Kamala Harris
Photo: Cliff Hawkins/Getty Images

Kamala Harris Biography

(1964–)
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Former California Attorney General Kamala Harris became the second African American woman and the first South Asian American to earn election to the U.S. Senate. In August 2020, Joe Biden announced Harris as his running mate.

Who Is Kamala Harris?

After attending Howard University and the University of California's Hastings College of the Law, Kamala Harris embarked on a rise through the California legal system, emerging as state attorney general in 2010. Following the November 2016 elections, Harris became just the second African American woman and the first South Asian American to win a seat in the U.S. Senate. She declared her candidacy for the 2020 U.S. presidential election on Martin Luther King Jr. Day 2019, but dropped out of the race before the end of the year. In August 2020, Joe Biden announced Harris as vice presidential running mate.

Early Life

Kamala Devi Harris was born on October 20, 1964, in Oakland, California. Reared in a predominantly African American neighborhood of Berkeley, she was brought to civil rights demonstrations as a toddler and sang in a Baptist choir. 

Harris' mother, Shyamala, emigrated from India to attend the University of California, Berkeley, where she met Harris' Jamaican-born father, Donald. Shyamala carved out a career as a renowned breast-cancer researcher, while Donald became a Stanford University economics professor. Her mother also ensured that Harris and her younger sister, Maya, maintained ties to their Indian heritage by raising them with Hindu beliefs and taking them to her home country every couple of years.

Harris' parents divorced when she was seven years old, and at age 12 she moved with her mother and sister to Montreal, Quebec, Canada. She learned to speak some French during her time in Quebec and demonstrated her burgeoning political instincts by organizing a protest against a building owner who wouldn't allow neighborhood kids to play on the lawn.

Education

Harris attended Westmount High School in Quebec, where she founded a dance troupe with a friend. Returning to the States to enter Howard University in Washington, D.C., she was elected to the liberal arts student council and joined the debate team, en route to a B.A. in political science and economics. Harris then enrolled at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law, earning her J.D. in 1989.

Early Career

After earning admittance to the State Bar of California in 1990, Harris began her career as a deputy district attorney in Alameda County. She became managing attorney of the Career Criminal Unit in the San Francisco District Attorney's Office in 1998, and in 2000 she was appointed chief of its Community and Neighborhood Division, during which time she established the state's first Bureau of Children’s Justice.

San Francisco District Attorney

In 2003, Harris defeated incumbent Terence Hallinan, her former boss, to become San Francisco district attorney. Her accomplishments in this role include the launch of the "Back on Track" initiative that cut recidivism by offering job training and other educational programs for low-level offenders.

However, Harris also drew criticism for adhering to a campaign pledge and refusing to seek the death penalty for a gang member convicted of the 2004 killing of police officer Isaac Espinoza.

California Attorney General

Harris continued her political ascent by narrowly beating Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley for California attorney general in November 2010, making her both the first African American and the first woman to hold the position.

She quickly made an impact in her role by pulling out of negotiations for a settlement from the country's five largest financial institutions for improper mortgage practices, eventually scoring a $20 million payout in 2012 that was five times the original proposed figure for her state.

The attorney general also made waves for her refusal to defend Proposition 8, a 2008 California ballot measure that was deemed unconstitutional by a federal court. After the U.S. Supreme Court dismissed an attempt to appeal the ruling in 2013, Harris officiated the first same-sex marriage in California since Prop 8 was initially enacted.

Additional accomplishments include a successful lawsuit against the false advertising of the for-profit Corinthian Colleges chain, as well as continued legal pursuit of the classified advertising service Backpage, which led to its CEO pleading guilty to facilitating prostitution and money laundering after Harris moved on to the Senate.

U.S. Senator

In November 2016, Harris handily defeated Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez for a U.S. Senate seat from California, thereby becoming just the second African American woman and the first South Asian American to enter the Senate.

Harris has since joined the chamber's Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, Select Committee on Intelligence, Committee on the Judiciary and Committee on the Budget. She has supported a single-payer healthcare system and introduced legislation to increase access to outdoor recreation sites in urban areas and provide financial relief in the face of rising housing costs.

Harris has also made a name for herself from her spot on the Judiciary Committee, particularly for her pointed questioning of Brett Kavanaugh, who faced accusations of sexual assault after being nominated for Supreme Court justice in 2018, and of then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions during a 2017 hearing that delved into alleged collusion between the Trump team and Russian agents.

2020 Presidential Race

On January 21, 2019, during a Martin Luther King Jr. Day interview on Good Morning America, Harris announced she was running for president in 2020.

One of the top Democratic candidates, Harris joined a field that already included Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren and New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand in a bid to push President Donald Trump from the White House after one term.

One week after her GMA announcement, Harris formally kicked off her campaign before an estimated 20,000 supporters at Frank Ogawa Plaza in Oakland, California. She remained near the top of the Democratic polls over the following weeks, withstanding the brouhaha that ensued when she admitted to smoking marijuana in a February interview, and another when an animal rights activist confronted her onstage at a political event in June.

Harris stood out as one of the top performers of the first Democratic primary debate in late June, garnering headlines for taking Joe Biden to task over his history of opposing federal busing for school integration. She found herself a target of attacks during the second debate the following month, with Biden and the rest criticizing her healthcare plan and aspects of her record as California attorney general.

Her support in the polls slipping by fall 2019, Harris sought to thrust herself back into the top tier by calling for the impeachment of Trump over his dealings with Ukraine and a focus on women's access to reproductive health care. Meanwhile, her campaign staff reportedly bickered over strategy and the chain of command, the dysfunction noted in a resignation letter from the state operations director that became public via The New York Times.

In early December 2019, Harris announced that she was ending her once-promising presidential campaign.

Joe Biden's Vice Presidential Running Mate

On August 11, 2020, presidential hopeful Biden announced that he chose his former rival Harris as his running mate. "I have the great honor to announce that I’ve picked Kamala Harris — a fearless fighter for the little guy, and one of the country’s finest public servants — as my running mate," Biden said. "Back when Kamala was Attorney General, she worked closely with 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." 

"I'm honored to join him as our party's nominee for Vice President, and do what it takes to make him our Commander-in-Chief," Harris said.

Harris is the first Black woman and person of South Asian descent to be nominated for a national office by a major party. She is also the fourth woman in history to compete on a major party's presidential ticket.

Books

Harris published two books in early 2019: The Truths We Hold: An American Journey reflects on her personal relationships and upbringing, and Superheroes Are Everywhere, another memoir rendered in picture-book form for kids.

She first became an author in 2009 with Smart on Crime: A Career Prosecutor's Plan to Make Us Safer, which explores her philosophy and ideas for criminal-justice reform.

Personal Life

Harris married lawyer Douglas Emhoff on August 22, 2014, in Santa Barbara, California. She is the stepmother of his two children, Ella and Cole, who affectionately call her "S-Mamala."

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