Kamala Harris: how the 'Tony Blair of San Francisco' made her name and became Joe Biden's VP pick

The old photograph shows two children sitting together by the pond, doing experiments involving tadpoles. The boy has a Beatles-ish bowl haircut; the girl’s hair is “wild”. He is future San Francisco city councilman Aaron Peskin; she is Kamala Harris, potentially the next vice president of the United States. “I’ve known her all my life,” says Mr Peskin, a doyen of municipal politics who has spent decades serving the city that made Kamala Harris – right down to attending the same kindergarten and school in nearby Berkeley, California. Now 56, he believes their shared upbringing helps explain why she is dangerous to Donald Trump. In August, Ms Harris was finally unveiled as the running mate for Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden (ending weeks of political coquetry from his campaign). As the daughter of an Indian mother and a Jamaican father, she would be not only the first woman in the White House but also the first black woman and the first Asian-American. “We grew up in a truly diverse and truly integrated neighbourhood in Berkeley in the 1960s,” says Mr Peskin, whose own father was a second-generation Polish immigrant and whose mother came to the US from what is now Israel. (He described the photo to The Telegraph, but no longer has it.) “It was a polyglot milieu where notions of racism and sexism did not exist... both of our families have realised the notion of the American dream. We don’t always agree, we’ve had some profound disagreements, but I do believe that this is a human being who can bridge multiple worlds.” A young Kamala Harris, left, with her sister Maya and her mother Shyamala Gopalan Credit: Kamala Harris/AP Such praise is bountiful among the governing classes of San Francisco and its neighbouring cities, where the political spectrum runs from moderate Democrat to radical socialist and where Ms Harris made her name by carefully weaving between the two.  Many insiders have nothing but good things to say about her – and also describe her as a consummate politician adept at building alliances and charming big money donors. The former point would appear to be proof of the latter. Yet Ms Harris’ time as a prosecutor, district attorney and later attorney general of all California, charged with filling America’s jails, has embittered many on the Left, including leaders of the Black Lives Matter protests that have raged across the state.  For many she stands accused of about the worst possible charge during this historic reckoning with America’s ugly history of police racism and brutality: being a cop. Based on past showing, those are cracks that Mr Trump will eagerly try to exploit. Vice-presidential debate Ms Harris' skills came under the spotlight in the only vice-presidential debate on Wednesday October 7.  Trading barbs through plexiglass shields, Republican Mike Pence and Ms Harris turned the debate into a dissection of the Trump administration's handling of the coronavirus pandemic, with Ms Harris labeling it "the greatest failure of any presidential administration". Mr Pence, who leads the president's coronavirus task force, acknowledged that "our nation's gone through a very challenging time this year", yet vigorously defended the administration's overall response to a pandemic that has killed 210,000 Americans. They also went head-to-head on abortion, the Supreme Court and the environment. Read more: Vice-presidential debate 2020: Harris and Pence clash over coronavirus response Growing up with the Black Panthers Democrat bigwigs greeted Ms Harris’ candidacy with jubilation. State assemblywoman Buffy Wicks, who was endorsed by Ms Harris last year and whose patch includes Berkeley, said she was “crying with joy”, lauding Ms Harris as “the hope that me and my little girls need right now in this moment”. Suzy Loftus, until recently the interim San Francisco district attorney under current mayor London Breed, tweeted a picture of herself with Ms Wicks, Ms Harris and two other women in city politics with the caption “Squad” and a fire emoji.  Ms Harris has considerable support from the tech industry too, and donations to the Biden campaign surged after he announced his pick.  Facebook’s chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg, a heroine of white-collar empowerment feminism and the author of women’s workplace bible Lean In, posted on Instagram that it was a “huge moment for Black women and girls all over the world”. Notably, she had made no similar statements about Joe Biden. It was a marker of how far Ms Harris has come since her birth in Oakland, which lies alongside Berkeley just across the bay from San Francisco. Her mother, Shyamala Gopalan, was from India, while her father Donald Harris was from Jamaica; both had come to study at Berkeley’s famous university.  Oakland has a strong black community and its median income is about two-thirds of San Francisco’s, even after a decade of tech-induced gentrification. Outside the US, it is perhaps most famous as the birthplac

Kamala Harris: how the 'Tony Blair of San Francisco' made her name and became Joe Biden's VP pick

The old photograph shows two children sitting together by the pond, doing experiments involving tadpoles. The boy has a Beatles-ish bowl haircut; the girl’s hair is “wild”. He is future San Francisco city councilman Aaron Peskin; she is Kamala Harris, potentially the next vice president of the United States.

“I’ve known her all my life,” says Mr Peskin, a doyen of municipal politics who has spent decades serving the city that made Kamala Harris – right down to attending the same kindergarten and school in nearby Berkeley, California. Now 56, he believes their shared upbringing helps explain why she is dangerous to Donald Trump.

In August, Ms Harris was finally unveiled as the running mate for Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden (ending weeks of political coquetry from his campaign). As the daughter of an Indian mother and a Jamaican father, she would be not only the first woman in the White House but also the first black woman and the first Asian-American.

“We grew up in a truly diverse and truly integrated neighbourhood in Berkeley in the 1960s,” says Mr Peskin, whose own father was a second-generation Polish immigrant and whose mother came to the US from what is now Israel. (He described the photo to The Telegraph, but no longer has it.)

“It was a polyglot milieu where notions of racism and sexism did not exist... both of our families have realised the notion of the American dream. We don’t always agree, we’ve had some profound disagreements, but I do believe that this is a human being who can bridge multiple worlds.”

A young Kamala Harris, left, with her sister Maya and her mother Shyamala Gopalan Credit: Kamala Harris/AP

Such praise is bountiful among the governing classes of San Francisco and its neighbouring cities, where the political spectrum runs from moderate Democrat to radical socialist and where Ms Harris made her name by carefully weaving between the two. 

Many insiders have nothing but good things to say about her – and also describe her as a consummate politician adept at building alliances and charming big money donors. The former point would appear to be proof of the latter.

Yet Ms Harris’ time as a prosecutor, district attorney and later attorney general of all California, charged with filling America’s jails, has embittered many on the Left, including leaders of the Black Lives Matter protests that have raged across the state

For many she stands accused of about the worst possible charge during this historic reckoning with America’s ugly history of police racism and brutality: being a cop.

Based on past showing, those are cracks that Mr Trump will eagerly try to exploit.

Vice-presidential debate

Ms Harris' skills came under the spotlight in the only vice-presidential debate on Wednesday October 7. 

Trading barbs through plexiglass shields, Republican Mike Pence and Ms Harris turned the debate into a dissection of the Trump administration's handling of the coronavirus pandemic, with Ms Harris labeling it "the greatest failure of any presidential administration".

Mr Pence, who leads the president's coronavirus task force, acknowledged that "our nation's gone through a very challenging time this year", yet vigorously defended the administration's overall response to a pandemic that has killed 210,000 Americans.

They also went head-to-head on abortion, the Supreme Court and the environment.

Read more: Vice-presidential debate 2020: Harris and Pence clash over coronavirus response

Growing up with the Black Panthers

Democrat bigwigs greeted Ms Harris’ candidacy with jubilation. State assemblywoman Buffy Wicks, who was endorsed by Ms Harris last year and whose patch includes Berkeley, said she was “crying with joy”, lauding Ms Harris as “the hope that me and my little girls need right now in this moment”.

Suzy Loftus, until recently the interim San Francisco district attorney under current mayor London Breed, tweeted a picture of herself with Ms Wicks, Ms Harris and two other women in city politics with the caption “Squad” and a fire emoji. 

Ms Harris has considerable support from the tech industry too, and donations to the Biden campaign surged after he announced his pick. 

Facebook’s chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg, a heroine of white-collar empowerment feminism and the author of women’s workplace bible Lean In, posted on Instagram that it was a “huge moment for Black women and girls all over the world”. Notably, she had made no similar statements about Joe Biden.

It was a marker of how far Ms Harris has come since her birth in Oakland, which lies alongside Berkeley just across the bay from San Francisco. Her mother, Shyamala Gopalan, was from India, while her father Donald Harris was from Jamaica; both had come to study at Berkeley’s famous university. 

Oakland has a strong black community and its median income is about two-thirds of San Francisco’s, even after a decade of tech-induced gentrification. Outside the US, it is perhaps most famous as the birthplace of the Black Panthers (as well as a prominent location for the Marvel superhero Black Panther). 

As a child, Ms Harris was a beneficiary of America’s controversial school “busing” programme, ferried to a 95 per cent white school in Berkeley as part of an attempt at desegregation. 

Shyamala Gopalan, left, with her friend Lenore Pomerance, during a civil rights protest in Berkeley Credit: Kamala Harris campaign/AP

That history provided one of the Democratic primary’s most dramatic moments when she confronted Joe Biden over his historic opposition to the scheme which allowed her attendance.

It was there, too, that her meteoric career began: as a lawyer prosecuting in Alameda County, which includes Berkeley and Oakland. 

Even then she had a vision of how criminal justice had to change, according to John Whitehurst, an Oakland-based Democratic political consultant who first met her in 2000.

“Because she’s so well-connected, everyone assumes that she was a creature of politics,” he says. “[But] not a political hack that ended up being district attorney. She used politics to achieve her goal in law enforcement.”

In 1990, she became Alameda’s assistant district attorney, and in 1994 fell into the orbit of the legendary California state assemblyman Willie Brown. Often called the “Ayatollah of the Assembly” – albeit largely because he referred to himself that way – his powerful political machine was the making of California’s current governor, Gavin Newsom.

As well as working with Mr Brown, Ms Harris dated him for about a year (he was 60 and she was 29), during which time he got her two well-paid state positions. To truly advance, however, she had to cross the towering Bay Bridge to San Francisco.

The Tony Blair of San Francisco

It was, by all accounts, an exceedingly stupid place to build a city. For centuries California's native Ohlone peoples had mostly eschewed the windswept, rain-soaked peninsula that divides the San Francisco Bay from the Pacific Ocean in favour of the Bay's warmer eastern half.

The thousands of people who crammed onto the peninsular during the Gold Rush in the mid-19th century were not thinking about permanent habitation. Hence San Francisco, a city thrusting out into the water atop a chaotic set of hills, subject to mercurial microclimates – “the City”, as locals call it, as opposed to the “East Bay” where Ms Harris grew up.

For a mini-metropolis of just 850,000 people, San Francisco produces an absurd percentage of Democratic politicians, from Mr Newsom and Mr Brown through to senators such as Barbara Boxer and Diane Feinstein to Nancy Pelosi, current speaker of the House of Representatives. Yet almost none of them were actually born there.

San Francisco blanketed in its traditional fog, seen from the hills above Berkeley Credit: Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP

“If you want to learn to sail a boat you go to where the water is. If you want to get good at politics, you come to where the activism is,” says Mr Whitehurst. “San Francisco’s budget is bigger than some state budgets. It’s not just a club sport, it’s a varsity sport.”

As a cauldron of America’s gay rights movement, the birthplace of its environmental movement and the hallucinogenic Mecca of its hippie subculture, this pastel-painted seaside town has become a savagely competitive arena for budding politicians who come from all over to court its ancient donor class.

It was natural for Ms Harris to make that pilgrimage too (“she benefits from being in a higher weight class,” says Mr Whitehurst). When she ran for district attorney in 2003 she was an outside third place, running against an incumbent, Terence Hallinan, whose family had helped run the city for 50 years.

The campaign was acrimonious: Mr Hallinan had been the one who head-hunted her. But she won, becoming the golden city’s first black district attorney, taking charge of criminal prosecutions.

Her platform combined Left-wing ideas (eschewing the death penalty, defending medical marijuana, declining to pursue jail time for marijuana possession offences) with tough rhetoric on violent crime. Mr Whitehurst describes it as a Tony-Blair-esque “third way”.

The victories continued: in 2011 she rose to become the attorney general of California, before finally becoming a senator in the national Congress in 2017. 

Nose to the grindstone

Colleagues from that time describe her as meticulous and detail-oriented. Lenore Anderson, who joined her office in 2008 as chief of policy, says Ms Harris had “very high standards”.

“A powerful combination of meticulous attention to detail and to doing things at the highest standards, combined with a wonderful ability to laugh, to have a good sense of humour to enjoy the process of serving the public,” Ms Anderson goes on. “Was she someone that people gravitated towards? Absolutely.”

Chip off the old block: Kamala Harris, right, in 1982, at an anti-Apartheid protest with her friend Gwen Whitfield Credit: Kamala Harris campaign/AP

Niki Solis, who was a manager in the city’s public defender office when Ms Harris was district attorney, says she feels compelled to highlight her achievements, despite the fact that the two were often opposed.

“There is no question in my mind that she was the most progressive prosecutor in California. There's no question, and for people to even want to debate that is ludicrous to me,” says Ms Solis, now a deputy public defender.

She describes Ms Harris as “receptive, respectful, always professional”, praising her decisions to stop prosecuting underage girls for prostitution – a cause Ms Solis was particularly passionate about – and her steadfast refusal to seek the death penalty, even in a case where a police officer was killed. 

“There are times where she didn't agree and she was straightforward about it. But she seemed to be very receptive, and she considered our position. That to me is what's important in a leader: someone who is going to listen to folks who are viewed as their adversaries,” Ms Solis said.

Others have described Ms Harris as “a zealot about public service” who worked 12- to 14-hour days and responded to inquiries about her health with the stony declaration: “I don’t get sick.”

Read more: US election poll tracker 2020

Seducing the Golden Gate aristocracy

Hard work, of course, only gets you so far in San Francisco. It is a historical centre for the old money of America’s West Coast: the Haas family, the Shorensteins, the De Youngs, the Gettys (as in Getty Images), the Swigs, and so on.

Enter Kamala Harris’ other great skill: schmoozing the rich.

“She burst on the scene and absolutely enchanted an element of San Francisco society that would not otherwise be engaged in something like the district attorney’s race,” said Dale Carlson, a veteran San Francisco PR man and lobbyist.

“The financial support that they have provided to her has been quite exceptional.”

Two of her biggest backers have been Susie Tompkins Buell, a co-founder of the clothing companies Esprit and North Face, and Mark Buell, whose career has woven in and out of municipal government and real estate development.

Both are Democrat Party mega-donors, with Ms Tompkins Buell being “very close” to Hillary Clinton (she is sometimes described as her “soulmate”), who also donated to a legal firm handling sexual assault allegations against Donald Trump. Mr Buell, meanwhile, is reportedly so good at fundraising – sweet-talking donors with a “reassuring and slow voice” – that Ms Harris once sat down just to watch him do it. “Mark gets on the phone with people he has known in this town for decades,” she said of him. “He’s really extraordinary.”

Mr Carlson says: “They were the prime movers behind Kamala's first campaign, and they have been there ever since. The Pacific Heights crowd” – referring to a rich San Francisco neighbourhood whose hilltop location offers sweeping views of the Golden Gate Bridge and the dramatic hills nearby – normally would not have got involved in a district attorney race.

“Susie and Mark provided [access] to that community for Kamala, and they fell in love with her. So campaign finance has never been an issue for her.”

Mr Peskin tells a similar story. “Ms Harris has worked the political establishment and the liberal monied establishment to bring money to this effort to unseat Donald Trump. She was born of a truly diverse background and has learned how to raise money as a politician...

“I’ve never cultivated those relationships with that strata of society, so I really cannot tell you how she did that.”

Read more: Donald Trump and Mike Pence vs Joe Biden and Kamala Harris

The ‘top cop’ who is toxic to the Left

But if Ms Harris won allies in her ascent, she made many enemies in the San Francisco metro area, arguably the most progressive place in America. Despite Donald Trump’s efforts to paint her as a dangerous radical, the critique there often goes the other way.

Her record as a prosecutor and as district attorney has led to accusations that she is too supportive of the police and enabled the unfair incarceration of people whose convictions were based on faulty evidence.

Many LGBT Americans have never forgiven her for fighting, as California’s attorney general, to block a transgender woman serving a prison term from receiving sex reassignment surgery. She later said that the case had been “contrary to [her] beliefs”, but she had fought for her “client”, in this case the state, as a lawyer would.

In fact, simply being a prosecutor is enough to make her toxic for many supporters of the George Floyd protests, whose key slogans include “all cops are b------s” and “abolish the police”. 

Briahna Joy Gray, Bernie Sanders’ former national spokeswoman, said: “We are in the midst of the largest protest movement in American history, the subject of which is excessive policing, and the Democratic Party chose a ‘top cop’”:

One Oakland Leftist put it even more bluntly: “He. Literally. Chose. A. Cop. Read the room, bro.”

Ms Anderson, now president of criminal justice reform organisation the Alliance for Safety and Justice, argues that voters should see Ms Harris’ decisions in the context of California’s political climate at the time, which favoured tough-on-crime policies and long sentences.

Ordered by the Supreme Court in 2011 to bring down the population of its heaving prisons, the state has recently embraced policies designed to reduce the numbers sent to prison, legalising marijuana and scrapping “three strikes and you’re out” laws, which put people behind bars for life if they had two previous convictions.  

“When you rewind the clock and you look at where the state stood, her positions were absolutely forward thinking and outside of the norm of what prosecutors were saying at the time, for sure,” Ms Anderson concludes.

Today San Francisco and its neighbours are divided cities, with housing activists and Black Lives Matter supporters frequently facing off against the tide of Silicon Valley money that has flooded the local economy and driven out many of the oddballs who once found refuge here.

Perhaps it is appropriate that Ms Harris should so divide opinions in the place where she cut her teeth. It is still possible that she will fall between two stools, rejected as a “cop” by the Left while maligned as a “San Francisco Democrat” by Trumpists.

Mr Whitehurst, however, believes her “third way” may prosper again. “Make no mistake, she is a left-of-centre or progressive Democrat,” he says. “But she doesn't follow a dogma or ideology. And that’s been true her whole career.”

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