Kamala Harris takes her tea plain. On a late September afternoon, the attorney general of California met me in the silver lobby of the Loews Regency Hotel on Park Avenue. She wore a sturdy Hermès belt and boot-cut jeans; her long bob brushed against her shoulders with a West Coast ease. Harris is running for Senate. She was in New York for a campaign event and to see her sister Maya Harris, a senior policy adviser to Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign.
When Harris tells me about Maya, her voice rises above the lobby's din. "She's my best friend," she says. That talent, Harris's ability to cancel out white noise, has propelled her to the forefront of the Democratic Party's impending renaissance. She's already been identified as a "prohibitive favorite" in the race for the Senate. In 2010, Harris broke down three barriers at once: she defeated Los Angeles County D.A. Steve Cooley in the race for California A.G., becoming the first woman, black American, and Asian-American to be elected to the office. Throughout her decades-long career as a prosecutor, Harris has honed a sophisticated, data-driven approach to resolving issues of social justice. What follows is a discussion of her civil-rights background, her initiatives on child justice and cyber exploitation, and her thoughts on work culture.
Doreen St. Félix: Take us back to your early 20s, during your time at Howard University. Did you see yourself going to law school back then?
Kamala Harris: I did. My parents got me proactive with civil rights. The lawyers who were the architects of the civil-rights movement — Thurgood Marshall, Charles Houston, and others — were who we learned from. I grew up in a community where that was expected. We were raised with a very strong sense of duty — not just obligation but duty to serve. Being a lawyer just seemed to me a wonderful thing you could do.
I had family members that went to Howard, and I'd always wanted to go there before attending law school. I ran for my first political office at Howard University, which was as a freshman-class representative. I ended up becoming the chairperson of the Economic Society. I was on the debate team and won the Frederick Douglass Scholarship for Debate. I also pledged to the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority. I did all types of things. I was a great thinker. It was important for me to go to a black university. Have you been to Howard?
DSF: I haven't been, and the friends I have who attended university there all tell me I should visit.
KH: You have to go to Howard. There's an area on campus called The Yard, about the size of a city block. It's where everyone goes on Friday afternoons to socialize. To your right, you would see young African-American students running around in leotards because they were in school for fine arts. To your left, you'd find 18-to-24-year-old African-Americans running around in white because they were in pre-med. Walking around with briefcases? Business school.
At Howard, you had the ability — if you hadn't known before — to know you can do whatever you want. Everyone's perspective of themselves and others is based on the limitations of their exposure. When you expand your ability to see, you understand that there are a lot of false choices being offered. I could do all of my activities at Howard because it was an environment that had essentially rid the ideology of false choices that I feel absolutely constricts young black students.
DSF: There has been a spate of activism on campuses across the country in recent years, specifically in response to issues like police brutality and sexual assault. You've made the latter a prominent issue as attorney general. What are your ideas about what young women, especially women of color, can do in activist circles, particularly at schools or in spaces meant to be constricting?
KH: All of the most substantial movements in this country started with or have been championed by students. I feel strongly we want to encourage student voice and take it seriously.
I'll give you another example of a past experience, or just the campaign. I went to campaign for the president during the first caucuses. It was between Christmas and New Year's in 2007.
I walked into the campaign office on the first day and I looked around. There were high-school students. There were college students. Students who went to community college. Students who were at Harvard. All of them were leaning against the wall on their butts with their legs out holding up their laptops. I thought, What the hell is going on here?! Why isn't anybody working? Well, they were, because they figured out the power of organizing online. They were working very hard, as we know, because they won that caucus and won the presidency and the reelection. The way students organize now is very different than the way they organized in the late '60s, the '80s, or the [early] 2000s, so it looked different. I think there's a long conversation to be had about the effectiveness of it ending with an agreement that it has had an effect and is empowering.
To get to the point of your question, specifically regarding women of color, we're in a moment of opportunity that had not existed before because of what people assumed. But there is still a lot of work to do. I go in so many rooms. The disparities you can look at just in terms of income and inequality, the disparities for women and women of color, are huge and unforgivable.
All of the most substantial movements in this country started with or have been championed by students. I feel strongly we want to encourage student voice and take it seriously.
DSF: Your work as a career prosecutor is visionary, specifically because you are constantly at the frontier of the evolution of the Internet, for better or for worse. You are one of the few prominent prosecutors tackling cyber exploitation, or, as the crime has been crudely termed, "revenge porn." [Ed. note: Two weeks after this interview was conducted, the attorney general's office set up an information hub on cyber exploitation in partnership with Microsoft and Google.]
KH: I think it's awful. Inappropriate. It's not just a violation of privacy. It's a violation of dignity. It is invasive. It is something that is actually intended to make people feel small. The reality of it is that these are crimes that actually destroy people.
DSF: What's your practice in terms of keeping up with, or even anticipating, how Internet apps may become conduits for new legal questions?
KH: I ask a lot of questions. I have a 16-year-old stepdaughter. I'm asking her questions all the time. That's part of it. Innovation is the product of a commitment to not accept status quo. Not for the sake of aborting the status quo, but because the point of innovation is to pursue that thing that is more efficient. More effective. Faster. More accurate. That's the point of innovation. So when it's achieved, it's never really achieved. It's aspirational. I know that those people who are engaged in innovation are curious people. I'm curious. Periscope. You know about Periscope?
Innovation is the product of a commitment to not accept status quo. Not for the sake of aborting the status quo, but because the point of innovation is to pursue that thing that is more efficient. More effective. Faster. More accurate.
DSF: I just found about Periscope. You're ahead of me. How are you looking at the potential of that application from a prosecutorial view?
KH: You got to keep up! I like to see where it goes. Then, I apply long-standing principles that I've learned to it. It's going to be interesting how law enforcement is going to deal with this if in real time we see crimes on Periscope. Especially a crime that involves a child.
My mantra about everything that has to do with public policy is: identify and reject the false choice. With something like Periscope, it might incentivize people to be as provocative as they can be to get the most views. Let's not build the policy around the abuse. That's not good policy. That's actually bad policy. Build the policy around the aspiration point. That's what we need to do when we're seeing abuse online.
I am a prosecutor in my bones. When I see something, I immediately go to: how is this going to affect a child? In fact, I tell that to my team all the time. Always ask the question: how will this impact a child? Because it is not a question that someone naturally asks, but it will tell you a whole lot about where they will end up.
DSF: You make a basic point in your public policy the majority of public servants miss: children grow up to be workers. Regarding the Child Justice Bureau you've set up in California, how have you identified the false choice involving truancy?
KH: You don't have to care about children to care about children. One of the things that I talk a lot about is the fact of the importance of third-grade reading level. By the end of third grade, if the child is not at reading level, it'll drop off. They never catch up.
Why? Because the child is learning how to be. You learn the words, how they sound, what letters, what to write in learning how to read. At third grade, comprehension kicks in. That's when they start reading to learn. If you do not learn how to read, you can't read to learn. In ten short years, that child will be 18. A truant elementary-school student is three to four times as likely to be a high-school dropout. Eighty-two percent of prisoners in the United States are high-school dropouts. A high-school dropout between the ages of 30 and 34 is two-thirds more likely to be in jail, or to have been in jail, or to be dead. I've done the analysis: first report ever done in California based on a study of a state law. California is a big state, but still microscopic to the country. And on an annual basis, California spends $47 billion on the burden high-school dropouts place on our criminal-justice system. Our public-health system. Our social-service system. What they're not contributing to the taxpayers.
DSF: What is often framed as a community problem, in this case truancy, can be more readily identified as an economic issue?
KH: Policies don't require human beings to care about other human beings. Though it is morally right. People have different priorities. But almost every social-justice policy can directly be connected to what we can do to improve public safety. What we can do to decrease the burden on public systems. That's about what I call the "Smart on Crime Approach," which has an emphasis on prevention instead of reaction. We've got a perverse tendency in this country to be "tough" on crime. We want our elected leaders to be tough. You want tough leaders? No, what we need is smart leaders.
DSF: Let's shift gears. It's the weekend, and you're back on the West Coast. Do you get a chance to relax?
KH: I cook. I've been on this Indonesian kick recently. There's this little Indonesian market in LA. It had all the good stuff. I have a little herb garden. I'm all about herbs. I'll bring them to the office and share them with people. I read cookbooks to relax when I don't have time to actually cook. When I'm in California, every Sunday is family dinner that I cook.
DSF: You're like the Ina Garten of the political world — a world that is notoriously hostile to giving people, especially women, breaks. How have you managed to carve out time for yourself?
KH: I fight for it. Especially with this campaign. In order to find balance, I feel very strongly about two things in particular in terms of routine. Work out, and eat well. I can't say how many women I've mentored in college. I say, "Are you working out every morning?" No. Then I say, "You've got to work out." It has nothing to do with your weight. It's about your mind. I work out every morning. Only half an hour. I get on the treadmill. That's it. Every morning, I don't care what time. It gets your blood flowing. It gets your adrenaline flowing. I believe in eating well. It's not fanatical. Eat good food. Make sure you've got good vegetables.
DSF: Gendered work culture pushes women to collapse their productivity with their sense of self, often in a negative sense. How do you navigate that tendency as a woman careerist who also employs young women?
KH: You got to take care of yourself. If I exercise or I eat proper foods, am I indulging myself? That's called feeding your body. Again, that's a false choice. That is not about image or luxury. The women who think that way are young women. That's what your question asks: what it means to work in your 20s and 30s. Women should not allow themselves to be caught up in the hype that says performance, meaning the motions, is what matters. Now, I'm not saying go to work and not try. Especially in my 20s and 30s, I worked around the clock every day. I found time to party and have fun, of course. Especially in that phase of your career, you're going to be close to being the first one in the office or the last one out. Find time in between to figure out how you take care of yourself.
In every work environment, there will be politics. If you really want to rise to the top, you need to figure out what those politics in your workplace are. Then, you hook it in. You decide what conforms and what does not conform to your personal code.
I think that sometimes young professional women go into the workforce with a certain sense of bravado, which is, I'm going to work the hardest, I'm going to be the most prepared, and I'm not going to play games. In every work environment, there will be politics. If you really want to rise to the top, you need to figure out what those politics in your workplace are. Then, you hook it in. You decide what conforms and what does not conform to your personal code. Always have a personal code. Don't break it. Deal with it. To sit back and say, I'm not going to play politics, therefore I'm not going to become aware of it — in most professional environments, politics exist.
DSF: Have you found that politics necessarily prevail?
KH: Until you get to the point of your career where you can change them. The point is: don't pretend that you can just be oblivious to politics. You can't. What you never do is break your personal code. Have a code and keep it. You should never compromise what your priorities are.
Doreen St. Félix is Lenny's editor at large.