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Kamala Harris elected DA of San Francisco

George Joseph | December 10, 2003 10:55 IST
Last Updated: December 11, 2003 16:26 IST

Kamala HarrisKamala Devi Harris on Wednesday morning was elected district attorney of San Francisco, CA. She got over 56 per cent of the votes in the run off held on Tuesday. She beat two-time DA and her former boss Terrence Hallinan. A little less than 50% of the 470,089 voters took part in the polling.

After the defeat of Bobby Jindal in Louisiana, the Indian American community was pinning its hopes on Harris (39), who is considered a rising star in the political arena.

Harris was a prosecutor in the San Francisco city attorney's office before emerging as a challenger to Hallinan. Polls before the November 4 election never showed her enjoying support of over 19 per cent of the voters. Yet, in that election, she knocked out Bill Fazio, a former San Francisco prosecutor who had narrowly lost two previous races against Hallinan.

When the results came on November 4, she was placed second with 66,248 votes or 33.65 per cent against Hallinan's 70,580 votes or 35.85 per cent. Fazio got 59,834 votes or 30.3 per cent.

The total electorate is 459,213. Only 209,723 voted on November 4. Since no one got more than 50 per cent of the votes, the top two went to the electorate again in Tuesday's run off.

Daughter of Dr Shyamala Gopalan, who is a renowned breast cancer specialist and Donald Harris, an African American, who later became a Stanford economics professor, Harris was considered as a candidate at ease with different groups. There were no questions about her antecedents as in the case of Jindal, as she is the daughter of the soil, by any measurement.

Unlike Jindal, Harris led an aggressive campaign against two-time DA Terrence Hallinan (66), accusing him of being soft on crimes. She pointed out to voters that, during his time, crime rate has gone up and conviction rates down.

Harris promised to tackle the crime scenario vigorously and protect people from violence. Her promise of justice without fear or favour to all got her endorsements from almost all major newspapers, including the San Francisco Chronicle.

Senator Diane Fienstein endorsed her candidature while Rep Nancy Pelosi, Minority Leader in Congress, rallied behind Hallinan who also enjoys the support of the San Francisco Democratic Party.

But Harris had several advantages. She got the endorsement from the police establishment and lawyers' forums; she collected more money than Hallinan. While the Hallinan campaign gathered $250,000, Harris was backed by a $600,000 war chest.

"Nobody expected me to reach the run off level. It is due to the work of a number of people," Harris told rediff.com and she had no doubts about her chances of winning the run off.

She is not sure about her long-term plans. "The DA's job is a full time one. So I can't think of anything else at this time," Harris said.

A former deputy district attorney in San Francisco and Alameda County, she has 13 years of courtroom experience.

In 1998, Harris was named by the Daily Journal as one of the top 20 young lawyers in the state of California. She is hailed as a veteran prosecutor who has dedicated her legal talents to prosecuting violent crime, combating the sexual exploitation of children and working creatively to improve the quality of life in our communities.

She ran for the DA's office with the backing of the city's legal and social elite, positioning herself as a tough-on-crime progressive capable of building coalitions to prevent youth and minorities from getting trapped in the criminal justice system.

She was attacked for her relations with Willie Brown, mayor of San Francisco, who is leaving office soon.

Harris met Brown in 1994 when he was speaker of the state assembly. At that time, she was 30 and he 60. Their affair was the talk of the town during the year before Brown's successful 1995 bid to become mayor. But shortly after he was inaugurated, Harris dumped Brown, according to published reports.

Harris denied allegations she was indebted to Brown, saying she had ended the relationship many years ago.

There were reports that she is inclined to the culture of her mother than that of her father. She said she has very good relations with Indians and India. She goes to India every couple of years.

"In fact, she and her sister Maya, also an attorney, know all Hindu mythology and traditions," Dr Shyamala, who visited the campaign office frequently to help the volunteers, said.

"Kamala will be at ease at a temple or in a church in the same way. She was born during Dussehra. So I gave her the name thinking of Goddess Lakshmi."

Harris was born in 1964 and her sister Maya two years later.  Their parents separated when Kamala was five.

Though a physician, Shyamala never forced the children to choose medicine as a career. "It is their life. They have to live according to their dreams, not mine. So I gave the freedom to chose their careers," she said.

"Kamala was always thinking of public service. She never wanted to make money working in big firms. She was very much attached to my late father who was a joint secretary in the Indian government. He instilled in her a thirst for service " Dr Shyamala noted.

Dr Shyamala says none from her immediate family is in the US, though she came here to study in the 60s. "They did not want to come to the US. So we frequently went to India."

Varun Nikore, founder, Indian American Leadership Initiative, once called Harris to a training session organized by IALI. "She was electrifying. Definitely she will go to higher levels," Nikore said.

The run off election for the mayor also was held on Tuesday. Gavin Newsom, who had the support of former president Bill Clinton, defeated his opponent Matt Gonzalez.


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