As such, she will attract far greater scrutiny than her predecessors.
There is no doubt she is one of the most interesting politicians in a town that has no shortage of talent or intriguing characters. Being a woman is no longer a rarity in Washington – at least on the Democratic side – but few (other, perhaps, than House Speaker Nancy Pelosi) are as stylish. Harris feels no need to be sartorially safe. No kitten heels or beige pantsuits for her on the campaign trail.
Instead, she opts for the comfort of Chucks (that’s Chuck Taylor All Stars Converse sneakers for the uninitiated) and has them in black, white and sequined. She wore black jeans and Timbs (Timberland boots) to visit a fire-ravaged area in her home state of California, but she will also strut in the spikiest heels when she feels like it. And she paid homage to the suffragette shoulders she stands on by wearing a white pantsuit for her victory speech on Saturday.
This is not to make her clothes the issue, but just to point out that she is a rule-breaker, and that is unusual in a politician, especially one whose career path has been in law enforcement.
Her first significant job was as a prosecutor, then she became district attorney for San Francisco and, after 2010, attorney-general of California. She was the first woman, the first black person and the first south Asian to hold this position.
This background cost Harris support when she ran in the Democratic primaries in 2019 and was dismissed as “a cop” by many African Americans. Her failure to garner black support was one reason she dropped out of the race. Yet that dismissing of her has been challenged by Reginald Dwayne Betts – a black lawyer and poet who served nine years for armed robbery committed when he was a juvenile – in a powerful piece recently in The New York Times Magazine.
Harris was attacked for her supposed allegiance to a system that through policing and incarceration conspires to harm African Americans, especially men, whose incarceration rate in the US is disproportionately high. Yet, argues Betts, her actual record of looking after black victims of crime in a country where people of colour are “being simultaneously overpoliced and underprotected” is not appreciated. He brings a special understanding to this dilemma: while he was awaiting trial for his own crimes, his mother was raped at gunpoint.
Harris has argued that safety is a human right. “We need to reimagine what public safety looks like,” she told Betts. “Are we looking at the fact that if you focus on issues like education and preventive things [such as affordable housing, job skills development and education], then you don’t have a system that’s reactive?” But when she started a re-entry program to try to keep men on drug charges out of prison, she was attacked: “You’re a DA. You’re supposed to putting people in jail, not letting them out,” people told her.
In 2015 Harris took a similarly innovative approach when she summoned senior executives from Twitter, Google, Facebook and other tech companies to the Justice Department’s headquarters in San Francisco and told them they had to address the issue of revenge porn.
“First, don’t call it revenge porn. It’s not,” she told them. “It’s a crime, the way domestic abuse is a crime.”
Others in law enforcement were focused on the hackers, those posting the pornographic images, but Harris identified the platforms as the real issue.
Her tackling of this is described in gripping detail in a piece by Nancy Scola in Politico on February 1, 2019, titled “Kamala Harris’ crusade against revenge porn”.
As attorney-general she had promised to protect Californians from “online predators”, an issue that was suddenly exploding as the result of an invention by a fellow Californian just three years earlier: the iPhone. Due to her intervention, the tech companies began removing pornographic images and Harris later successfully prosecuted several individuals using websites for sexual trafficking.
Once in the White House, will she remain brave and innovative? Will she continue to be the unique, incredibly qualified forger of new trails?
Australians will have the opportunity to see the genius of Hamilton the musical early next year, and hear George Washington sing, as he elevates the brash young Alexander Hamilton to his own command in the Revolutionary War: “I know that greatness lies in you. But remember from here on in, history has its eyes on you.”
Anne Summers is an Australian journalist based in New York.
Anne Summers is a Fairfax Media columnist.