By Michael Martinez | CNN
She’s been called “the female Obama” by some media, and the president even paid her a visit this week to help her political fortunes. Like Barack Obama, she aspires to a lot of firsts.
Kamala Harris is the daughter of a father from Jamaica and a mother from India, and she’s seeking to be the first black woman attorney general of California.
If elected, Harris would be “the first female, the first African-American, the first Asian-American attorney general in California and the first South Asian-American attorney general in the nation,” according to her campaign literature.
On Friday, Harris joined the president at a Los Angeles rally at the University of Southern California, a day after he appeared at one of her fundraisers in Atherton, California. She worked on Obama’s campaign in 2008.
A Democrat, she’s now the San Francisco district attorney who’s running against Steve Cooley, a Republican who’s the Los Angeles district attorney.
In a Los Angeles Times/USC poll released Friday, Cooley held a narrow lead over Harris — 40 percent to her 35 percent — with 17 percent of likely voters still undecided.
Harris, who turned 46 on Wednesday, was born in Oakland and grew up in the liberal bastion of nearby Berkeley during its 1960s-’70s heyday.
Her parents attended graduate school there, and they took Harris to many civil rights protests, instilling in her a sense of social justice. Her first name means “lotus flower” in Sanskrit.
Her mother, Shyamala Gopalan, immigrated as an adult to the United States from Chennai, Tamil Nadu state, India. She became a physician specializing in breast cancer research; she later died of breast cancer. Her father, Donald Harris, became a Stanford University economics professor. Her parents divorced when Kamala Harris was a small girl, and her mother raised her and her sister.
After attending Howard University and then the University of California Hastings College of the Law, Harris worked as a deputy district attorney in Alameda County, California, and then as an attorney in the San Francisco district attorney’s and San Francisco city attorney’s offices. She was elected district attorney in 2003, becoming the first black woman to hold such an office in California.
Her pedigree, however, isn’t without political liabilities, said analyst Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, senior fellow at the School of Policy, Planning and Development at the University of Southern California.
“There’s a couple of obstacles that Kamala Harris faces: one, the San Francisco designation, which in the minds of many voters means soft on crime, rightly or wrongly. And two, I do believe that California voters still have a perception of a guy being stronger on the issues of law enforcement. There’s no reason, but I do think that exists still,” Jeffe said.
One significant difference between Harris and Cooley is the death penalty, which Cooley supports and Harris opposes. In his campaign, Cooley has been publicizing his prosecution of eight former and current officials in Bell, California — a public corruption case that has attracted national attention because officials in the small city allegedly misappropriated $5.5 million, including awarding a nearly $800,000 salary for the city manager.
“There is a fairly powerful Cooley spot (on television) that mentions that a cop killer wasn’t committed to death because of her and her policies” in San Francisco, Jeffe said. “He’s not a rigid ideologue. He’s a pragmatist.”
For her part, Harris said she would still enforce death penalty verdicts as attorney general. Her spokesman pointed out that the current attorney general, Jerry Brown, who’s running for governor, also opposes the death penalty.
Harris said San Francisco’s conviction rates are at the highest level in 15 years, and as a result of her innovative initiatives, fewer repeat offenders are revolving through the criminal justice system, she said.