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Kamala Harris: A pragmatic progressive different from Biden in many ways

Black, Indian-American. A district attorney, an attorney general. More than 20 years younger than her running mate.
San Francisco District Attorney Kamala Harris poses for a portrait in San Francisco on June 18, 2004.Marcio Jose Sanchez / AP file

WASHINGTON — Kamala Harris, as she would recall many years later, was once a little girl riding a bus across town to integrate a nearly all-white public school in California. Now she's in line to be the next vice president of the United States, chosen for the job by the man she had attacked with that story just a year ago.

Joe Biden's selection of Harris as his running mate is the culmination of a career of fights and firsts and compromises for the California senator, a pragmatic pathbreaker who went from local prosecutor to state attorney general to U.S senator to the presidential ticket.

Harris was long seen as a favorite to be Biden's VP pick for the same reason she was initially a favorite in the crowded 2020 Democratic presidential race: Her résumé seems to check every box.

At 55, she's 22 years Biden's junior. She's a charismatic Black woman who has wooed San Francisco liberals while also overcoming racially tinged attacks to become a top law enforcement official in the city and then the state of California.

But her fizzled presidential primary campaign, which was plagued by mismanagement and indecision about how Harris should position herself, also showed the limits of a good-on-paper résumé.

And President Donald Trump's campaign has already unleashed attacks on Harris as a San Francisco liberal and a "phony" who "will abandon her own morals" to get ahead, as Trump 2020 senior advisor Katrina Pierson said in a statement.

Harris, thanks to her presidential run, has been picked over by the press and operatives from rival campaigns — but never at the level or intensity they are about to be.

There's her long-ago relationship with former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, who was separated from his wife but was not divorced at the time. Her record as a prosecutor and the myriad individual cases she oversaw. And there's her shifting positions on Medicare for All and the resulting criticism that rose during the primary campaign that her political beliefs are subject to change.

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But Harris will be playing a supporting role to Biden and her upbringing on the opposite coast from him could complement his, showing how different their origins are.

Harris was born in Oakland to immigrant parents with high expectations. Her father came from Jamaica to become a distinguished economist at Stanford University and her mother was a cancer researcher who emigrated from India.

Her parents divorced when she was young and her mother did most of the parenting, but her mother knew her daughters would be seen as Black, not Indian-American.

"My mother understood very well that she was raising two black daughters," Harris wrote in her 2019 memoir, "The Truths We Hold." "She knew that her adopted homeland would see Maya and me as black girls, and she was determined to make sure we would grow into confident, proud black women."

For college, Harris chose Howard University, the storied historically Black school in Washington, D.C., which has remained a touchstone in her public career.

Alameda County deputy district attorney Kamala Harris
Alameda County deputy district attorney Kamala Harris at the Alameda County Superior Court in Oakland, Calif. on March 28, 1997.Mary F. Calvert / The Mercury News via Getty Images file

Almost immediately after graduating from law school and passing the bar exam, Harris became a prosecutor, first in Alameda County, which includes Oakland, then across the bay in San Francisco.

At a time when there were few top district attorneys of color and the politics of crime was weighted in favor of candidates who talked tough, instead of those who prioritized criminal justice reform, Harris cultivated a reputation as an aggressive prosecutor.

It was there, in 2002, that she made her first big political move by running against the same San Francisco district attorney who had recruited her for the job a few years earlier.

Taking on an incumbent is always an uphill battle, but especially for someone who looked like Harris. No California city had ever elected a black district attorney.

But Harris showed a clear tenacity on the stump. And she forged connections to wealthy San Francisco donors and politicos who helped propel her quick ascent for years to come: First as San Francisco's DA, then as California's attorney general, then as she beat out other California Democrats to win a rare open seat in the Senate.

She was elected to the Senate the same night as Donald Trump won the presidency. But she heeded the example of Barack Obama and the advice of some advisers close to the former president who suggested she not wait and risk missing the moment to run for president.

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Tens of thousands turned out for an outdoor rally in Oakland to watch Harris announce her candidacy for the presidency last January. But the campaign fizzled as, like the other candidates of color in the race, she was unable win over a large number of voters of color, who helped lift Biden to the nomination.

This time will be different, Democrats say, given what's changed in the past year and Democrats' unity in defeating Trump.

"Generations of our elders have dreamt of this moment, and — because of their struggle and sacrifice — little girls expected it," said Massachusetts Rep. Ayanna Pressley, an outspoken progressive who supported Elizabeth Warren over Harris in the presidential campaign. "Kamala Harris will meet the moment and more."