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How race helped shape the politics of Senate candidate Kamala Harris

How race helped shape the politics of Senate candidate Kamala Harris
California Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris visits Berkeley, where she grew up. Harris is a top contender for the U.S. Senate seat held by Barbara Boxer, who is retiring. (David Butow / For The Times)

State Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris has never liked it when people try to wedge her into "this box or that box" of racial and ethnic groups.

So as an undergraduate at Howard University, Harris, now a top contender for U.S. Senate, appreciated that students at the historically black university in Washington could be "anyone you want to be and just go for it."

"Nobody's putting you in a box and saying, 'This is what it means to be black.' The homecoming queen and the president of the student government and the chief editor of the newspaper are all black."

The daughter of immigrants from India and Jamaica, Harris, 50, rarely talks publicly about her personal experience of race in America. But a long conversation with her on a recent visit to the Berkeley neighborhood where she grew up illustrated the role of race in shaping her politics.

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At a time when police shootings of unarmed African Americans have put discrimination high on the nation's political agenda, race is an inevitable facet of her Senate campaign. She is, after all, California's top law enforcement officer.

Harris, a Democrat, backs major changes in the criminal justice system, in part to address racial disparities. She calls for shorter sentences for low-level drug crimes and wants to shift money from prisons to crime prevention, starting with programs to curb school truancy.

She is ambivalent about discussing race in personal terms, sharing reluctantly her searing recollections of overt racism. "I don't feel compelled to sing long ballads about my experiences with injustice," she said.

But race sometimes infuses her remarks in political settings. She tells crowds that a trio of legal giants in the civil rights movement — Thurgood Marshall, Charles Hamilton Houston and Constance Baker Motley — inspired her to become a lawyer.

Her family was skeptical when she sought work as a prosecutor. But the point, she says, was to protect society's most vulnerable people.

"It was about speaking truth to power," Harris told a group of black Democrats in May.

In politics, Harris is cautious, seldom straying from prepared remarks, apart from one-liners punctuated with a big laugh. She is meticulous about her appearance, wearing a formal business suit even on a tour of a beach oil-spill site outside Santa Barbara.

Her parents, Shyamala Gopalan and Donald J. Harris, met as graduate students at UC Berkeley. They divorced when Harris was 5.

"My Indian mother knew she was raising two black daughters," said Harris, whose birth in 1964 came two weeks before Californians voted to allow racial discrimination in housing. "But that's not to the exclusion of who I am in terms of my Indian heritage."

Steeped in Indian culture, Harris and her sister, Maya, now a civil rights lawyer and senior policy advisor to Hillary Rodham Clinton, visited family in Madras on occasion. Harris remembers Aretha Franklin's gospel rendition of "Young, Gifted and Black" as a soundtrack of her youth in a black middle-class neighborhood in the flats of Berkeley. Her parents often joined civil rights protests.

"I grew up going to a black Baptist Church and a Hindu temple," Harris recalled as she sipped an iced soy latte at a Berkeley coffee house.

On weekends, the girls would visit their father in Palo Alto, where he was an economics professor at Stanford University.

"The neighbors' kids were not allowed to play with us because we were black," Harris said. "We'd say, 'Why can't we play together?' 'My parents — we can't play with you.' In Palo Alto. The home of Google."

Harris tells crowds that even liberal Berkeley waited nearly two decades before carrying out the Supreme Court's 1954 mandate to desegregate public schools. Her elementary school class in the 1970s was only the second one to integrate Berkeley schools with busing, she recalled.

Harris spent her high-school years in Montreal, where her mother worked as a breast cancer researcher at a McGill University hospital. After Howard University, Harris got her law degree at UC Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco.

She landed jobs as a prosecutor — first in Alameda County, then in San Francisco. For more than a decade, she tried cases involving charges of drunk driving, sex crimes, assault and homicide.

Her transition to electoral politics was messy, starting in 2003 with a brutal but winning campaign to unseat San Francisco Dist. Atty. Terence Hallinan, her onetime boss.

"She survived a good old-fashioned San Francisco political bloodletting," said Eric Jaye, a San Francisco campaign strategist.

In the middle of the fight was Willie Brown, then mayor of San Francisco. A decade earlier, when he was state Assembly speaker, Brown had dated Harris and put her on the state Unemployment Insurance Appeals Board and California Medical Assistance Commission.

The posts gave Harris nearly $100,000 in annual pay above her Oakland prosecutor's salary. Rivals used the patronage jobs against Harris in the district attorney race; Hallinan portrayed her as part of "the old Willie Brown machine."

Harris, now married to Los Angeles lawyer Douglas Emhoff, called the attack "troubling." Brown is a mentor and friend, she said, and her dating history is nobody's business.

"My opponents chose to tell a story that was salacious and made it sound like I didn't do anything of my own merit, that I was a creation of somebody," she said.

"The women's community got really upset about that stuff," she added. "There's no question that men and women are judged differently. Come on, we know that. It's true. Do I play a violin about it? No."

As district attorney, Harris was quickly consumed by political trouble. Three days after the 2004 murder of San Francisco Police Officer Isaac Espinoza, she infuriated police by announcing she would not seek the death penalty.

Top Democrats took sides against Harris. U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein told mourners at Espinoza's memorial that the case warranted the death penalty, then suggested outside the church that she never would've backed Harris for district attorney if she had known she opposed capital punishment.

U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer — whom Harris aims to succeed in the Senate — called on San Francisco's U.S. attorney to prosecute the killer under federal death penalty laws. And Bill Lockyer, then state attorney general, opened an inquiry into whether Harris abused her discretion by declining to seek a death sentence. (She did not, he found.)

It took years for Harris to restore alliances within law enforcement. She conceded she'd been "politically naive" to decline a death penalty prosecution so soon after Espinoza's killing. But she said the killer's second-degree murder conviction and sentence of life in prison without parole showed her decision was justified.

(Later, as attorney general, Harris dodged a political dust-up by defending California's death penalty system in court after a federal judge declared it unconstitutional.)

Another crisis erupted during her 2010 run for attorney general: The theft of cocaine by a technician in San Francisco's police crime lab forced Harris to drop drug charges in about 1,275 cases.

A Superior Court judge, Anne-Christine Massullo, accused the district attorney's office of violating defendants' rights by hiding damaging information about the technician, a charge Harris denied.

Jeff Adachi, San Francisco's public defender, said Harris was slow to grasp "the enormity of the scandal" but acted appropriately by dismissing cases.

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The trouble for prosecutors, Harris said, was that the police lab was "out of our control," so it took time to realize how much evidence was tainted. "When we found out, we did what we had to do."

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Campaign rivals used the scandal against Harris, to no avail. She defeated Republican Steve Cooley, then L.A. County district attorney, by less than 1 percentage point.

In the Senate contest, Harris' agenda includes a higher federal minimum wage, an end to the federal ban on medical marijuana, protection of abortion rights and a path to citizenship for immigrants in the country illegally.

She has also been outspoken on crime, bemoaning "mass incarceration" for drug offenses. Harris has long emphasized crime prevention, including job training, mental-health treatment and drug rehabilitation, as alternatives to prison.

"If we're dealing with it in a reactive way, in the emergency room or the prison system, it's far too late and much too expensive," Harris said.

Joan Petersilia, author of "When Prisoners Come Home: Parole and Prisoner Reentry," said Harris was one of the nation's first district attorneys to embrace that approach.

"Prosecutors are traditionally not in the business of providing rehabilitation," said Petersilia, a Stanford University law professor.

On the recent visit to Berkeley, Harris said it was partly her experience of racism that shaped her views on how to improve the criminal justice system at a time of roiling national debate over police tactics and racial inequalities.

"I've got a lot of stories — getting stopped, getting — oh, yeah. Lots of stories," said Harris, who calls herself California's "top cop" and often praises police for their dangerous work.

She recalled having "the N-word used against me a number of times."

"I don't wear my experiences on my sleeve," she said. "But my experiences do inform my perspective on the work I do, and on what I believe is possible."

Twitter: @finneganLAT

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