After days of suspense, the swirling uncertainty around the 2020 United States presidential election settled in the late morning of November 7 when news outlets reported Joe Biden as the projected winner. The momentous win for the Democratic party meant, of course, that Biden’s running mate Kamala Harris would join him at the White House as vice president-elect, making her the first woman, Black person, and South Asian person, to take office.
The symbolic victory made many women, especially women of colour, feel that the dream of reaching the country’s highest offices is actually attainable. But Harris’s journey to this historic juncture, like her legacy, has been a complicated one, leaving many grappling with weighing the magic of this moment with her controversial record as a “progressive prosecutor” whose accomplishments were not always beneficial to the communities she claimed to advocate for.
Here, we take a look at Harris’s path to the White House, including her teenage years in Montreal, early career as a prosecutor, history-making Senate win and some of the challenges, and controversies, she has faced along the way.
Kamala Harris’s childhood as a daughter to immigrant parents
Kamala Devi Harris was born in Oakland, California to Shyamala Gopalan and Donald J. Harris, on October 20, 1964. Before Harris was born, her mother had immigrated to the U.S. from India to attend the University of California, Berkeley (UC Berkeley) where she obtained both a master’s and doctorate degree, and went on to have a career as a biomedical scientist. Her father, who had immigrated from Jamaica to also study at UC Berkeley, was an economics professor at Stanford University. While Harris has said that her parents met during the civil rights movement and would frequently take their young daughters to civil rights marches, as a multi-racial American and the child of two immigrant parents, Harris learned at a young age that the country she called home was not always friendly to its citizens of colour. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Harris recalled visiting her father in Palo Alto after her parents divorced and being told by a neighbourhood child that she was forbidden from playing with Harris and her younger sister, Maya, because they were Black. While in elementary school she was bussed to an almost entirely white school in a different district as part of a federal attempt to desegregate schools, something Harris has said made her feel like an outsider.
Her early education—and Canadian connection
In 1976, five years after her parents divorced and at the age of 12, Harris’s mother accepted a teaching position at the McGill University Faculty of Medicine in Montreal. Harris, her mom and her younger sister moved to Canada where she finished elementary school, then attended and graduated from Westmount High School where a former classmate told CBC’s Let’s Go “she got along with everyone.” While living in Montreal, the future vice president-elect learned French and even started a dance team at her high school. After graduating, Harris moved back to the U.S. where she pursued a degree in political science and economics at Howard University, one of the longest standing Historically Black Colleges and Universities in the country. During her time at Howard, she became a prominent member of the campus’s debate team and pledged Alpha Kappa Alpha (the first Black sorority ever created, and whose origins began on Howard’s campus). After completing her degree at Howard, Harris went on to obtain a law degree from the University of California, Hastings College of Law where she served as president of its chapter of the Black Law Students Association.
The milestones—and controversies—of Harris’s career as a prosecutor
Shortly after graduating from law school, Harris began her career as deputy district attorney in the prosecutors’ offices Alameda County, California. She spent eight years there before moving to the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office as assistant district attorney where she later oversaw the career criminal unit. From there, she took a job at San Francisco City Hall where she ran the Family and Children’s Services Division representing child abuse and neglect cases.
It would be in this role, and subsequent positions, that she prosecuted a number of controversial three-strike cases whose harsh sentencing has been the subject of much public criticism. While considering a person’s criminal past during sentencing is not a new concept, the Three Strikes Law, which was first established in 1994 as a part of an aggressive nationwide anti-violence strategy, enforces mandatory life sentences for repeat offenders. A number of states have adopted some form of a “three strikes” rule that seeks to punish repeat offenders, but California has been widely criticized for its particularly harsh enforcement of the law. Under California’s controversial three strikes law, any person who has committed three felonies, which includes crimes like arson, robbery, drug possession and firearm violations, can receive a life sentence. Despite the fact that the law was meant to be applied to violent repeat offenders, many crimes on the list of offences that can contribute to a mandatory life sentence are, on their own, ones that would not carry such a harsh punishment. As a result, critics say the law has had catastrophic results for people who have committed a series of non-violent crimes such as drug possession, which disproportionately impacts Black people who make up 43% of the state’s prison population.
Even though Harris has consistently faced criticism for prosecuting people under the three strikes law, she has defended her actions several times. During a radio interview with The Breakfast Club, for instance, the vice president-elect said that she “would never apologize for saying that when a child is molested or a woman is raped or a human being kills another human being that there should be serious consequences for that.”
Harris’s history-making appointments as the district attorney of San Francisco and attorney general of California
In 2003, Harris ran and won against her former boss to become San Francisco’s district attorney, making her the first person of colour ever elected to that position. During her time in the District Attorney’s office, she launched the “Back on Track” initiative that was designed to help low-level offenders get a fresh start by providing them with education and job opportunities. She went on to become the first Black, and first woman, attorney general of California in November 2010. However, as historical as her win would be, some of the decisions she would make as attorney general would come back to haunt her.
As attorney general, Harris supported certain causes that proved potentially harmful to those that she said she so desperately wanted to protect. For instance, she advocated passionately for a truancy initiative where parents of students that were habitually late to school faced risk of prosecution, even though there were concerns that it would disproportionately affect low-income people of colour the most. (There’s much evidence that it did just that.)
And during a time when the public has become increasingly aware of the violence that police officers disproportionately inflict on people of colour, it’s jarring to learn that Harris opposed a bill that would require her office to investigate shootings involving police officers as well as refused to support body-worn cameras. The Vice President-elect has also been reluctant to commit to defunding the police.
A picture of Harris’s career accomplishments, and controversies, would be incomplete without mentioning her history of fighting to uphold wrongful convictions, including the case of Kevin Cooper, a death row inmate whose trial was laced with racism and corruption. As science advanced during Cooper’s sentence, he sought a more advanced stream of DNA testing that could prove his innocence. Harris opposed it. It wasn’t until an exposé of the case went viral that she changed her position.
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Her time in the U.S. Senate
In 2016, after the first California Senate seat in 25 years opened up, Harris ran, won, and made history again after becoming only the second Black woman, and the first South Asian American, ever to do so. After joining the Senate, Harris’s accomplishments included advocating for a single-payer health care system, supporting the introduction of legislation to increase access to outdoor recreational sites in urban areas, and providing financial assistance to low-income families facing an increasingly expensive housing market in the state of California.
Harris made headlines when, as a member of the Judiciary Committee, she questioned Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh in 2018 on the sexual assault allegations he faced. And when clips of her persistent and unwavering questioning went viral, it was clear to many that Harris’s impact on the world had only just begun.
Harris again made headlines and proved that she was a force to be reckoned with when, as part of the Senate Intelligence Committee, she confronted Attorney General Jeff Sessions about his contact with Russia during the Trump campaign. Her anger and distrust towards the Trump administration was anything but concealed. Having a firsthand look at how things were being run in Washington as a Senator fuelled a fire in her to really make change in her country. In an interview with Vogue, she recalled sitting on the couch after Donald Trump had been elected president and thinking “This. Can’t. Be. Happening.”
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Harris’s bid for the U.S. presidency
On January 21, 2019 (Martin Luther King Jr. Day, no less), Harris announced on Good Morning America that she would be running for president in the 2020 election. “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.” She started strong in her bid to become the Democratic presidential nominee, giving an especially promising showing at the Democratic primary debate in June 2019 when she confronted none other than Joe Biden on his history of opposing the federal bussing program that sought to desegregate schools, a program that Harris, despite feeling at times like an outsider, has said she benefited from. Harris famously detailed the journey of a young girl who boarded the bus every day in search of a better education before revealing, “That little girl was me.”
But after candidates began poking holes in her idealistic healthcare plan, one that limited the costs that Americans would have to contribute for healthcare, but neglected to take into consideration the guaranteed pushback from private insurers, and bringing up many of her controversial decisions as attorney general, her popularity began to slip. In December 2019, Harris announced that she was withdrawing from the presidential race.
And finally, Harris’s path to the vice presidency
Although her run for president was unsuccessful, on August 11, 2020, Biden announced that he had selected Harris as his running mate, to which Harris responded “I’m honoured to join him as our party’s nominee for Vice-President, and do what it takes to make him our Commander-in-Chief.” This made Harris the fourth woman ever to appear on a major political party’s presidential ticket in the U.S., and the first Black woman, as well as the first South Asian person, to be nominated for national office.
Despite reservations about Harris’s past as a prosecutor, her road to becoming the U.S. vice president-elect has been historic, and for many, the future is a hopeful one. “While I may be the first woman in this office, I will not be the last, because every little girl watching tonight sees that this is a country of possibilities,” Harris said during her November 7 victory speech in Wilmington, Delaware.
What’s next for Vice President-elect Harris? Between Trump’s refusal to concede the presidency, Biden’s ambitious transition plan and the president-elect’s COVID-19 task force, the next few months will be busy as the work of transforming the country begins and the American people start to see if Biden and Harris will indeed champion policy that ameliorates the lives of the people who elected them. As Harris put it in her victory speech: “Now is when the real work begins, the necessary work, the good work, the essential work, to unite our country and heal the soul of our nation.”