History in the making | Daily News
US Vice President–Elect Kamala Devi Harris:

History in the making

Kamala Harris and Joe Biden
Kamala Harris and Joe Biden

California Sen. Kamala Devi Harris’ election as U.S. Vice President is more than a data point for the history books. It’s a long-sought achievement for women and people of colour that could forever change the face of politics.

Harris, 56, is the first woman ever to be elected vice president or to be part of a winning presidential ticket, assuming that none of the Trump campaign’s litigation over the election process derails the results. She will also be the first Black person and first Asian American to be Vice President.

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 elected VP.

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 the University of California in 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.

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 bussed 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 travelled from her predominantly black, lower-middle-class neighbourhood 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 travelled the countryside teaching impoverished women about birth control.

Harris attended middle school and high school in Montreal after her mom got a teaching job at McGill University and a position as a cancer researcher at Jewish General Hospital. After high school, Harris attended Howard University, the prestigious historically Black college in Washington, D.C. She majored in political science and economics, and joined the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority.

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. 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. 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. 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.

In 2003, she ran for district attorney in San Francisco against incumbent Terence Hallinan, her former boss. 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.

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.

Her friendship with 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 colour 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.

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.

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.”

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 bussed to school every day,” she said. “And that little girl was me.”

Her motto comes from her mom: “You may be the first, but make sure you’re not the last.” (SF Chronicle, Politico)