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In Search of Elusive Justice

As San Francisco's new district attorney, Kamala Harris is challenging orthodoxy, claiming that the crackdown mentality has not worked. Will her ideas for stemming California crime hasten or hinder her rise as a political star?

October 24, 2004|Scott Duke Harris | Scott Duke Harris last wrote for the magazine about MoveOn.org.

Shyamala insisted on giving her daughters names derived from Indian mythology, in part to help preserve their cultural identity. "A culture that worships goddesses produces strong women," she says. A favorite family story begins with Harris' parents pushing her in a stroller as they marched for civil rights, joining in the protest chants. After one march Shyamala innocuously asked, "What do you want, Kamala?" The toddler replied: "FEE-DOM!"

Harris was in elementary school when her parents divorced. She and her younger sister Maya saw their father on weekends, holidays and during the summer while Shyamala raised the children amid what Harris calls "the black intelligentsia," with intense dinner-table discussions about the civil rights movement. Maya Harris is now director of the Racial Justice Project for the ACLU of Northern California. "When we were growing up," she explains, "the notion of justice and public service and a commitment to civil rights were not abstractions. They were completely a part of our lives, of who we were and who we are."

An academic nomad, Shyamala gave her daughters a worldly education, traveling frequently to visit family in India, the Caribbean and Europe. Harris attended high school in Montreal, while her mother taught at McGill University there and did research at the Jewish General Hospital. Shyamala had a strict rule for her girls: No TV unless you were also knitting or doing needlepoint. "This whole thing of multi-tasking was ingrained early on," Harris says, laughing. Shyamala also steeped her daughters in family values that exalted education and public service. The girls looked to their Indian grandmother, Rajam, as a role model, impressed by her work for women's rights. Rajam, now 81, keeps in touch with her daughter and granddaughters via e-mail. As Shyamala puts it: "Kamala comes from a long line of kick-ass women."

San Franciscans first became acquainted with the name Kamala Harris in 1995, when the late columnist Herb Caen noted her romance with the masterful politician Willie Brown, a considerably older man who had been California's Assembly speaker and would soon become San Francisco's mayor. The personal is political: Brown had appointed Harris to a pair of compensated part-time state commissions. The cynical perception pegged her as another piece on Brown's chess board. Caen approvingly described Harris as San Francisco's "first-lady-in-waiting." But several months later, Caen also reported on their breakup.

Across the bay, Harris earned a reputation as a skillful, hard-working prosecutor within the Alameda County District Attorney's Office. After Howard University and Hastings College of Law, Harris surprised acquaintances who assumed that her liberal sensibilities would lead to a career as, say, a public defender or public interest lawyer. But for Harris, this was all the more reason to be a prosecutor: "It is important for people like me who have a certain perspective and experience to be at the table when important decisions are being made. Why be on the outside begging [when you can be] on the inside where the decisions are being made?"

No other experience as a prosecutor, she says, affected her as profoundly as a series of difficult cases involving the sexual abuse of children. The victims of crime, Harris says, "come from the same community as the defendants," and tend to be "women, children, the elderly, immigrants. I want to make sure their voices are heard."

In Alameda County, Harris became a protege of the late Dick Iglehart, an influential career prosecutor. In 1996, after taking a top management role with Hallinan in San Francisco, Iglehart recruited Harris and placed her in charge of the unit focusing on career criminals. Two years later, after Iglehart's appointment to the bench and amid dissension over his successor, Harris accepted a job in the San Francisco city attorney's office. Placed in charge of its Children and Family Services Division, Harris turned her attention to teenage prostitution, co-founding a group called the Coalition to End the Exploitation of Kids. Whereas police focused on the crime of selling sex, Harris saw young girls as victims driven by economic necessity, drug addiction and domineering men.

She felt there was an obvious need: Girls who wanted out of the sex trade had no place to turn. San Francisco lacked a "safe house" similar to Hollywood's Children of the Night. In January, thanks to Harris and her allies, San Francisco will open its first such refuge.

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