Transition of Power
A new blog post by USRESIST Reporters on the transition of Presidential Power from the Trump to the Biden administration
Brief # 6 Kamala Harris Forges History-Making Path to the Vice Presidency
By Linda F. Hersey
December 7, 2020
Vice President-elect Kamala Harris is a woman of firsts.
As the highest-ranking female official elected in U.S. history, Harris will be sworn into office as vice president on Jan. 20, 2021, immediately before Joe Biden takes the pledge as president.
Indeed, the inauguration of President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris is an important historical marker achieved by the Oakland-born daughter of immigrant parents whose life epitomizes the American story: After graduating law school in California, she rose to District Attorney in San Francisco and served as California’s 32nd Attorney General before being elected to the U.S. Senate in 2017.
Now she is poised to make history as:
- The first woman vice president of the United States;
- The first African American to be U.S. vice president, and
- The first Asian American to hold the office of U.S. vice president.
Harris, 56, grew up in a family that values education and civic contributions. Her late mother, who was from India, served as a cancer researcher with a Ph.D. whose work helped to advance the treatment of breast cancer. Her Jamaican-born father is a retired Stanford economist who holds a doctorate degree.
Her parents met during the civil rights movement, while studying at the University of California at Berkeley.
Harris spent her middle and high school years in Canada, after her parents divorced and her mother accepted a teaching and research post at McGill University. After graduating from high school, Harris earned her undergraduate degree at Howard University, the historically black university in Washington, D.C., where she was active on the debate team and landed an internship with California U.S. Sen. Alan Cranston. The experience made an impression, as she would set her sights on a political career.
Harris returned to California for law school where she earned her JD at Hastings College of Law, at the University of California. After graduating in 1989, she launched her legal career in California and has yet to slow down. Her success has helped to redefine expectations U.S. women in politics can achieve.
District Attorney in San Francisco
Harris went on to serve as District Attorney in San Francisco, having a hand in increasing conviction rates, which brought both praise and criticism. The criticism was largely from leaders in the black community who felt her zealous approach to prosecutions unnecessarily targeted black men, who are arrested at a higher rate than other population groups.
Harris’ office lso was criticized for its aggressive prosecutions of marijuana offenses, she did not pursue jail time for people who were convicted. Her successor ended up wiping clean all of San Francisco’s marijuana convictions dating back to 1975, with the state as a whole legalizing recreational use of marijuana.
Harris received praise and media attention for her activism and support of teens and young adults who are LGBQ. A hate crimes task force she assembled as San Francisco’s District Attorney focused on prosecuting crimes against members of the LGBQ community.
In 2010, Harris made history as an elective female official in California, becoming the first woman, the first African American and the first South Asian American elected Attorney General in that state. Her tenure as AG was distinguished by aggressive prosecutions of fraud and abuse in the mortgage and healthcare industries, with her office recovering hundreds of millions of dollars in excess state Medi-Cal and federal Medicare payments.
‘Creating a Path for Those Who Will Come After Us’
In 2017, Harris sought a U.S. Senate seat – and won — becoming the second African-American woman and the first South Asian woman to hold the office.
‘’My mother would look at me and she’d say, ‘Kamala, you may be the first to do many things, but make sure you are not the last,'” Harris recalled, during a speech at Spelman College. “That’s why breaking those barriers is worth it. As much as anything else, it is also to create that path for those who will come after us.”
Harris is hardly alone among California women breaking barriers in higher office.
- S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California has been the highest-ranking woman in line for the presidency as Speaker of the House, a post she has held since 2019 and previously served in, from 2007-2011. That distinction will change on Inauguration Day, when Harris becomes Vice President.
- Dianne Feinstein of San Francisco has served in the U.S. Senate since 1992, making history when she was first elected. She and Barbara Boxer, now retired, were California’s first female U.S. senators.
The achievements of women elected to Congress, even in 2020, cannot be overstated, with only a quarter of the U.S. Senate seats currently held by women. In the U.S. House, women only hold 23 percent of the seats. California has sent more women to Congress than any other state. Now one of their own is about to be Vice President.
First Second Gentleman Making History, Too
In 2021, Harris will enter office with the nation’s first Second Gentleman – her husband and fellow lawyer, Doug Emhoff. “I’m humbled, I’m honored to have put it all on hold — my career, family life, everything — to help Kamala on this campaign and really help Joe,” Emhoff said in a Glamour Magazine interview.
“Kamala learned the kind of character it requires to stand up to the powerful and resolved to spend her life advocating for those who could not defend themselves,” according to the bio on her Senate office website.
Outgoing and friendly, Harris has the uncanny ability to open doors with ease that previously were double-locked — to women and minorities.
On the campaign trail with Biden, she was candid in her criticism of Donald Trump and his administration: “We need a mandate that proves that the past few years do not represent who we are or who we aspire to be,” she said in the weeks prior to the election.
As is characteristic of her candor, Harris’ views on racial injustice are clear.
In an essay for Cosmopolitan magazine, Harris wrote: “Let’s speak the truth: People are protesting because Black people have been treated as less than human in America. Because our country has never fully addressed the systemic racism that has plagued our country since its earliest days, it is the duty of every American to fix this.”
Given the inclusive style of President-elect Biden, Harris is likely to be an activist Vice President, outlining her own agenda and mindful that she will be much more than a footnote in history.
- Oprah Magazine has an article on “Everything You Need to Know About Kamala Harris.”
- Center for American Women in Politics tracks the number of U.S. elected women serving in political office.
- Kamala Harris U.S. Senate website offers background information on the vice president-elect.