District Attorney, becoming the first woman, black and South Asian to achieve this feat. In November 2007, voters reelected her to the office.
During her 20 years as a prosecutor, Harris has shaped an identity for herself as being tough on crime. She prides herself on doubling trial conviction rates for gun felonies to 90% as San Francisco's so-called top cop. Also, with Harris as head, the San Francisco District Attorney's office has increased the percentage of dangerous criminals sentenced to prison by more than half. But serious crime isn't Harris' only focus. The D.A. has also tripled the amount of misdemeanor cases sent to trial, and prosecuted the parents of truant children, which helped slash the truancy rate by 23%.
The San Francisco District Attorney's Office found itself under fire in early 2010 when it came to light that Deborah Madden, a drug lab technician for the city police, confessed to removing cocaine from evidence samples. Her admission resulted in the police lab's testing unit closing and pending drug cases being dismissed. The police department also had to investigate cases already prosecuted due to Madden's admission of evidence tampering. During the scandal, it was asserted that the District Attorney's Office knew of Madden's evidence tampering. However, it remains unclear what information the District Attorney knew about Madden and when Harris learned of the tech's improprieties. The San Francisco Examiner has alleged that the District Attorney's Office knew of the situation months before the public was told of the controversy and before the police chief himself learned of the news.
Endorsements and Honors
Harris won endorsements from California's political elite while campaigning for attorney general, including Sen. Diane Feinstein, Congresswomen Maxine Waters and Diane Watson, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom and Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. On the national stage, Harris had the backing of U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. Leaders in law enforcement endorsed Harris also, including San Diego Police Chief William Lansdowne and San Francisco Police Chief George Gascón.
Harris has also won numerous honors, including being named one of California's top 75 women litigators by legal paper the Daily Journal and a "Woman of Power" by the National Urban League. Additionally, the National Black Prosecutors Association gave Harris the Thurgood Marshall Award and the Aspen Institute chose her to serve as a Rodel Fellow. Lastly, the California District Attorneys Association elected her to its board.