Democratic U.S. Senator Kamala Harris has accumulated many firsts in her professional life. As summarised recently in a leading American magazine, The Atlantic: She was San Francisco’s first female district attorney, first black district attorney, first Asian American district attorney. She was then California’s first female attorney general, first black attorney general, first Asian American attorney general. She was the second black woman, ever, to win a seat in the United States Senate.
And now, she aims to be the first woman president and first Asian American president of the United States.
The 54-year-old Harris’ professional background is unusual in ways that reach beyond those firsts. Especially back in 1990, when she became an (appointed) assistant district attorney fresh out of law school, and 2003, when she ran against and defeated the incumbent San Francisco district attorney, progressive minority lawyers generally did not seek law enforcement careers. (Even as of 2014, 95 per cent of the country’s over 2,400 elected local prosecutors were white, and 79 per cent were white men.) Such posts were often seen as being tough on crime to the point of racial unfairness when it came to treatment of blacks and other minority defendants.
Raised mainly by her civil rights activist (and Indian immigrant) mother, Harris’ entry into law enforcement raised eyebrows among some family members and friends. Even to this day, some on the Left criticise her for becoming a prosecutor at all, in a system they see as inherently racist.
Harris’ policy stances since being elected to the Senate in 2016 have generally won high marks from liberal groups. Regarding immigration issues, which Donald Trump has made a mainstay of his presidency, Harris has been an advocate for humane policies. She has stood against the Trump administration’s abusive approaches, such as separating Central American asylum-seekers from their children.
Her advocacy has also embraced immigration policies that would benefit Indians and Indian Americans, such as opposing the administration’s moves against family unification. And in a rare display of bipartisanship in a bitterly fractured polity (as well as a nod to technology business interests in California and elsewhere), in April she co-sponsored with a Republican senator a bill that would remove country-specific limits on persons seeking H-1B visas. Such visas allow U.S. companies to employ foreigners with special technical or other expertise. Indian and Chinese professionals would be the main beneficiaries of this change.
Nevertheless, as a Democratic senator in a Republican-controlled institution, Harris has had little overall opportunity to leave a legislative mark. The greater insights into her political background, then, may spring from her 2004-11 stint as San Francisco district attorney and her subsequent 2011-17 service as California’s attorney general. Her approach has included being, as she puts it, “smart on crime” – a terms she prefers to politicians’ more traditional claims of toughness.
Harris walked a difficult line during those periods, seeking to retain her appeal to the Democratic Party’s progressive base while appealing to moderates. On the one hand, she advocated and introduced innovative, preventive, non-punitive approaches to fighting lawlessness. In many respects, she was ahead of her time with those steps, some of which have been adopted by other local law enforcement agencies elsewhere in the United States.
On the other hand, particularly as California attorney general, she sometimes took very cautious and controversial approaches to such issues as combating and punishing malfeasance by local police, prosecutors and crime lab personnel in the state. Those stances helped secure the support of California’s politically powerful law enforcement associations for her 2014 attorney general re-election campaign, despite their stiff opposition to Harris earlier in her career.
Her prosecutorial expertise and background could cut both for and against Harris in the Democratic contest and, should she secure the nomination, the general election; criminal justice, particularly as it impacts minorities, is an increasingly salient issue across the country. Harris’ expertise has already helped raise her Senate and therefore national profile, due to the high marks she received for grilling former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, current AG William Barr and (ultimately confirmed) Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanagh during Senate committee hearings over the past two years.
That tough questioning aside, one criticism of Harris, including in a recent New York Times article, is that she has been too cautious and “inauthentic”—a potential political stake through the heart of an American politician—in staking out positions. She received some flak for this in the wake of her April appearance in a CNN “town hall” question-and-answer session with college students. Over the course of an hour, Harris sometimes displayed more ambiguity than clarity, in a few instances saying she would like to “have a conversation” about a controversial issue rather than taking a stand on it.
Her defenders assert that what some criticise as excessive caution should instead be viewed as thoughtful and responsible conduct. And certainly, Harris has taken some strong stands over the course of her career, including recently backing powerful gun control measures, government-administered medical care for all Americans and, drawing on her law enforcement background, sweeping criminal justice reforms.
Still, that criticism resonates, as it echoes the failed 2016 campaign of Hillary Clinton, herself condemned as too cautious. This in turn brings to light the tough choices any Democrat must make in seeking the presidency. Among the dozen or more factors that may each account for Clinton’s defeat, one is that her attempted appeal to moderate whites fell short (even among white women, more of whom opted for Trump over her). This might weigh in favour of Harris or any other potential nominee tacking toward the middle of the political spectrum as they seek the presidency.
Yet, at the same time, Hillary also would have won if she had gathered as many black and progressive votes as Obama previously had in key states. This in turn points toward appealing more to those significant parts of the Democratic base.
Clinton looms over the current Democratic contest in another important respect: gender. Yet another reason she lost can simply be chalked up to sexism. With a similar personality, policies and background as Hillary (except, of course, for being a former First Lady), a man would mostly likely have defeated Trump.
This, in turn, turns the Democratic conversation to electability, which is shorthand for “Who can beat Trump?” For most Democrats, that is the single biggest issue in picking their party’s presidential candidate. In a very reluctant nod to sexism on the part of parts of the American public, some observers assert that the safe bet is a white, moderate male, with popular former Vice President Joseph Biden best filling that role.
Others, however, point to Biden’s history of gaffes in previous campaigns, as well as controversial and relatively conservative past and present political positions. They claim that this could cause progressive parts of the Democratic base to abstain from voting come the November 2020 general election, handing Trump a victory. They assert that trumping Trump in 2020 requires a far fresher face and more progressive stance.
As praised and quoted by Washington Post political columnist writer Jennifer Rubin, an anti-Trump conservative, Harris herself presents a powerful counterargument to the “play it safe” approach to picking a Democratic nominee: The best answer I’ve heard to the notion that America isn’t ready for X—fill in the applicable gender, ethnicity or sexual orientation—came from Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.). In an extended interview on CNN, she said, “I know this in my experience, having run for the offices I’ve run for, when I was the first in every one of those positions, when there was no one like me who had done the job.” She recalled that “people would say, ‘oh, they’re not ready for that. Oh, no one like her has done it before. Oh, it’s not your time. Oh, it’s going to be a lot of hard work.’ And I didn’t listen. And, as far as I’m concerned, my track record on this issue tells me the voters are smarter than hearing and listening to all that noise.”
What her own words nevertheless highlight, however, is that as a woman, an Indian American and a black—her mother an Indian breast cancer researcher and her father a Jamaican economist, who met as graduate students at the University of California at Berkeley in the early 1960s—Harris needs to navigate some potentially turbulent political waters. This includes countering sexism or racism. But it also involves how she identifies herself in a nation where debates over identity politics (that is, politics emphasising a person’s ethnicity, gender, religion, sexual orientation or several other classes of characteristics) often grow heated.
Unlike Barack Obama, who made much of how his biracial identity was a source of both pride and problems, Harris first and foremost describes herself simply as “an American.” That stance was evident at the CNN town hall, when a student of Indian/African heritage asked Harris about her own, similar ancestry. Harris pivoted away from specifically discussing the matter, toward a broader call for unity and against hate. She vaguely referenced her experience and exposure to different cultures but did not dig any deeper into discussing her background.
Beyond being an American, however, Harris has primarily identified herself as black, while still acknowledging and appreciating her Indian heritage. As aWashington Post profile puts it, “She credits that largely to a Hindu immigrant single mom who adopted black culture and immersed her daughters in it. Harris grew up embracing her Indian culture, but living a proudly African American life.”
That African American identity both fueled and reflected her self-esteem, but also flowed from the reality of how others would perceive her. As Harris herself put it in a recent Politico Magazine article, her mother “knew that her adopted homeland would see [my sister] Maya and me as black girls, and she was determined to make sure we would grow into confident, proud black women.”
For college, Harris attended Howard University, arguably the nation’s leading black institution of higher education. While there, she joined the 300,000-member-strong Alpha Kappa Alpha, the country’s oldest black sorority. The Post profile reports that, until informed otherwise at various points along the way, many of her friends and supporters (including in the Indian American community) had assumed that her ancestry was purely African.
Without questioning the sincerity of her “American” and black self-identification, there could also be a political component at play in Harris emphasising her African rather than Indian lineage. Though most Indian Americans voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016, they nonetheless constitute a far smaller slice of the overall Democratic pie than blacks do. African Americans will heavily influence the selection of the Democratic nominee through a series of state primaries (elections) and caucuses (meetings of party members who care to participate) that from February through June 2020 will elect delegates to the party’s convention that July. (Typically since the 1980s, in both the Democratic and Republican parties, a given candidate has amassed sufficient momentum and delegates by the convention to make his or her selection there a formality.)
One might well ask, “Well, why not appeal to Democrats on the basis of both her black and Indian lineages?” After all, she personifies the multi-ethnic immigrant melting pot that makes America unique in the world and that still appeals to most Democrats and many other Americans—Trump’s attempts to poison that well notwithstanding. And the Indian American community is among the richest and most well-educated ethnic groups in the United States, so would be a logical source of financial and political support for her campaign. In fact, Harris is increasingly reaching out to that community for both kinds of help.
However, at least at this early point in the campaign, keeping her ethnic image relatively simple rather than advertising its duality might make sense on certain levels. Not least, it could help solidify black support in a crowded (23-strong and counting) Democratic field that includes African American competition.
In addition, the tricky nature of America’s identify politics has subjected Harris to unfair criticism from both the Right and the Left. A recent astute analysis by a prominent black, woman writer, Jemele Hill, defends Harris against such attacks. Hill points out that Obama was also subjected to questions about his “blackness” and identity by virtue of also being mixed-race (with a Kenyan father and white mother).
None of this is to suggest that Harris denies or lacks pride in her Indian heritage. “Kamala” itself means “lotus flower” in Sanskrit. (Though she does not generally use her middle name, “Devi,” or “goddess.”) She was primarily raised by her mother, to whom the courts gave custody of her and her sister after her parents divorced, when Kamala was seven. As a child, she took numerous trips to visit relatives in Chennai, was close to her grandfather (a retired Indian diplomat) and attended a Hindu temple (as well as a black Baptist church). She has participated in many Indian American events over the years, picking up the pace recently.
That last development could conceivably be a harbinger of Harris increasingly addressing her Indian heritage as the campaign unfolds. Such a shift could spring from increasing scrutiny of her background, a drive to secure votes and funds from the prosperous Indian American community, a desire to broaden her appeal should she secure the nomination or all of the above.
Harris’s approach to her heritage merits comparison with those taken by two prominent Indian American Republicans, Bobby Jindal and Nikki Haley. Of course, one initial contrast between her and them is that biracial Harris was primarily raised as an African American, whereas Haley and Jindal are of purely Indian ancestry.
Jindal and Haley share several other biographical details: former governors of conservative southern states (Louisiana for Jindal, South Carolina for Haley); converts to Christianity (Jindal from Hinduism to Catholicism, Haley from Sikhism to Methodism, a protestant denomination); and prominent personalities representing the Republican Party in responding on national television to then-President Obama’s state of the union speeches (Jindal in 2009, Haley in 2016), briefly referencing their respective Indian ancestries in those addresses.
In terms of acknowledging those ancestries, though, the two have taken decidedly different paths. Jindal (who is for the most part out of politics after his widely panned response to the Obama state of the union speech and an equally unsuccessful 2012 presidential run) has generally shied away from highlighting his Indian roots.
Haley, in contrast, has been far more upfront about her background and upbringing, though not without some ambivalence and ambiguity. She certainly has not made her Indian ancestry a centerpiece of her political identity in South Carolina. But she has visited India a number of times, including offering prayers at the Golden Temple in 2014. As both South Carolina governor and subsequently Trump’s U.N. ambassador, Haley met Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in India and the United States. She has also frequently spoken about her Indian identity, including gently joking about it last fall at a prominent charity event.
The more sensitive issue for her has not been her ethnic identify but her religious one. Especially given the powerful role that Christianity plays in the American South, earlier in her career she received criticism in some conservative Christian circles for what was seen as not sufficiently embracing her conversion to the religion. She has since featured the conversion more strongly in her public identity, including by sitting on the board of her local church.
Haley reportedly still attends Sikh services, however. This is an uncontroversial approach in many quarters, though perhaps not for all conservative Christians.
In the wake of her successful stints as governor and U.N. representative—the latter particularly noteworthy, since unlike many other former Trump officials she left the Administration unscathed by scandal and without any presidential scorn—Haley could be well placed for a White House run come 2024. But that assumes that the Republican Party of George W. Bush, relatively welcoming of minorities, returns to those roots. The tolerance of white nationalism displayed by the current White House occupant could indicate otherwise.
That consideration of presidential potential brings us back to Harris. What are her chances of securing the Democratic nomination? The average of several national polls in May places her in fourth place (in the 23-person pack) for Democratic voters. At 7.3 per cent, she trails Biden (38.3) and fellow Senators Bernie Sanders (18.8) and Elizabeth Warren (8.5). But with the first of the caucuses and primaries still more than eight months off, such rankings should be taken with a huge grain of salt. Biden and Sanders could fade; some little-known competitor could emerge from the overflowing field of Democratic candidates.
What’s more, Harris has at least two significant advantages over her competition, by virtue of her deep roots in California, the country’s wealthiest and most populous state. First, the state represents a deep well for fundraising, which is necessary to compete for the nomination and something Harris has been quite busy doing there.
Second, the California primary takes place March 3, relatively early in the overall primary/caucus process. She is virtually tied with Sanders for second place in polls there (albeit substantially behind Biden), with the potential to rise over the coming months. A good showing there could secure her a substantial stockpile of delegates and catapult her to success in subsequent state contests.
Early speculation about Harris’ 2020 prospects does not just concern the presidency, however. If Biden secures the nomination, it might well make political sense to pick an African American woman as his vice-presidential running mate. Doing so could generate enthusiasm for his candidacy from three key Democratic constituencies: women, blacks and progressives. Harris’ Indian American heritage could come to be yet a fourth asset, in terms of both votes and fundraising.
And if she loses out for both the presidential and vice-presidential nominations in 2020? Harris would certainly not be the first losing candidate to give it another go down the line. In which case, it is conceivable that the country could see a Harris-Haley presidential contest come 2024.
(The author is an international development scholar and consultant. Views are personal.)