Ending months of suspense that began on a debate stage in mid-March, when Joe Biden committed to naming as a woman as his running mate, the former vice president announced Tuesday that he had chosen Kamala Harris, the first-term U.S. senator from California, to join him in the race to unseat Donald Trump and Mike Pence in November.
But for Kamala Harris, the journey to this history-making moment began 17 years earlier, when, as a 38-year-old San Francisco lawyer, she made the bold decision to challenge her former boss in the city's District Attorney race. In 2003, Harris was a little-known prosecutor; the incumbent, Terence Hallinan, was a well-connected son of the city who billed himself as “America’s most progressive district attorney.” Many of her friends thought the race was unwinnable.“A lot of people told her not to run,” Debbie Mesloh, a Democratic strategist and longtime friend of Harris, told Politico last year.
Harris, a graduate of Howard University and UC Hastings College of the Law, had started her career as a lawyer in 1990, when she joined the Alameda County district attorney’s office in Oakland. From there, she moved to the San Francisco district attorney's office to run the department’s career criminal unit. In 2003, as she began to prep for the San Francisco district attorney race, she joined the city attorney’s office.
And despite Hallinan's entrenched position, Harris sensed a vulnerability, partly because of corruption charges then being lodged against City Hall, but more because of data that showed that Hallinan had a low conviction rate of cases he brought to trial and a backlog of cases that never got there. According to Politico, Harris's consultants found that about two-thirds of likely voters supported Hallinan’s progressive policies, but about half of those people did not feel he was putting them into effect.
“It was incredibly frustrating, and not just in terms of the day-to-day work,” Harris wrote in her memoir, The Truths We Hold. “I believed the district attorney was undercutting the whole idea of what a progressive prosecutor could be. My vision of a progressive prosecutor was someone who used the power of the office with a sense of fairness, perspective, and experience, someone who was clear about the need to hold serious criminals accountable and who understood that the best way to create safe communities was to prevent crime in the first place.”
Though down by double-digits at one point, Harris finished strong, leap-frogging over another better-known candidate on primary day and then handily defeating Hallinan in a run-off to become the state’s first African-American district attorney.
It would not be the last time that Kamala Harris would make political history.The Daughter of Immigrants
Shyamala Gopalan was the daughter of an Indian diplomat and a women’s rights activist in the southeastern state of Tamil Nadu when she arrived in the U.S. to start graduate school at the University of California at Berkeley, pursuing a doctorate in nutrition and endocrinology. Donald Harris was also an immigrant, born in Jamaica and a graduate of the University of West Indies, before he too came to Berkeley to obtain his graduate degree in economics.
According to a lengthy profile in the San Jose Mercury News in 2019, the pair did not meet in the classroom but instead amid the protests that were then commonplace on campus. It was the '60s and every institution imaginable, from the White House to the university itself, was being challenged, and both Gopalan and Harris embraced that moment of foment.
“I was in awe of them,” Aubrey LaBrie, a close friend of the couple back in their student days, told the Mercury-News. “They were serious students and so articulate, but also really cared” about their activism.
The young couple married while still in school, and in 1964, at age 25, Gopalan both earned her Ph.D. from Berkeley and gave birth to Kamala in Oakland. A sister, Maya, was born two years later. According to the Mercury-News, “Harris and Gopalan threw themselves into the civil rights movement, bringing a young Kamala to protests in a stroller.” (Earlier this year, in the midst of the Black Lives Matter protests, Harris posted on Instagram a photo of her mother from back in those days, writing: My parents marched and shouted in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. It’s because of them and the folks who also took to the streets to fight for justice that I am where I am.")
Kamala Harris's parents met not in the classroom, but at campus protests, when they were both at Berkeley.
The marriage did not last, however. Shyamala and Donald separated when Harris was five and her father moved to take a professorship at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The couple divorced two years later.
Shymala raised her two daughters in Oakland as a single mother, but, according to Harris, made sure they were kept aware of both sides of their heritage, not just her own Indian background. “My mother understood very well she was raising two black daughters," Harris wrote in her memoir. "She knew that her adopted homeland would see Maya and me as black girls, and she was determined to make sure we would grow into confident black women."
In the fall of 1969, Kamala Harris was one of the first students in the state of California to be bused to school, transported each day to Thousand Oaks Elementary School in an affluent part of North Berkeley. That experience, of course, led to her most famous moment of her debate experience, when she challenged Joe Biden on his stance on busing decades ago, and memorably pronounced, “that little girl was me.”
When Kamala was in middle school, her mother moved the family to Montreal to teach and do research at McGill University before later returning to the Bay Area and Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory, where she became a noted breast cancer researcher. In 1971, her father moved to nearby Stanford, where Kamala and her sister would often visit him during the summer. (Kamala Harris's mother died died in 2009, at age 70. Her father, who retired in 1988 remains an Emeritus Professor of Economics at Stanford.)The Howard Years
Perhaps the most significant educational and professional decision Kamala Harris made before later deciding to enter politics was to attend Howard University, the most prominent of the Historically Black Colleges and Universities. As the Washington Post noted in a front page profile last year, Harris"wanted to be surrounded by black students, black culture and black traditions" at school occasionally nicknamed “the Black Harvard.”
“When you’re at an HBCU,” Harris says, “and especially one with the size and with the history of Howard University — and also in the context of also being in D.C., which was known forever as being ‘Chocolate City’ — it just becomes about you understanding that there is a whole world of people who are like you. It’s not just about there are a few of us who may find each other.”
On the campaign trail, Harris often mentions her membership in Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority, the oldest of the historically Black sororities and one that was founded at Howard. Sorority sisters were regular organizers of campaign events during her brief presidential run, and reportedly were among the first and most enthusiastic online donors to the Biden-Harris campaign on Tuesday. For many of them she represents what many alumni call “the Howard swagger.”
“I became an adult at Howard University,” Harris told the Post. “Howard very directly influenced and reinforced — equally important — my sense of being and meaning and reasons for being.”
On Twitter on Tuesday, HBCU was a trending topic, and when someone posted “Kamala Harris's selection means that the Democratic ticket will not have someone with an Ivy League degree for the first time since 1984,” another person quickly responded with a clarification: “Kamala Harris's selection means that the Democratic ticket will have someone with an HBCU degree for the first time. fixed it."
As Joy Reid, host of MSNBC's The ReidOut put it Monday night, ""She's the first Asian-American Woman VP candidate, the first Black woman VP candidate, the first Black VP candidate period, and the first Howard University alumni. An HBCU has sent a woman to the vice presidential ticket. That is it."The Next Barack Obama?
When Harris, in 2010, after seven years as San Francisco district attorney, decided to run for state Attorney General, it was another uphill battle. As Politico noted, “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’ DA.”
The race ended up being so close that Cooley claimed victory on election night and it wasn't until all the ballots were counted three weeks later, that Harris was declared the winner by just 0.8 percentage points. She was the first woman of color to hold that office.
When Harris decided in 2016 to take a shot at the Senate seat being vacated by Barbara Boxer after 24 years in office, her bid attracted national attention, including a major profile in the New York Times Magazine. As the author, Emily Bazelon wrote, “Perhaps more than any other rising Democratic star running for federal office this year, Harris embodies the future the party would like to imagine for itself in the fast-approaching post-Obama era.”
Added Bazelon, “Obama’s presidency was supposed to herald the dawn of a Democratic Party whose politicians looked more like its racially diverse voters. Yet beyond Obama and Hillary Clinton, the party’s highest officeholders — in the Senate and in governors’ mansions — remain conspicuously white and mostly male.”
Kamala Harris after winning her 2016 race for the U.S. Senate/Getty ImagesBarbara Davidson
It's been a theme in much of Harris's recent political life. In 200, when she won the primary for the Attorney General race – not even the post itself – the Daily Beast called her “the female Obama.” In 2015, the Washington Post published a column headlined “Is Kamala Harris the next Barack Obama?” (Though Harris herself has wisely sidestepped those comparisons, the actual Barack Obama did weigh in on her selection yesterday, posting on Instagram, “@JoeBiden nailed this decision. By choosing Senator @KamalaHarris as America’s next vice president, he’s underscored his own judgment and character.”)
In 2016, Harris won her Senate race, handily defeating her fellow Democrat, Loretta Sanchez, in a nonpartisan general election, and becoming only the second Black woman, after Carol Moseley Braun of Illinois, to be elected to the U.S. Senate. But her own victory was tempered by one that same night by Donald Trump. As Harris recalled in a 2018 Vogue profile, “I sat on our couch. I didn’t share one chip with anyone. I was just like: This. Can’t. Be. Happening.”Stumbling on the Campaign Trail
From the moment that Harris won that Senate race, it was clear that her eye was on the White House for 2020. She entered that race on Jan.21, 2019, doing so on Good Morning America. “I love my country,” Harris said, "and this is a moment in time that I feel a sense of responsibility to fight for the best of who we are."
From the beginning, she was seen as one of the early favorites and her strong performance at that first debate, when she challenged Joe Biden on busing, only reinforced that narrative. But her campaign stumbled from there, and she never seemed tp recapture that early momentum. Moreover, the issue of her record as a prosecutor, still problematic to some voters, continued to dog her on the campaign trail.
Kamala Harris and Joe Biden occasionally clashed during the 2020 Presidential debates/Getty ImagesJIM WATSON
In November, 2019, a full three months before the Iowa caucuses, Politico did an advance post-mortem on her candidacy. “Unmistakable signs of a floundering campaign are all around her,” the site wrote. “Harris’ town hall crowds are thinner and more tepid than they once were. Applause lines are scarcer. Network embeds who have followed her for months are plotting their next moves. Inside her campaign, morale sinks lower with each new poll. Aides sometimes talk about the campaign in the past tense before catching themselves.”
She dropped out on Dec. 3, citing a lack of fundraising. “My campaign for president simply doesn’t have the financial resources we need to continue,” Harris wrote in an email to supporters. “But I want to be clear with you: I am still very much in this fight.” The New York Times called her decision “perhaps the most surprising development to date in a fluid Democratic presidential campaign.”
Might Joe Biden have seen a fellow soulmate in that moment? After all, he had run for the presidency himself twice before, both times with miserable results. He abruptly dropped out of the race for the 1998 Democratic nomination in 1997, when it was revealed that he had lifted part of his stump speech from that of Neil Kinnock, a British politician. (The nomination eventually went to Michael Dukakis, who lost to George H.W. Bush.) Then, in the 2008 race, he dropped out after the Iowa caucuses, after coming in fifth place and capturing less than 1% of the vote. (The party's nominee, Barack Obama, chose him as his running mate nine months later.)
And, in fact, when Harris endorsed her former rival on March 8 — when the race still seemed to be a competitive one between Biden and Bernie Sanders — it immediately raised speculation that Harris was a front-runner for the veep slot.
That bit of political speculation became reality on Tuesday.