Kamala Harris has spent the better part of two decades in public life notching up a long list of things she was the first to achieve: the first Black woman to be elected district attorney in California history, first woman to be California’s attorney general, first Indian American senator, and now, the first Black woman and first Asian American to be picked as a vice presidential running mate on a major-party ticket.
What do voters need to know about the woman who sits on the cusp of breaking one of the highest glass ceilings in American life? Here, culled from books, extensive media coverage and the archives of POLITICO, is a quick primer on the life of Kamala Devi Harris, the trailblazing prosecutor-turned-senator who in just a few months’ time could be a heartbeat away from the presidency.
Kamala Devi Harris was born in Oakland, California on October 20, 1964, the eldest of two children born to Shyamala Gopalan, a cancer researcher from India, and Donald Harris, an economist from Jamaica.
Her parents met at UC Berkeley while pursuing graduate degrees, and bonded over a shared passion for the civil rights movement, which was active on campus. After she was born, they took young Kamala along to protests in a stroller.
Her mother chose Kamala’s name as a nod both to her Indian roots — Kamala means “lotus” and is another name for the Hindu goddess Lakshmi — and the empowerment of women.
“A culture that worships goddesses produces strong women,” Gopalan told the Los Angeles Times in 2004.
Harris’ parents divorced when she was seven, and her mother raised her and her sister, Maya, on the top floor of a yellow duplex in Berkeley.
In first grade, Harris was bused to Thousand Oaks Elementary School, which was in its second year of integration. For the next three years, she’d play “Miss Mary Mack” and cat’s cradle with her friends on the bus that traveled from her predominantly black, lower-middle class neighborhood to her school located in a prosperous white district.
As a child, Harris went to both a Black Baptist church and a Hindu temple — embracing both her South Asian and Black identities. “My mother understood very well that she was raising two black daughters,” Harris later wrote in her autobiography, “and she was determined to make sure we would grow into confident, proud black women.”
She visited India as a child and was heavily influenced by her grandfather, a high-ranking government official who fought for Indian independence, and grandmother, an activist who traveled around the countryside teaching impoverished women about birth control.
Harris attended middle school and high school in Montreal, Canada after her mom got a teaching job at McGill University and a position as a cancer researcher at Jewish General Hospital.
In Montreal, a 13-year-old Harris and her younger sister, Maya, led a successful demonstration in front of their apartment building in protest of a policy that banned children from playing on the lawn.
After high school, Harris attended Howard University, the prestigious historically black college in Washington, D.C. There, she majored in political science and economics, and joined the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority.
While attending law school in San Francisco, Harris lived with her sister, Maya, and helped potty-train Maya’s daughter.
“I’m dealing with this brutal stuff, dog-eat-dog in school, and then I would come home and we would all stand by the toilet and wave bye to a piece of shit,” Harris recalled in 2018. “It will put this place in perspective.”
In 1990, after passing the bar, Harris joined the Alameda County prosecutor’s office in Oakland as an assistant district attorney focusing on sex crimes.
Harris’ family was initially skeptical of the career choice. While she acknowledged that prosecutors have historically earned a bad reputation, she has said she wanted to change the system from the inside.
In 1994, Harris began dating Willie Brown, a powerhouse in California politics who was then the speaker of the state assembly and was 30 years older than Harris. From his perch in the assembly, Brown appointed Harris to the California Unemployment Insurance Appeals Board and the Medical Assistance Commission — positions that together paid her around $80,000 a year on top of her prosecutor’s salary.
In 1995, Brown was elected mayor of San Francisco. That December, Harris broke up with him because “she concluded there was no permanency in our relationship,” Brown told Joan Walsh in 2003. “And she was absolutely right.”
After being recruited to the San Francisco District Attorney’s office by a former colleague in Alameda, Harris cracked down on teenage prostitution in the city, reorienting law enforcement’s approach to focus on the girls as victims rather than as criminals selling sex.
During this time, Harris courted influential friends among San Francisco’s monied elite. In 2003, they would provide the financial backing to make her a formidable candidate in her first campaign for office.
In 2003, she ran for district attorney in San Francisco against incumbent Terence Hallinan, her former boss. Her message, a top strategist on that campaign told POLITICO, was: “We’re progressive, like Terence Hallinan, but we’re competent like Terence Hallinan is not.”
She was elected in a runoff with 56.5 percent of the vote. With her victory, she became the first Black woman in California to be elected district attorney.
That same election, Gavin Newsom was elected mayor, succeeding Willie Brown. Newsom, now governor of California, is a close friend of hers, and the two have even vacationed together.
During her first three years as district attorney, San Francisco’s conviction rate jumped from 52 to 67 percent.
One of Harris’ most controversial decisions came in 2004 when she declined to pursue the death penalty against the man who murdered San Francisco police officer Isaac Espinoza. At the funeral, Senator Dianne Feinstein delivered a eulogy in which she criticized Harris, who was in the audience, prompting a standing ovation from the hundreds of officers in attendance.
Harris would be shunned by police unions for the next decade.
Later, as California attorney general, Harris declined to support two ballot initiatives that would’ve banned the death penalty — raising accusations of political opportunism and inconsistency on the controversial issue.
She was under scrutiny during her tenure as San Francisco district attorney when a technician stole cocaine from the D.A.’s crime lab and mishandled evidence. Harris, trying to keep things under wraps, failed to inform defense attorneys. As a result, about a thousand drug-related cases had to be thrown out.
Her friendship with former President Barack Obama dates back to his run for Senate in 2004. She was the first notable California officeholder to endorse him during his 2008 presidential bid.
In San Francisco, she vocally supported a controversial 2010 law that made truancy a misdemeanor and punished parents who failed to send their children to school. The truancy rate ultimately dropped, but some critics saw the rule as too punitive.
That same year, in her second term as district attorney, Harris ran for California attorney general. Initially, few thought she would win the race — she was a woman of color from liberal San Francisco who opposed the death penalty and she was running against Steve Cooley, a popular white Republican who served as Los Angeles’ district attorney.
The race was so tight that on election night, Cooley made a victory speech and the San Francisco Chronicle declared him the winner. Three weeks later, all ballots having been counted, Harris was declared the victor by 0.8 percentage points.
As attorney general, when California was offered $4 billion in a national mortgage settlement over the foreclosure crisis, Harris fought for a larger amount by refusing to sign the deal. Although she was accused of grandstanding, she managed to secure $20 billion for California homeowners.
One of her signature accomplishments as attorney general was creating Open Justice, an online platform to make criminal justice data available to the public. The database helped improve police accountability by collecting information on the number of deaths and injuries of those in police custody.
The California Department of Justice recommended in 2012 that Harris file a civil enforcement action against OneWest Bank for “widespread misconduct” when foreclosing homes.
Harris, however, declined to prosecute the bank or its then-CEO Steve Mnuchin, who now serves as Treasury secretary.
Some advocates say Harris didn’t do enough to address police brutality while she was attorney general, especially after she refused to investigate the police shootings of two black men in 2014 and 2015. She also didn’t support a 2015 bill in the state assembly that would have required the attorney general to appoint a special prosecutor who specializes in police use of deadly force.
In 2013, President Barack Obama was recorded referring to Harris as the “best-looking attorney general in the country.” He later apologized for the comments after critics labeled it as sexist.
Harris was rumored to be a potential Supreme Court nominee under the Obama administration, although she later said she wasn’t interested.
She married Doug Emhoff, a corporate lawyer in Los Angeles, in 2014 at a small and private ceremony officiated by her sister. Emhoff has two children from his previous marriage; they call Harris “Momala.”
She won her U.S. Senate race in 2016, defeating fellow Democrat Loretta Sanchez, a moderate congresswoman with 20 years of experience.
She went viral in 2017 for her sharp questioning of then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions on the Russia investigation. After three-and-a-half minutes of persistent questioning, Sessions said, “I’m not able to be rushed this fast! It makes me nervous.”
She implemented a similar strategy of questioning during Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings in 2018, when she grilled him about whether or not he’d discussed the Mueller investigation with anyone.
Her most fervent online supporters were called the “KHive,” a phrase inspired by Beyoncé’s loyal group of fans, the “Beyhive.”
By far the most viral moment of her presidential campaign came in the first Democratic debate, when she confronted Joe Biden over his position on cross-district busing in the 1970s while using a personal anecdote: “There was a little girl in California who was part of the second class to integrate her public schools. And she was bused to school every day,” she said. “And that little girl was me.” Though her poll numbers briefly surged after the debate, it was only downhill for her from there.
In two different TV interviews over the course of a single week in 2019, President Donald Trump called Harris “nasty” for her questioning of Attorney General WIlliam Barr over his handling of the Mueller report during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing.
She had an inconsistent stance on health care, which also made voters skeptical. Although she said she supported the abolition of private health care during an earlier town hall, she later denied her statement and said she had misheard the question. She eventually released a health care plan that still included private health insurance.
During the campaign, Harris shied away from discussing specifics about her career as a prosecutor, a strategic choice borne of fear that voters on the left would criticize her over criminal justice issues. She even failed to give a sharp response to Rep. Tulsi Gabbard’s misleading attacks against her record, leaving voters unclear about her positions.
She ended her presidential campaign in December 2019, a month before the Iowa caucuses, after taking a hard look at her campaign’s financial future and low poll numbers. Internal turmoil cost her presidential bid, with aides accusing Harris of mistreating her staff with sudden layoffs and allowing her sister, Maya, to have too much influence.
She delayed her endorsement for Biden until March 8, when there were no more women left in the race and his nomination was undeniable. Six days after the California primary, she threw her support behind Biden and said he was a leader who could “unify the people.”
She’s an enthusiastic cook who bookmarks recipes from the New York Times’ cooking section and has tried almost all the recipes from Alice Waters’s The Art of Simple Food. Her go-to dinner menu is a simple roast chicken.
She collects Converse Chuck Taylor sneakers, which are her go-to travel shoes.
Her favorite books include Native Son by Richard Wright, The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini, The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan, Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison, and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis.
She typically wakes up around 6 a.m. and works out for half an hour on the elliptical or SoulCycle. She’ll start the day with a bowl of Raisin Bran with almond milk and tea with honey and lemon before leaving for work.
She describes herself as a “tough” boss –– although mostly on herself.
One of the few times her father spoke publicly about her was when he reprimanded her for suggestively pointing to her Jamaican heritage when asked about her support for the legalization of marijuana. He criticized her for connecting Jamaicans to the “fraudulent stereotype of a pot-smoking joy seeker.” He said he and his immediate family wished “to categorically dissociate ourselves from this travesty.”
She’s not a fan of being called the “female Obama.” When a reporter asked her about carrying on Obama’s legacy during her run for president, she said, “I have my own legacy.”
In June, her Wikipedia page was edited 408 times — far more than any other candidate on the shortlist –– in the span of three weeks, which people pointed to as a sign of her nomination as running mate (The Wikipedia page of Sen. Tim Kaine, Hillary Clinton’s running mate in 2016, saw more activity than any other candidate). The edits, mostly made by one person, had scrubbed controversial information from her page, including her “tough-on-crime” record and her decision not to prosecute Steve Mnuchin for financial fraud in 2013.
If elected in November, she will be the first woman, first African-American and first Asian-American vice president in the history of the United States.
Her motto comes from her mom: “You may be the first, but make sure you’re not the last.”
Sources: Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle, POLITICO, The New Yorker, The Atlantic, POLITICO, NPR, USA Today, The Washington Post, The New York Times, GovTrack, The Guardian, Vox, The Intercept, Smart Voter, Book Riot, SF Gate, Mercury News, The Cut, The Truths We Hold by Kamala Harris.