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Kamala Harris career choice inspired by civil rights icons

FILE - In this Nov. 16, 2012 file photo, California Attorney General Kamala Harris speaks during a news conference in Los Angeles. Three weeks after announcing her candidacy for the U.S. Senate,  Harris hasn't spoken a word, a strategy that has allowed her to avoid media scrutiny while carefully setting a foundation for the 2016 contest. (AP Photo/Richard Vogel, File)
Richard Vogel/AP
FILE - In this Nov. 16, 2012 file photo, California Attorney General Kamala Harris speaks during a news conference in Los Angeles. Three weeks after announcing her candidacy for the U.S. Senate, Harris hasn't spoken a word, a strategy that has allowed her to avoid media scrutiny while carefully setting a foundation for the 2016 contest. (AP Photo/Richard Vogel, File)

Her first name means lotus flower in Sanskrit. And she’s the Democratic Party favorite this year to replace U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer, who is retiring. California Attorney General Kamala Harris is such a favorite that once she announced her candidacy, potential big name Democratic rivals did a quick fade. All except Orange County Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez, a fellow Democrat who trails Harris in the polls.

Voters tend to assess a candidate on the person's policies, persona and narrative. For Harris, 51, her narrative starts in the 1960s. 

“My parents met when they were graduate students at the University of California Berkeley, while they were active in the civil rights movement,” said Harris at an event put on by Emily’s List, a group devoted to electing women who support abortion rights.

Harris’ father is from Jamaica and taught economics at Stanford University. Her mother was an endocrinologist and breast cancer researcher from India.

“My sister Maya and I, we joke that we grew up surrounded by a bunch of adults who spent full time marching and shouting for this thing called justice,” Harris said.

She has described her influences as the icons of the civil rights movement: Thurgood Marshall, Charles Hamilton Houston and Constance Baker Motley. They were all lawyers, with Marshall eventually becoming a U.S. Supreme Court justice. Harris said their heroism inspired her to study law. After attending Howard University, she went to UC Hastings College of the Law. But when she chose to be a prosecutor, she told journalist Katie Couric she had to defend her decision to her family as she would a college thesis.

“I have witnessed what I think is essentially a false choice that has been presented, which is that you are either in favor of public safety, or in favor of civil rights and civil liberties,” Harris said. “You can be both. And that’s how I've approached my work and public service.”

Later, as San Francisco's district attorney, she declined to seek the death penalty against the killer of a police officer. That raised the ire of U.S. Sens. Boxer and Dianne Feinstein and then-Attorney General Bill Lockyer, all Democrats. Harris went on to write a book called “Smart On Crime,” in which she argued the most effective way to stop crime is through early intervention. She told NBC’s Matt Lauer that she threatened to prosecute parents of elementary school children who were habitually truant.

“As far as I’m concerned, a child going without an education is tantamount to a crime,” she said. “And we need to treat it as seriously as we would any other issue, because invariably that kid will be the dropout who will be the crime victim or the perpetrator.”

Harris once dated former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, who from 1980 to 1995 was speaker of the state Assembly. He is said to have influenced her decision to enter politics. In 2014, Harris married Los Angeles attorney Douglas Emhoff, a partner in the Venable LLP law firm. Some have called Harris the female Barack Obama. The president once described her as the best looking attorney general in the country. She told Couric that she views comments about a woman’s looks as irrelevant.

“I refused to be distracted from the work that needs to get done,” she said.

Harris, who declined to be interviewed for this story, has promised during the U.S. Senate campaign to stand up for California’s residents.

“It means defending collective bargaining rights for working Americans,” Harris told an audience at a state Democratic Party gathering in 2015. “It means taking on those science-deniers who insist that the Earth is flat, the Loch Ness monster is real and climate change doesn’t exist.”

She also has said she favors national climate change legislation, backs immigration reform and supports Obama’s plan for free tuition at community colleges.

Congresswoman Sanchez is Harris’ closest competitor in the race to succeed Boxer, who announced last year she would retire after 24 years in Senate. A USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll out last month shows Harris leading Sanchez 28 percent to 19 percent among registered voters, followed by Republicans Tom Del Beccaro with 8 percent and Duf Sundheim with 6 percent. Former gubernatorial candidate Ron Unz was not included in the poll because he had just entered the race. The top two vote-getters in the June primary, regardless of party affiliation, will face off in the November election. Despite Harris’ big lead over Sanchez, UC San Diego political science professor Thad Kousser said the congresswoman should not be discounted. He said Sanchez proved herself a formidable candidate when she unseated Republican Congressman Bob Dornan in 1996.

“The fact that Loretta Sanchez was able to win an election in Orange County, which at the time she won was still called The Orange Curtain and was the Republican stronghold in California, shows that she can preach to someone other than just the choir,” Kousser said.

In the Senate race, Sanchez has touted her national credentials as a member of Congress. Even so, most observers say Harris’ lack of federal experience is unlikely to hurt her because she has better statewide name recognition as attorney general than Sanchez. Harris has been given credit for standing up to the banking industry, which was accused by several states of rubber stamping foreclosures without doing due diligence during the mortgage crisis. She didn’t like the banks’ initial settlement offer.

“They were offering $2 [billion] to $4 billion,” she told journalist Farai Chideya. “I thought that was crumbs on the table, and so I pulled out. We got California $18 billion instead.”

Harris also initially received praise for her office's work that uncovered an apparent backroom deal between Southern California Edison and state regulators that led to ratepayers paying the $3.3 billion bill for the shutdown of the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station. But that criminal probe by the California Attorney General's Office has so far led to no charges, and that has a San Diego lawyer concerned that Harris has let the investigation stall.

“If the attorney general would give the same emphasis to enforcing the law in this case as she is pursuing higher office, the case would be over by now,” said attorney Mike Aguirre, who has been filing lawsuits and seeking public records over San Onofre's closure. 

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California Counts is a collaboration of KPBS, KPCC, KQED and Capital Public Radio to report on the 2016 election. The coverage focuses on major issues and solicits diverse voices on what's important to the future of California.

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Correction: An earlier version of this story mistakenly identified Willie Brown's position. KPCC regrets the error.