Kamala Harris's charmed political life is about to face its biggest test

Andrew Romano
West Coast Correspondent

After announcing her intention to run for president last week, California Sen. Kamala Harris traveled to her hometown of Oakland Sunday to launch her campaign at a high-profile rally before a crowd of nearly 20,000.

Surprisingly, precisely zero people were surprised.

Harris, 54, is only two years into her freshman term as a U.S. senator. She represents one of the most dependably Democratic states in the nation. Previously she served as California’s attorney general for six years, and San Francisco’s district attorney for seven years before that.

Kamala Harris speaks during a rally launching her presidential campaign on Sunday in Oakland, Calif. (Photo: Noah Berger/AFP/Getty Images)

That’s hardly a flimsy résumé. But it’s also not the sort of résumé that, by itself, tends to gets you talked about as one of your party’s most inevitable presidential prospects, or catapults you into the ranks of “frontrunners” the moment you declare.

Only two past presidents — Martin Van Buren and Bill Clinton — served as attorney general before ascending to the Oval Office. And there’s only one senator-turned-president in U.S. history who spent so little time in the world’s greatest deliberative body before launching a White House bid: Barack Obama.

Harris, meanwhile, has been touted as a potential president for years — even before she joined the Senate.

San Francisco District Attorney Kamala Harris, right, helps lead a 2004 MLK Jr. Day march with Mayor Gavin Newsom and the Rev. Cecil Williams. (Photo: Paul Sakuma/AP)

The question is why. Looking back at how the “Kamala for commander in chief” buzz built over time is instructive. In part that’s because it reveals how much of a trailblazer she’s been in every stage of her career — and how that trailblazer status has, in turn, propelled her into the national spotlight.

“When Harris first ran for statewide office, the nation and, more specifically, the Democratic Party had begun to rethink the boundaries for minority and female candidates,” says Dan Schnur, a former spokesman for John McCain and recent director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California. “Right after a primary in which voters chose between a minority candidate [Obama] and female candidate [Hillary Clinton], Harris emerged on the landscape of the biggest state in the country as both. Her demographic identity brought her a tremendous amount of attention at precisely the right moment in her party’s history.”

Yet this history also highlights the single biggest challenge facing Harris’s nascent campaign — the key factor that will determine if she catches fire or flames out. In a presidential slugfest, biography is a great starting point. But it can only take you so far. For years, the excitement surrounding Harris has overshadowed whatever political skills she’s displayed on the campaign trail. Now those skills will be put to the test.

“Sen. Harris thrives off of doubters and skeptics,” says California Democratic consultant Brian Brokaw, who ran Harris’s 2010 and 2014 campaigns for state attorney general. “When her back has been against the wall — I have seen this time and again — it’s like fuel to her. People who think of her as lacking substance — as being all style or symbolism — couldn’t be more off the mark. And they do so at their own peril.”

Harris has never had trouble attracting national attention. In 2005, shortly after becoming DA, she appeared in a Newsweek story called “A New Team in Town” about the “women in charge of [San Francisco’s] safety”; the feature was part of a cover package on “How Women Lead.”

Newsweek didn’t proclaim Harris a possible president-in-waiting, but it wasn’t long before other outlets and observers did. “She’s a rising star and we hope to see her running for even bigger offices down the road,” an EMILY’s List spokeswoman told Politico in 2010, before Harris was elected as state attorney general. “That’s a characterization Harris’s campaign embraces,” the site added, quoting her consultant Ace Smith calling her “one of the potentially brightest rising stars in the Democratic Party” — while pointedly noting that Smith had “declin[ed] to speculate about her future beyond this election.”

The assumption, of course, was that Harris had a future beyond that election — and once she actually won statewide office, nobody ever declined to speculate again. Harris has “caught the attention of her party’s most powerful figures, some of whom view her as a rising star in the mold of Barack Obama,” Politico declared that December, naming her one of the top 10 “breakout stars” of 2010. “[She] has the unique opportunity to build a strong national political brand.”

California Attorney General Kamala Harris and Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom greet President Barack Obama in San Francisco in 2011. (Photo: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

The real turning point, however, came a few years later — and the Obama connection is key. The two had long been close. In 2007, Harris attended Obama’s presidential kickoff speech in Springfield, Ill.; that cycle, she wound up chairing his California campaign. Seeking to elevate Harris the way he’d been elevated nearly a decade earlier, the president later handpicked her to deliver a primetime address at the 2012 Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C. CNN’s John Berman was so “disarmed by Harris’s popularity,” according to the Sacramento Bee, that “he had difficulty introducing her before an interview on the convention floor.”

“I lost my train of thought,” Berman told his viewers, “because so many people are here getting their picture taken with her.”

“She’s definitely on the national radar,” Jessica Taylor of the Rothenberg Political Report said at the time. “Something like this will bring her higher visibility for her next office.”

The following April, Obama gave Harris yet another boost. At a ritzy fundraiser in Atherton, Calif., the president told a group of Democratic donors that in addition to being “brilliant,” “dedicated” and “tough,” Harris “also happens to be, by far, the best-looking attorney general in the country.” The president’s assessment struck a “wolfish,” if not outright sexist, note, but the ensuing publicity secured Harris’s spot on the national stage.

Soon, commentators were mentioning the Californian for every conceivable office: senator (to replace Barbara Boxer, if she were to retire); governor (to succeed Jerry Brown, if he were to pass on reelection); attorney general of the United States (after then-AG Eric Holder resigned); even Supreme Court justice (to fill either Stephen Breyer or Antonin Scalia’s seat).

Kamala Harris addresses the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., in 2012. (Photo: Jason Reed/Reuters)

But amid all the mentioning, the presidency was the most persistent theme. In 2012, National Journal named Harris one of its “up-and-comers” to watch in the 2016 presidential race. A year later, the Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza captured the conventional wisdom.

“There is a theory that Harris could make the big leap to run for president in 2016,” Cillizza wrote. “If former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick stay out of the race, Harris could well be the only woman and the only African American candidate in the field. … That’s a powerful set of distinguishing characteristics, particularly in a Democratic presidential primary fight.”

Publicly, Harris wasn’t buying into it.  The guessing game “drives me bananas,” she said at the time. “I’m only halfway through my first term as attorney general, and it’s a job I love.”

Everyone knows what happened next: Harris announced her Senate ambitions in 2015, then promptly locked up the big donors and big endorsements and steamrolled her only serious challenger, Orange County Rep. Loretta Sanchez, in both the Democratic primary and the top-two general-election runoff.

As usual, the immediate coverage focused as much on what Harris had just achieved as where she might go next — and since arriving in Washington, the freshman senator has methodically fulfilled those grand expectations, paving the way for this week’s announcement.

Sen. Kamala Harris attends a Dream Act rally in Irvine, Calif., in 2017. (Photo: Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

As FiveThirtyEight’s Perry Bacon Jr. has pointed out, Harris has used her Senate perch to position herself as a leader of key Democratic primary constituencies, from black Americans (she “attended the annual civil rights march in Selma and pushed legislation that would get rid of bail systems that rely on people putting up cash to be released from jail”) to Latino Americans (“she was one of the earliest critics on Capitol Hill of the Trump administration’s aggressive immigration policies, and her push for a government shutdown over the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program delighted party activists”) to women (she was “among the first Senate Democrats to call for Minnesota’s Al Franken to resign amid allegations that he groped several women”).

At the same time, Harris has kept her name in the cable news chyrons by deploying her aggressive prosecutorial skills in hearings of the Senate Intelligence and Judiciary Committees — making witnesses like Brett Kavanaugh, now a Supreme Court justice, and Jeff Sessions “nervous,” as the former attorney general famously put it. The repeated interruptions and rebukes from Republican bigwigs she drew further fueled Harris’s burgeoning reputation as a leader of the anti-Donald-Trump resistance.

So what does Harris’s meteoric ascent augur for the campaign ahead?

Revisit Harris’s press coverage over the years and a common theme emerges. She is “the first African-American woman to lead her [department],” Newsweek noted in 2005. “Securing the [Democratic] nomination would make Ms Harris the first African American or Indian American woman to be a major party nominee for the presidency,” added the BBC on Jan. 21. (Harris is the daughter of a Jamaican-born Stanford University economics professor and an Indian-born cancer researcher.)

“Is Kamala Harris the next Barack Obama?” asked the Washington Post’s Nia-Malika Henderson in 2015. “[She] embodies several parts of the coalition of the ascendant, the voting bloc that was so important to President Obama’s rise” — and thus seems to represent “everything the Democrats want these days.”

In other words, Harris, like Obama, has been a pioneering figure every step of the way, breaking through barriers of sexism and racism that have long held back women of color — and the historic symbolism of those successive breakthroughs has fed on itself, fueling higher hopes and greater buzz. Meanwhile, the nuances of Harris’s actual agenda and achievements have often taken a backseat in the national conversation.

Sen. Kamala Harris questions Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh in September. (Photo: Jacquelyn Martin/AP)

“In my career when I was district attorney in San Francisco, attorney general of California and even United States senator, in each position I was the first,” Harris told David Axelrod in 2017. “So… reporters would come up to me and ask this really original question, put a microphone in front of my face: ‘So what’s it’s like to be the first woman fill-in-the-blank.’”

“I realized when I first ran for office that people demand that you talk about yourself,” Harris added. “I would prefer to talk about what needs to get done.”

Whether or not the media has paid attention, Harris has gotten plenty done. Her extensive record in San Francisco, Sacramento and Washington, D.C., is rich with substance and sure to become a treasure trove for supporters and detractors alike — with positions on criminal justice reform, tax reform, immigration, mortgage relief, capital punishment, sentencing, transgender rights, police transparency and numerous other issues. In fact, it’s a record that’s already being scrutinized on both the right and the left.

The Harris campaign sees this scrutiny as an opportunity to explain how the senator has used her platform as a prosecutor to go after banks, predatory lenders and other powerful institutions. This is someone “who’s put in the work,” says her press secretary, Ian Sams.

“Voters have seen [Harris] in these big hearings over the last year, and they have a baseline understanding that she is, for lack of better term, a badass,” Sams says. “That is where people are starting from. It’s our job to tell them more about her record and her past electoral successes.”

Yet the interesting thing to watch will be how Harris reacts as the scrutiny intensifies, first in a crowded Democratic primary contest and later, perhaps, in a fight against Trump.

“The next year or two will show us whether Harris can hit major-league pitching,” says Schnur. “She’s torn up the minor leagues here in California and been tremendously successful. But she would be the first to tell you that this is an entirely different level of competition.”

For now, the senator has the leeway to launch the campaign she wants to launch. She can evoke Martin Luther King Jr. with the timing of her announcement and Shirley Chisholm with her logo. She can refuse to pick a lane, “pitching herself as the one [Democrat] who can actually put together a winning coalition.” She can talk, as she did Sunday, about how “America’s story has always been written by people who see what can be, unburdened by what has been.” She can trumpet her impressive $1.5 million first-day fundraising haul. She can namedrop Too Short and dance to A Tribe Called Quest. And it’s easy to imagine the prosecutor in Harris already plotting how to cross-examine each of her opponents on the debate stage.

Kamala Harris greets a supporter as she launches her 2020 campaign in Oakland, Calif., on Sunday. (Photo: Paul Kitagaki Jr./ZUMA Wire)

But campaigns are crucibles, and the most revealing moments are the ones that force a candidate from offense to defense. Despite what national pundits might assume, Harris hasn’t always coasted to victory in safely Democratic California. Yes, her Senate bid was something of a coronation; yes, her earlier reelection campaigns, statewide and in San Francisco, were cakewalks. But her initial bids for both district attorney (2003) and attorney general (2010) were hardly smooth sailing.

In the former, Harris dispatched her ex-boss, incumbent DA Terence Hallinan — and his camp’s dismissive accusations that she owed her career to an early dalliance with powerful San Francisco pol Willie Brown — in part by making her opponents “understand that if they’re going to try to hurt you, they’re going to get more hurt,” her then-consultant Jim Stearns recently recalled. At one candidate forum, Harris made sure to remind voters that Hallinan had attacked another rival, Bill Fazio, “for being caught in a massage parlor,” and that Fazio had attacked Hallinan “for people having sex in his office.” Then Harris told the assembled voters that her campaign was “not going to be about negative attacks.” The crowd leapt to its feet, impressed by how Harris had put her rivals in their place.

In the latter race, for attorney general, Harris was again the underdog; though Democratic overall, California has long gravitated toward more conservative candidates for law-enforcement posts.

“Kamala by no means fit the historical mold of California AGs — and by that I mean a lot of old white guys, many of whom had been Republicans,” explains Brokaw. “Progressive politicians told us she couldn’t win because they agreed too much with her politically. They thought the state wasn’t ready to elect someone like her as ‘top cop.’”

Yet, adds Brokaw, by “tuning out the external noise” and “outworking and outmaneuvering her opponent” — frontrunning Republican Steve Cooley, thrice elected district attorney of Democratic Los Angeles — Harris weathered a controversy over the San Francisco crime lab and more than $1 million in late GOP TV ads attacking her anti-death-penalty position to eke out one of the closest statewide victories in California history.

“She didn’t come out of nowhere,” says Sams. “She ran some tough races in California. She went through the wringer and learned to not take any votes for granted.”

A crowd of nearly 20,000 gathered in Oakland, Calif., on Sunday as Kamala Harris formally launched her campaign for president. (Photo: Tony Avelar/AP)

Even so, Harris has rarely been pushed out of her prosecutorial comfort zone on the trail. As Brokaw puts it, “her training as a prosecutor” has made her “incredibly deliberate and detail-oriented, with every fact fully considered and every possible counterargument gamed out in advance.” The assaults she has endured in the past, from Brown to capital punishment, were ultimately hurdles she could see coming miles away.

The 2020 contest won’t be nearly as predictable.

“Harris has been a very talented campaigner,” adds Schnur. “But there is no preparation for running for president except running for president.”

Which brings us back to Obama. Like Harris, his climb was rapid and rousingly symbolic. But the real reason he won the 2008 Democratic nomination and went on to defeat John McCain is that he showed he could rise to the occasion when thrown off his stride by the sort of unexpected setbacks that bedevil actual presidents once in office: grueling delegate-by-delegate warfare against an unrelenting opponent (primary challenger Hillary Clinton); a controversy that inflames some of America’s deepest divides (the flap over Jeremiah Wright); a catastrophe that imperils the global economy (the 2008 Wall Street collapse).

The task ahead for Harris is proving that she’s the “next Barack Obama” in this sense too. If she succeeds, she could very well add “first woman president,” “first black woman president,” and “first Asian-American president” to her long list of firsts.

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