It was a Senate hearing-turned-political Rorschach test: Democratic Sen. Kamala Harris, the only black woman in the Senate, questioning, in a style she’d honed as a former prosecutor, Attorney General Jeff Sessions. The June exchange intensified as Sessions struggled to answer questions about interactions with Russian officials during his time working with the Donald Trump campaign, claiming Harris’s fast-paced queries made him “nervous.” Sens. John McCain and Richard Burr repeatedly interrupted Harris and admonished her for speaking over the witness.
For progressives who make up the anti-Trump resistance, that moment crystallized the politics of 2017: The same misogyny and racial resentment that won Trump the presidential election had facilitated the appointment of a man the Senate once rejected from a federal judgeship amid charges of racism. McCain and Burr were respectable Republicans who had abetted Trump’s erratic policy agenda. And Harris, a woman of color, was being rebuked by arrogant white men for just doing her job.
Conservatives, on the other hand, saw it as another example of modern-day liberals exploiting identity politics to gain an unfair advantage. In their view, Harris was a hysterical political grandstander who behaved rudely and then cast herself as a victim, because, as one writer at the National Review put it, “claiming injustice at the hands of old, white, male Republicans is a good way to get your foot in the national door.”
Whatever your politics, it’s hard to deny that the Review got the last part right: 2017 was the year Harris got her foot in the national door. Suddenly, California’s 53-year-old junior senator has become an early favorite to challenge Trump in the 2020 presidential election.
A native Californian, Harris grew up in Berkeley just as the civil rights movement took hold of the Bay Area. The daughter of an Indian mother (a breast cancer researcher) and a Jamaican father (an economics professor at Stanford University), Harris developed a discerning eye for injustice. She attended public school, and the family worshipped at a black Baptist church. Harris earned degrees from Howard University and then the University of California, Hastings law school; by the early 1990s, her career as a state prosecutor was well underway.
In 2003, she was elected district attorney of San Francisco. Her early tenure was bumpy: After a police officer was shot and killed in the line of duty, Harris declined to pursue the death sentence for the perpetrator. At the officer’s funeral, Sen. Dianne Feinstein used her time at the pulpit to say that the case was “the special circumstance called for by the death penalty.” She got a standing ovation from the police-heavy crowd. Harris was sitting in the front row.
In 2010, Harris was elected attorney general of California in a race so close the votes took weeks to tally. She won by less than 1 percent, but the election made her the first woman, person of color, and Indian-American to hold the position. In a sweeping 2016 victory, Harris won the Senate seat vacated by Barbara Boxer, making her the nation’s first Indian-American senator and only the second black woman to ever serve in the Senate.
If the first half of her career was difficult, the road to the presidency will be only harder. Should she run, Harris will have to somehow stitch together a party still split by the bitter 2016 primary battle between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. The two camps spent the first months of 2017 fighting a proxy war over control of the Democratic National Committee, and conflict continues to play out in local races across the country.
Harris seems to have spent much of this year trying to transcend this drama. Her professional bona fides and two decades as a prosecutor, her commitment to social justice (she has made immigrants’ rights and bail reform the focus of her first year in office), and her personal “firsts” make her appealing to voters still smarting from Clinton’s loss and hungry for a charismatic nonwhite, nonmale presidential candidate.
Harris clearly understands this appetite. In January, she told the pink-hatted crowd at the Women’s March on Washington that women were tired of being treated like a single narrow constituency, saying, “We will not retreat when being attacked. We will stand up, and we will fight.” And she’s already shoring up support in key constituencies, meeting with Clinton backers and speaking at politically engaged black churches. But Harris is taking care to play to the Sanders wing as well, co-sponsoring the Vermont senator’s bills for single-payer health care and free college tuition.
Of course, 2020 is still a long way away, but groups from the far-left to the far-right have marked her as a threat. Sanders loyalists have already taken pains to cast Harris as an insufficiently progressive establishment lackey. Conservative websites are also increasingly portraying her as a corporate Democrat with ties to big-money Clinton donors, in what looks like an early effort to again split the Democratic primary.
Harris, for her part, has made no mention of running for president. For now, she’s keeping her voice contained largely to the Senate floor — even when her male colleagues try to quiet it. “As a female prosecutor, let alone a woman of color, there have definitely been moments where people said, ‘No, you can’t do that,’” Harris told Mother Jones just after being elected to the Senate last year. “Well, I eat ‘no’ for breakfast.”
Jill Filipovic is the author of The H-Spot: The Feminist Pursuit of Happiness.
Harris isn’t the only politically successful lawyer in her family. Her younger sister, Maya Harris, was a senior advisor for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign and an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union, and she is currently a political analyst on MSNBC.