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.
To a Black Stanford University professor, her father, and a Tamil Indian mother who was a physician. In August 2020, Harris became the first Black woman, the first person of Indian descent, and the fourth woman in U.S. history to be selected for a presidential ticket by a major party when she accepted the vice-presidential nomination with Democrat Joe Biden. In November 2020, Harris was elected vice president for a term beginning on January 20, 2021.
Harris was also the first California attorney general with Black or South Asian ancestry after defeating Republican rival Steve Cooley in the 2010 election for the position. Harris, formerly San Francisco’s district attorney, was also the first woman to serve in the role. Kamala Harris sought the Democratic presidential nomination, announcing her intention on Martin Luther King Jr. Day 2019, but dropped out of the primary race in December 2019.
Fast Facts: Kamala Harris
- Name: Kamala Devi Harris
- Born: October 20, 1964, in Oakland, CA
- Known For: Vice President of the United States. Previously the Junior Senator from California; sat on Senate Budget, Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, Judiciary, and Intelligence committees. First female, Black, and South Asian district attorney in San Francisco. First California Attorney General with Black or South Asian ancestry. First woman of color to run for the vice-presidential post.
- Education: Howard University, Hastings College of the Law
- Spouse: Douglas Emhoff (m. 2014)
- Distinctions and Awards: Named one of California’s top 75 women litigators by the legal paper The Daily Journal and a “Woman of Power” by the National Urban League. Awarded Thurgood Marshall Award by National Black Prosecutors Association. Named Rodel Fellow by the Aspen Institute. On the board of the California District Attorneys Association.
Early Life and Education
Kamala Devi Harris was raised in San Francisco’s East Bay, where she attended public schools, worshiped at Black churches, and lived in predominantly Black communities. She was also immersed in Indian culture.
Her mother took Harris to Hindu temples to worship. Moreover, Harris is no stranger to India, having visited the subcontinent on several occasions to see relatives. Her bi-cultural heritage and travels around the globe have inspired political insiders to compare her to President Barack Obama. But while Obama sometimes struggled with identity issues, as he describes in his memoir “Dreams from My Father,” Harris evidently didn’t experience growing pains in this vein.
Harris attended high school in Quebec, where she moved with her mother following her parents’ divorce. After graduation, Harris attended Howard University, a historically Black academic institution. She earned a bachelor’s degree from Howard in 1986 and then returned to the bay area in northern California. Upon her return, she enrolled at Hastings College of the Law, where she earned a law degree. Following that accomplishment, Harris proceeded to leave her mark on the legal arena in San Francisco.
Law degree in tow, Harris began prosecuting murder, robbery, and child rape cases as deputy district attorney for the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office, serving as a prosecutor from 1990 to 1998. Then, as managing attorney of the Career Criminal Unit of the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office, a position she held from 1998 to 2000, Harris prosecuted cases involving serial felons.
Later, she headed the San Francisco City Attorney’s Division on Families and Children for three years. But it was in 2003 that Harris would make history. By the year’s end, she was elected as the San Francisco district attorney, becoming the first Black and South Asian person and the first woman to achieve this feat. In November 2007, voters re-elected her to office.
During her 20 years as a prosecutor, Harris has shaped an identity for herself as being tough on crime. She prides herself on doubling trial conviction rates for gun felonies to 92% as San Francisco’s top cop. But serious crime wasn’t Harris’ only focus. She also tripled the number of misdemeanor cases sent to trial1 and prosecuted the parents of truant children, which helped slash the truancy rate by 32%.2
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.
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.
The San Francisco District Attorney’s Office found itself under fire in early 2010 when it came to light that Deborah Madden, a drug lab technician for the city police, confessed to removing cocaine from evidence samples. Her admission resulted in the police lab’s testing unit closing and pending drug cases being dismissed. The police department also had to investigate cases already prosecuted due to Madden’s admission of evidence tampering.
During the scandal, it was asserted that the District Attorney’s Office knew of Madden’s evidence tampering. However, it remains unclear what information the district attorney knew about Madden and when Harris learned of the tech’s improprieties. The San Francisco Examiner has alleged that the District Attorney’s Office knew of the situation months before the public was told of the controversy and before the police chief himself learned of the news.
Endorsements and Honors
Harris won endorsements from California’s political elite while campaigning for Attorney General, including Senator Diane Feinstein, Congresswoman Maxine Waters, California Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom, and former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. On the national stage, Harris had the backing of U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. Leaders in law enforcement also endorsed Harris, including the then-police chiefs of San Diego and San Francisco.
Harris has also won numerous honors, including being named one of California’s top 75 women litigators by the legal paper The Daily Journal and as a “Woman of Power” by the National Urban League. Additionally, the National Black Prosecutors Association gave Harris the Thurgood Marshall Award and the Aspen Institute chose her to serve as a Rodel Fellow. Lastly, the California District Attorneys Association elected her to its board.
In January 2015, Kamala Harris announced her bid for the U.S. Senate. She defeated her opponent Loretta Sanchez to become the second woman of Black or Asian descent to hold such a position.
As a junior Senator from California, Harris sat on the Senate Budget, Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, Judiciary, and Intelligence Committees. As of February 2020, she had introduced 130 bills, the majority dealing with public lands and natural resources, crime and law enforcement, and immigration.3
Harris has been an outspoken advocate for immigrant and women’s rights, and a proud member of the resistance against Donald Trump’s presidency. Speaking at the Women’s March in Washington D.C., on January 21, 2017—the day after Trump was sworn into office—, Harris called his inaugural address a “dark” message. Seven days later, she criticized his executive order barring citizens from terror-prone countries entry to the U.S. for 90 days, deeming it a “Muslim ban.”
On June 7, 2017, during a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing, Harris asked Rod Rosenstein, the Deputy Attorney General, tough questions regarding the role he played in the May 2017 firing of FBI director James Comey. As a result, Senators John McCain and Richard Burr admonished her for not being more respectful. Six days later, Harris was again taken to task by McCain and Burr for her hardline questioning of Jeff Sessions. Other Democratic members of the committee pointed out that their own questions had been similarly tough, yet Harris was the only member who received reprimands. The media got wind of the incidents and promptly leveled accusations of sexism and racism against McCain and Burr.
While serving on the Senate Judiciary Committee in 2018, Harris questioned Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen over her favoring Norwegian immigrants over others and over accusations of racism in immigration policy. Harris clashed with Nielsen again later that year, becoming an outspoken critic of the Trump administration’s family separation policy at the southern border and calling for Nielsen’s resignation.
Harris took a critical role during and after the Mueller investigations into Russian interference in the 2016 election. In 2019, she criticized Attorney General William Barr for releasing a redacted, four-page “summary” of the Mueller report, calling it an intentional attempt to mislead as to the report’s actual conclusions, and demanded he testify before Congress. During that testimony, she got Barr to admit that neither he nor his deputies actually reviewed any of the evidence before making the decision to not charge Trump with obstruction of justice.
On January 21, 2019, Harris officially announced her candidacy for President of the United States. She began as one of the frontrunners in a crowded field that included fellow senators Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Amy Klobuchar, and Cory Booker, as well as former Vice President Joe Biden, among others. She made headlines in the first Democratic primary debate, where she criticized Biden for speaking positively of working with pro-segregation senators in the 1970s.
Despite a strong performance in that debate, she faced serious criticism herself in the next one, where Biden and Tulsi Gabbard brought up her controversial record as Attorney General. Scrutiny of her tough-on-crime approach wound up hurting her campaign, dropping her in the polls quickly. Harris ended her campaign in December 2019 and she endorsed Biden in March 2020.
Around the same time as Harris’s endorsement of Biden, Biden made a commitment to choose a woman as his running mate, as his path to the Democratic nomination became clearer and clearer. Harris emerged as a frontrunner through the first half of 2020, especially as calls for Biden to select a VP of color became louder following the racial justice protests in the summer of 2020. Biden formally announced his selection of Harris on August 11, 2020.
Throughout the campaign, Harris played a fairly typical running mate role. Despite her clashes with Biden in the primaries, she worked to highlight their common ground and to pull focus to the weaknesses of the Trump administration, particularly in its response to the COVID-19 pandemic that dominated much of the election year.
On November 6 and 7, news outlets began calling the election for Biden/Harris after the ticket was projected to win in Pennsylvania. Harris was recorded calling Biden as news broke of their victory, saying, “We did it! We did it, Joe. You’re going to be the next President of the United States.” The clip became one of the five most-liked tweets of 2020. Harris’s term as Vice President began on January 20, 2021, with Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor administering her oath of office.
2020 Election Win
On November 7, 2020, four days after election day, Biden was declared as the 46th president-elect after winning Pennsylvania, making Harris the first female vice president and first Black person and Asian American to hold the position.
That evening, a beaming Harris took the stage at a victory rally in Wilmington, Delaware, her suffragette white pantsuit a nod to the efforts of her predecessors. Harris thanked the voters, her running mate and her family, with a special acknowledgment to her mother.
“She maybe didn’t imagine quite this moment,” the vice president said. “But she believed so deeply in America where a moment like this is possible, and so I am thinking about her and about the generations of women, Black women, Asian, white, Latina, Native American women — who throughout our nation’s history have paved the way for this moment — women who fought and sacrificed so much for equality and liberty and justice for all.”
On December 14, 2020, all 538 electors in the Electoral College cast their vote, formalizing Biden’s victory over President Trump in the 2020 presidential election. Biden received 306 votes and Trump received 232.
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.
Harris married lawyer Doug Emhoff on August 22, 2014, in Santa Barbara, California. She is the stepmother of his two children, Ella and Cole, who affectionately call her “Mamala.”
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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 and after a close race, Biden and Harris were elected in November 2020.
- Hafalia, Liz. “Judge rips Harris’ office for hiding problems.” San Francisco Chronicle, May 21, 2010.
- Herb, Jeremy. “Senators try to quiet Harris, but she doesn’t back down.” CNN, June 7, 2017.
- Herndon, Astead W. “Kamala Harris Declares Candidacy, Evoking King and Joining Diverse Field.” The New York Times, January 21, 2019.
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