On Momala Harris

In our household, both my wife and I favoured Kamala Harris even when she was a candidate running against Joe Biden for presidential nominee to represent the Democratic Party. In the sweepstakes for the vice-presidency slot, while we thought every single one of the candidates was very qualified, we gave Kamala Harris the number one spot. And she was chosen. As we see it, not only for Vice-President but as a future president. She is only 55.

Why did I give her my Canadian non-existing ballot? She is unequivocally intelligent as indicated by her mastery of facts and assemblage of those facts into cogent arguments. But she was not an Alexa or a Siri. She had a wonderful warm smile.  

And what liberal minded individual would not be entranced by her family history. She is the daughter of two academics who met in graduate school, a mother from India and a father from Jamaica. Kamala Harris was raised by her mother since the age of five after her parents split. They divorced when she was seven. She also has a younger sister, Maya. The mother of those two daughters, Shyamala Gopalan, was a breast cancer researcher at the University of California at Berkeley. When Kamala was 12, her mother moved from Berkeley when she accepted a research job in Canada. Kamala, thus, has a strong Canadian connection; she graduated from high school in Montreal. Kamala’s mother died in 2009.

Maya, born after Kamala on 30 January 1967, is a political and legal star in her own right even though she had a child, Meena (a lawyer who graduated from Harvard), as a seventeen-year-old teenager. Maya is an American lawyer, public policy advocate, and television commentator for MSNBC. In 2015, she was appointed as one of three senior policy advisors for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign. Before that, for seven years, she had been Vice President for Democracy, Rights and Justice at the Ford Foundation. She chaired Kamala’s aborted run for the Democratic Presidential nomination.

Donald Harris, her father, is an emeritus post-Keynesian development economics professor at Stanford University. His research explored the “analytical conception of the process of capital accumulation and its implications for a theory of growth of the economy, with the aim of providing thereby an explanation of the intrinsic character of growth as a process of uneven development. From this standpoint, he has sought to critically assess the inherited traditions of economic analysis as well as contemporary contributions, while engaging in related empirical and historical studies of various countries’ experience.” Kamala certainly inherited her father’s concern with enhanced social equity.

Dan Morain described Kamala Harris as “a quick learner and gifted political performer with genuine star power.” She had been a protégée of Willie Brown, the former San Francisco Mayor whom she once dated. As a 31-year-old deputy district attorney from Almeda County across from San Francisco, she joined his campaign and whimsically dubbed him “Da Mayor.”

I also like her because she has been prescient in her choices. She was a very early backer of Barak Obama for president. She became a prodigious fundraiser for him. She had forged her fundraising network early when she supported Willie Brown and continues to have the Pritzkers (the Hyatt hotel-chain), the Getty heirs, the financier, Charles Schwab, and the Fisher family (Gap) in her corner. In the American plutocratic democracy, patrons in high places with deep pockets have always been an essential support for a Democratic Party candidate until Bernie Saunders proved that this was not a necessary condition for success as a politician.  

When she first ran for the office of a prosecuting attorney, she had already established a reputation as an outstanding lawyer. She ran on a liberal platform and opposed the death penalty. And she won with a greater percentage of the vote than any other Democratic candidate at the time, including Gavin Newson, the future Governor of California who then ran on the same ticket for the mayor’s position. Then she fulfilled her pledge by taking up the toughest case possible, the murderer of a police officer, Isaac Espinoza, with an AK47 when Espinoza ordered Hill to stop. The case was tough, not because getting a conviction was difficult, but because she opposed the death penalty for a cop-killer.

Hill was convicted of second-degree murder, got life in prison without a chance for parole. In the process, Kamala Harris had made an enemy, the powerful police union of San Francisco. Police Unions are not normal trade unions. They raise money for their favourite candidates, most often Republicans, though they are prone to hedge their bets. As William Finnegan described “The Blue Wall” in a recent New Yorker article (3-10 August 2020), “there has been a peculiar militance of many police unions….Very few of the officers involved (in violent crimes against mostly African Americans) face serious, if any, consequences, and much of that impunity is owed to the power of police unions.” (48)

Harris got to know the political force of a police union first-hand and would not kneel before it. This position was reinforced by the work of her sister, Maya, who researched and wrote (Organized for Change: The Activist’s Guide to Police Reform) on nationwide community-centered policing practices. In spite of strong opposition from the police, Kamala won office again in 2007. In 2008, she ran for attorney general of California. With donations and volunteer time, the police unions in California backed her opponent, Steve Cooley, a Republican Los Angeles County district attorney. A political action committee (pac) ad “spent $1 million-plus on an ad featuring Espinoza’s mother bashing Harris for refusing to seek the death penalty against her son’s killer.”

In the contest with Cooley, the latter declared victory when he was leading and went home to bed. The San Francisco Chronicle also declared his victory. But the Laweekly soon sported the headline, “Steve Cooley Kamala Harris vote results: Cooley declares victory, but Harris takes the lead.” When the vote was all counted, “Harris had earned a 74,157-vote victory, out of more than 9.6 million votes cast in an election in which tea party candidates won many offices. She had proven that she could win in the toughest circumstances. She also recognized a predator and an empty hack when she saw one.

Remember her performance in the Brett M. Kavanaugh Senate hearings. Remember her interrogation of Attorney General William P. Barr when he appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee in May 2019. Through her unremitting logic and questioning, she turned his feeble protestations that he did not undermine the Mueller Report on Russian interference in the 2016 elections into blithering nonsense.

Harris also proved in debates that she could quickly cut the legs from under an opponent with a swift deprecating crack or a biting question, as Biden would learn. Though generally risk averse, Biden was gutsy enough to choose a gutsy running mate who could represent the party for the next generation, who is forward-looking enough to disarm the progressive wing of the party and liberal enough to gain widespread financial and moral support from the Democratic Party mainstream. She is an excellent debater and can be expected to punch stiff upper lift Vice-President Pence into a corner where he will crumble from the effort to hold himself stiffly together in his subservience to Donald Trump. Further, Harris is deliberate and not rash, cautious rather than careless or carefree in her initiatives. In both intellectual acumen and her ability to make opportunistic assessments, she is an ideal partner for Biden.

Harris, of course, brings demographic balance to the team in three ways. She is an African-American who deliberately chose to go to Howard University even though her educational roots had been in a very different environment. “I became an adult at Howard University,” Harris has said. In fact, in choosing to go to Howard instead of the many ivy league colleges she could have attended, she already proved that she was a mature strategic thinker. She chose an institution that offered a high-quality education, but also a unique cultural experience immersed in diversity and, unusual for a university, deep family values. “I grew up in a community where there were many representations of diversity. Going to Howard, there were so many [Black people]! And they’re all in your age group, in your phase of life.” She learned how empowerment requires a solid community base. It turns out that her community base was one that favoured reform, that favoured change, that favoured progress, that favoured justice.

She is also an Asian-American. Most importantly, she is a woman. As a bonus, she was wooed by and married Doug Emhoff, a very successful entertainment lawyer, in 2014. His two children and her in-laws endearingly call her “Momala.” Kamala Harris married a Jew.

Biden and Harris will face enormous challenges after they win. The first will be taking office. Donald Trump is expected to go whining and complaining and using every trick at his disposal until he is dragged from the White House. He will leave the legacy of the COVID-19 pandemic that has ravished the country like almost no other challenge as he pronounces repeatedly how well his administration is doing in controlling the virus. The economy is in a shambles. The country is deeply divided. Hopefully, the duo will also have the advantage of a Republican Party that will have imploded after the disastrous leadership of Donald Trump and the party’s supine subservience to him.

Biden and Harris will not spend time gloating but will come out of the starting gate ready to tackle the problems head on. How will they handle growing inequality and the obsolescence of a great swath of the labour force as a result of robotization and computer intelligence moving from the factory floor to middle class offices? With Harris on the ticket, they will win. Harris has the intelligence and wiliness to handle that foul-mouthed lying racist demagogic amoral weasel who will be their main opponent. But will the two be able to lead America given the enormous challenges that they will face?

The initial attack to undermine Kamala Harris came quickly. Professor John Eastman, who teaches in the law school at Chapman University and who had been defeated in the California election in California in 2010 by an opponent who Kamala Harris trounced when she ran, questioned whether Kamala Harris was eligible to run for the office. He acknowledged that she was born in Oakland, but raised the question of whether she was eligible because she was born to parents who were not naturalized Americans when she was born. Newsweek, which had published the op-ed, soon had to apologize for putting out this new version of birtherism. It is, of course, unquestionable that Kamala Harris as a person born in the U.S., at least 35 years of age and a resident for at least 14 years, is eligible for the nation’s highest office as prescribed by the Constitution.

Article 2 of the US Constitution states: “no person except a natural born citizen, or a citizen of the United States” shall be eligible for the presidency.

Section 2 of the 14th Amendment states: “all persons born or naturalized in the United States” are US citizens.

Kamala Harris was without question born in the United States.

Nevertheless, President Trump immediately cited the piece and said that it was not just someone questioning her eligibility, but a smart law professor. It could be true, he opined even though the Constitution made it abundantly clear that it was not. But, of course, Donald Trump is not exactly a fan of the Constitution. Trump insisted that, “I have nothing to do with it. I read something about it. It’s not something that bothers me. … It’s not something that we will be pursuing.”

Asked if he actually believed she was ineligible when he raised the possibility, he replied: “I just told you. I have not got into it in great detail.” But Jenna Ellis, a legal adviser to the Trump campaign, immediately took up the issue on Cable TV. The new birtherism campaign was off and running. She went from Eastman raising the question to insist that raising the question itself made the answer an open one.

Harris’ parents were not citizens at the time she was born on 20 October 1964. But there is no question that any child born in the United States is unequivocally eligible. In legal circles, using sophistry as a substitute for reasoning, case law from the 19th century did raise the question of whether children born in the United States of non-citizens could be eligible. But the answer has been long settled. At least a half-dozen U.S. presidents have been the sons of immigrants. Is there any surprise that this version of birtherism will be made into a serious campaign issue only when an African American is running for office?

Senator Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) was born in Calgary, Canada. Senator John McCain (Ariz.), was born in the Panama Canal Zone. George Romney was born in Mexico. Barry Goldwater was born in Arizona in 1909 before it became a state in the Union. In each case, their parents were American and that conferred citizenship on their children. The more interesting question is not about their eligibility to run for president, for they definitely were, but why birtherism was never raised as an issue for a white male Republican candidate.

As in the Obama election, birtherism will turn out to be just a distracting side issue. Just as Obama did, Kamala Harris will demonstrate that she has the stamina and the backbone to stand up to scurrilous hidden racism. Joe Biden responded with fury and a fierce critique of Donald Trump for giving any credibility to the false allegation. He claimed that Trump had resorted to “abhorrent” lies. However, it was the innuendo that was abhorrent. It was the refusal to deny the claim that was abhorrent. It is Trump who is abhorrent.

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