Kamala Devi Harris will change the U.S. Senate by walking through the door.
Harris will enter the chamber as the first Indian woman elected to a Senate seat and the second black woman, following Carol Moseley Braun, who served a single term after being elected in 1992.
Democratic U.S. Senate candidate, Attorney General Kamala Harris speaks to supporters at a election night rally Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2016 in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson)
The daughter of immigrants from India and Jamaica gives national Democrats a new face with an appealing resume — a career prosecutor and attorney general in the nation’s most populous state — and a lineage that fits squarely with the party’s goal to mirror a changing country.
By 2050, minorities are projected to be the majority in the U.S., as they are in California, and women are a majority in every state. Harris, who takes a seat in a Senate that remains overwhelmingly white and male, defeated another Democrat, Rep. Loretta Sanchez, in the Nov. 8 election.
“Harris will help make the Senate look more like America,” said Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. “Slowly, the Senate will catch up with the nation’s demographics, and Harris proves the point.”
She has drawn comparisons to her friend, President Barack Obama, another lawyer and racial groundbreaker. Obama once apologized after calling Harris “the best-looking attorney general in the country.” Her sister, Maya Harris, was a senior policy adviser for Hillary Clinton’s campaign.
“Our diversity is our power,” Harris told fellow Democrats last year.
In picking the 52-year-old Harris to replace retiring Barbara Boxer, voters also looked to a new generation for leadership.
Boxer, who served four terms after being first elected in 1992, will turn 76 this week. California’ senior senator, Dianne Feinstein, is 83. Hillary Clinton will turn 70 next year.
In Harris, Californians are getting a liberal Democrat much in the mold of the senator they are replacing. It’s telling that her first major endorsement came from Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a favorite of the party’s liberal wing.
Along with her law-and-order credentials, Harris supports gay rights, reproductive rights and the $15 minimum wage. She want to do more to fight climate change and supports immigration reform with a path to citizenship for people who entered the U.S. illegally.
Born in Oakland, California, Harris calls Thurgood Marshall an inspiration and talks often about growing up with parents deeply involved in the civil rights movement. She married Los Angeles lawyer Douglas Emhoff two years ago, her first marriage.
Her economist father and cancer specialist mother met as graduate students at the University of California, Berkeley, where Harris recalls they “spent full time marching and shouting about this thing called justice.” They later divorced.
She comes to the Senate after twice being elected state attorney general. As a candidate she stressed her fights with big banks during the mortgage crisis, for-profit colleges that were financially exploiting students and environmental wrongdoers.
A central theme for years has been recidivism and criminal justice reform, where she has advocated for a different approach to non-violent crimes that emphasizes rehabilitation and help getting back on track, not severe, one-size-fits-all punishment. She calls it smart on crime.
Harris emerged from the election largely unscathed after facing Sanchez, who suffered from a string of verbal gaffes and saw the party establishment line up behind Harris. Harris never trailed in polling or fundraising.
She was able to overcome a deficit of experience in foreign affairs — rival Sanchez called her unready for the job — while fending off criticism about rising crime rates and that she is too often cautious when faced with politically dicey subjects.
Sanchez and some other Democrats, for example, said she was not aggressive enough on prosecutions and investigations related to fatal shootings by police.
At an NAACP convention in Sacramento in October, Harris was describing the steps the state has taken to deter police bias when Jay King jumped to his feet and stalked out of the room.
“Police are killing us,” he shouted. “I can’t listen to this.”
King, a singer and volunteer host on a Sacramento radio station, said afterward that he previously voted for Harris and contributed to her campaign. But he criticized Harris and Obama for not doing more.
Harris took the interruption in stride.
“People are shouting in a room or on the streets because they feel they’re not being heard,” she said later. “We have to give voice to that.”
Thinly tested on the national stage, the next question will be can she deliver in a Congress riven by partisanship.
A glance at her website provides a snapshot of her goals, including free tuition at community colleges and increasing rainwater storage capacity in drought-plagued California.
In a state where millions struggle in poverty, where extremes of wealth and destitution can be witnessed by walking a few blocks in downtown Los Angeles, Harris talks about rebuilding the “ladder of opportunity” for those left behind.
“I wanted to do the work that was about being a voice for the vulnerable,” she has said.