Kamala Harris, the junior senator from California, has recently attracted attention for her dogged questioning of powerful white men. During the Senate Intelligence hearing, she repeatedly asked Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein if he intended to give Robert Mueller, the special counsel, full independence to pursue his investigation which would mean that President Trump could not fire him. Senator Richard Burr then chided her for her lack of courtesy in not accepting non-answers.
A week later, Senator Harris questioned Jeff Sessions, the US Attorney General, about his legal basis for refusing to answer questions about his interactions with the President. Sessions claimed that his refusal was based on a “longstanding DOJ policy.” When the skeptical Harris wanted details about the policy, both Burr and Senator McCain told her to be quiet and let the man answer. On both occasions, listeners were treated to the spectacle of older white men patronizingly telling a younger woman of color to mind her manners and be “nice.”
Progressives have naturally embraced Harris as a hero—but there may be even more to her than meets the eye. On paper, she certainly fits the bill. The 52-year-old has a bagful of “firsts” to her name: She’s the first senator in American history with Indian ancestry as her mother was born in India. She was the first black woman to serve as California’s attorney general as well as the first black woman to represent that state in the Senate. She was also the first woman to serve as San Francisco’s district attorney.
Before being elected to the Senate in 2016, Harris had spent 26 years in law enforcement. She served two terms as San Francisco’s district attorney and five years as California’s attorney general. During this time, she tried to “chart a middle course” between those who wanted drastic change and those who demanded law and order. While she established a program that offered first-time drug offenders a chance to finish high school in lieu of going to prison, she also argued against releasing inmates from prisons the Supreme Court had declared to be overcrowded. Similarly, she defended convictions that had been gained by prosecutors lying under oath, but she also believed it was necessary to determine and address the roots of crime. Harris’ “middle course” was due to a desire to ensure she had a place “at the table where decisions are made.”
As a senator, Harris has been less circumspect, and she has not shied away from challenging an administration she considers bigoted. Her own parents had participated in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and had faced down racists at the Berkeley courthouse during a protest. On February 3, Harris issued a challenging tweet, “If you’ve ever wondered what you would have done during the Civil Rights Movement, this is your opportunity to find out.”
Harris is especially determined to protect Muslims and undocumented workers from Trump’s immigration policies. Immediately after Trump signed his first travel ban, Harris called John Kelly, the Secretary of Homeland Security, and begged him to intervene. During her maiden speech at the Senate, she spoke out against “policies that demonize entire groups of people based on the god they worship.” She added that such policies “have a way of conjuring real-life demons.”
Harris’ first public appearance as a senator-elect was at the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles. During her eight-minute speech, she vowed to continue fighting for the rights of immigrants.
Senator Harris is still in the early stages of what could be a long career in public office. Her admirers may be doing her a disservice by concentrating on her race, gender and outspoken nature while overlooking her more nuanced beliefs and policies. Setting somebody up as a hero, especially when desperate for heroes to fight the Trump administration, risks disappointment later on.