Kamala Harris has made history as the first woman and first woman of color to serve as the Vice President of the United States. But, as a former California attorney general and U.S. Senator, Harris has broken barriers throughout her career. Here are some things you should know about Vice President Kamala Harris, including her personal and political history and her stance on major issues.
- Kamala Harris has made history as the first woman and first woman of color to serve as the Vice President of the United States.
- Kamala Harris was raised by a Jamaican father and an Indian-born mother.
- She served as both District Attorney for San Francisco and Attorney General for California.
- Harris’ record as a prosecutor is considered to be very centrist, while, as a senator, she has been seen as largely liberal.
- While both President Biden and Vice President Harris are from the moderate wing of the Democratic Party, Harris’ Senate record is considered farther to the left than Biden’s was.
Early Life and Education
Kamala Devi Harris was born on Oct. 20, 1964, in Oakland, Calif. Her mother, Shyamala, who became a renowned breast cancer researcher, emigrated from India. Her father, Donald, an economics professor at Stanford University, came to the U.S. from Jamaica.
When Harris was seven, her parents divorced. At age 12, she, along with her mother and sister, Maya, moved to Montreal. It was there that Kamala and her sister organized a reportedly successful protest against the owner of their apartment building, who would not let children play on the building’s lawn.
As a student at Westmount High School in Quebec, Harris dreamed of becoming a lawyer. After graduation, she returned to the U.S. and entered Howard University in Washington, D.C., where she earned a B.A. in political science and economics. Then she went back to her home state of California and attended the University of California Hastings College of the Law, where she earned her J.D. in 1989.
Harris began her legal career as deputy district attorney in Alameda County, Calif., focusing on sex crimes. From there, she became managing attorney of the Career Criminal Unit in San Francisco and in 2000 became chief of the San Francisco Community and Neighborhood Division of the DA’s office, where she established the state’s first Bureau of Children’s Justice.
San Francisco Attorney General
In 2003, Harris defeated her former boss, Terence Hallinan, in an election to become San Francisco District Attorney (the first black woman to hold the office). During her first three years, the conviction rate in San Francisco jumped from 52% to 67%. At the same time, she launched the “Back on Track” initiative that cut recidivism through job training and other programs for low-level offenders.
During her tenure as San Francisco DA, Harris went from police favorite to being shunned by police unions due to a reputation for only prosecuting the most airtight of cases and, in 2004, for her handling of a case against a cop killer. Harris had an often-stated personal opposition to the death penalty and had made a campaign promise to never seek it. Still, when she refused to request the death penalty for a gang member convicted of killing police officer Isaac Espinoza, it turned many of those on the blue line against her.
Attorney General of California
In November 2010, Harris became the first woman and the first black and South Asian American Attorney General of California, narrowly beating Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley in the race. She made an immediate mark by withdrawing from settlement negotiations with five of the country’s largest financial institutions for improper mortgage practices, only to eventually settle for five times the original proposed amount.
As Attorney General, Harris created Open Justice, an online platform that makes criminal justice data available to the public at large. The database has helped improve police accountability by tabulating the number of deaths and injuries of those in police custody. She also presided over the creation of “Operation Boo,” a mandatory curfew for all homeless sex offenders on Halloween.
U.S. Senator for California
When she defeated Loretta Sanchez in 2016, Harris became the first South Asian-American to enter the U.S. Senate. Her pointed questioning of high-profile witnesses like then-U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh drew her high praise from the left. In the Senate, Harris supported a single-payer healthcare system and introduced legislation to provide financial relief to those facing rising housing costs.
According to GovTrack, Harris joined bipartisan bills less often than all other Senate Democrats, and of the 696 bills she co-sponsored, only 14% were introduced by Republicans. On the other hand, she received bicameral (House and Senate) support on more bills than any other member of her Senate class and had the most co-sponsors on her bills of anyone in her class.
While serving as Senator, Harris introduced one bill that became law in 2019: S. 129 (116th): Saint Francis Dam Disaster National Memorial Act. It provides for the establishment of a national monument to commemorate those killed by the collapse of the Saint Francis Dam on March 12, 1928. Three other bills that she has sponsored have been enacted via other legislation:
- S. 3055 (115th): Disaster Victims Passport and ID Relief Act of 2018
- S. 3033 (115th): COUNT Victims Act
- S. 729 (115th): John Muir National Historic Site Expansion Act.
The Presidential Campaign
Harris announced she was running for president in January 2019. One high point of her campaign came during the first Democratic debate when Harris confronted Joseph Biden over his opposition to cross-district busing in the 1970s: She delivered a stirring anecdote about the opportunity busing afforded one child—ending with the dramatic line, “And that little girl was me.” The clip became an immediate viral sensation and so did her candidacy—for a while.
The resulting surge in poll numbers, however, did not last. Harris shut down her campaign in December 2019 and endorsed Biden in March 2020. He announced Harris as his running mate in August 2020, saying, “Back when Kamala was attorney general, she worked closely with (my son) Beau. I watched as they took on the big banks, lifted up working people, and protected women and kids from abuse. I was proud then, and I’m proud now to have her as my partner in this campaign.”
On November 7, 2020, Biden was declared the 46th President-Elect of the U.S., making Harris the first female, the first black person, and the first Asian-American to hold the position of Vice President. She was sworn into office on Jan. 20, 2021.
Philosophies and Publications
Harris has published three books.
Her first was in 2009. Smart on Crime: A Career Prosecutor’s Plan to Make Us Safer explores her philosophy and ideas for criminal-justice reform (though tough on sex offenders, she has brought a less punitive approach to sex workers).
Two other books appeared in early 2019: The Truths We Hold: An American Journey is a memoir that reflects on her personal relationships and upbringing, and Superheroes Are Everywhere, a picture-book autobiography for children.
Both Biden and Harris are generally considered to be in the moderate wing of the Democratic Party, though GovTrack labels Harris as one of the most liberal members of the Senate. Harris’ record in the Senate is to the left of Biden’s.
Regarding healthcare, for example, Harris began by joining Sen. Bernie Sanders in his call for Medicare for All. However, she later backtracked, leaving her position uncertain. Biden does not support Medicare for All and instead has called for fixing and expanding the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Harris was a co-sponsor of the Green New Deal, which Biden does not support.
The area on which they seem to agree most is immigration. Both favor a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants living in the U.S.; both favor protection of Dreamers, including a plan to fix Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA); and she supported his reversal of President Donald Trump’s Muslim ban.
During a June 2021 trip to Central America, Harris bluntly told Guatemalans “do not come”—a remark that drew criticism, though it reflected the realities of a Trump administration rule allowing border agents to rapidly turn away migrants without providing them a chance to apply for asylum. The administration’s aim is to deter migration to the southwestern border by working to improve conditions in Central America.
The Bottom Line
Kamala Harris’ public service career has been filled with firsts: the first woman…the first black…the first South Asian-American elected to hold various government offices and positions, including state Attorney General and U.S. Senator. The culmination of these, to date as of 2021, is the job of Vice President of the U.S. As one publication put it, “her political gifts made it easy to forget that with each step in her career she was making history.”
While her role is still evolving, it promises to be a major one, in issues such as voting rights and immigration, to which she will bring her patented results-oriented liberalism.