Brilliant Careers

District Attorney Kamala Harris on working for Jesse Jackson, Barack Obama, and where to get really good Indian food in the city

Published in 2010 Northern California Super Lawyers — August 2010

You worked on the Jesse Jackson presidential campaign in the ’80s and knocked on doors in Iowa for the Obama campaign. How did working for the two campaigns differ?

It was a completely different period of time. One of the clearest and most poignant memories I have of Jesse Jackson’s campaign was driving this little Toyota Corolla—I was a student at the time—and I had a “Jesse Jackson For President” sticker on my rear window. And I was driving around the freeway with my “Jesse Jackson For President” sticker on my window and truckers were honking, saying, “Oh yeah, go for it.” And it really pointed out that this was a candidacy that was about America and a much broader base than sometimes people gave it credit for.

 

Can you tell us something we may not know about Obama?

I think everything I know about the President and the First Lady, everyone’s learning. That they’re an extraordinary couple. That he is extremely sincere in his desire to speak for all Americans in a unifying way. He is unafraid, in terms of taking on problems and rolling up his sleeves. And is committed, to following through on his promises. I think he’s an extraordinary individual, who understands that holding public office means that your standard, in terms of your own personal definition of success, can’t be popularity, it has to be whether you’re right with yourself and your God and your principles around what you say you’re going to get done and then getting it done.

 

Do you call yourself a Buddhist or a Hindu?

My mother was a Hindu. And I’m very knowledgeable about the Hindu religion. All the religions I’ve been exposed to have left me with a deep sense of faith. I have celebrated many a Seder. I was a member of the choir in a Baptist church.

 

Your mother grew up in India and you’ve been there several times. What’s your favorite Indian food, and what’s your favorite Indian restaurant in town?

Oh, there’s a variety. There’s something called korma. It’s like a cornmeal, like hominy grits. And I love chicken masala.

 

Restaurants?

Amber India and Dosa, which are both in San Francisco.

 

Do you speak any Indian language?

Let me tell you something about the Indian language. I know all the words of love and all the words of dissension and frustration. All the words of strong feelings, one way or the other. When my mother couldn’t come up with any other word, that’s what it was.

 

You come from a long line of accomplished females. Your mom was a well-known doctor and your sister is a vice president of the Ford Foundation. Your grandmother used to have a driver take her to villages around India in her Volkswagen bug where she would tell the village women—using a bullhorn—to use birth control. What did you learn from these women that helps you in your life today?

Everything. I learned everything from how to be a good cook, to how to speak up in a crowded room when you have something to say that you think needs to be said. I learned what it means to care deeply about family, and create a priority around that. And to care equally about service to others.

 

You announced your opposition to the death penalty during your first campaign for DA. When you followed through on this campaign promise, however, you were criticized and derided. It was a costly exercise in staying true to your principles. Was it worth it?

Well, let’s be clear: I am personally opposed to the death penalty, but as I’ve said, I will follow the law. And the decisions that have been made in any case were based on a review of the facts and the evidence. My position is consistent with four out of the last nine attorney generals.

 

You come from a family with impeccable liberal credentials. Still, becoming a prosecutor required you to buck some liberal sensibilities. Do you get flak for this?

Absolutely not. It’s a false choice to say that you can’t maintain civil liberties and civil rights and also maintain public safety. And I am clear about that.

 

Your mom brought you along to civil rights demonstrations as a child. Do you remember anything from those times?

Yes, I do. Who knows that over time my memories weren’t colored by the family stories, but I certainly remember vividly the very passionate, loud discussions in our house about how injustice should be fought.

 

Are you still friends with Mayor Willie Brown and does he offer you any political advice?

Mayor Brown is one of the smartest and most experienced people who have held elected office in this country. And any one of his friends can tell you, it is always a delight to talk to him about politics and his view of the world as it relates to public service.

 

You used to watch CNN while you exercised, but stopped watching that channel. Why?

I guess I went from a time where I shifted from only watching the news to realizing that it was like watching my life and I preferred mixing it up with a little other TV.

 

Democratic district attorneys are a relative rarity in California. Why?

I think that people who are more traditional Democrats consider themselves as people who want to help people who are vulnerable and who need support. And they don’t think of the prosecutor’s job as serving that role. But nothing could be further from the truth. Every one of my victims is someone who has been vulnerable because she is a woman or a child or an immigrant or the subject of a hate crime. Or they are maybe just someone who has had a horrible life experience.

 

You’re pretty famous for your winning ways with jurors. Any tips for other lawyers?

In training my staff, one tip I give is that whenever anything happens in front of a jury, whatever it is, you must address it instead of hoping the jury didn’t notice and that it goes away. So whatever comes to you at the moment based on what has just occurred in the courtroom, be it a sound or a noise or a thought, is also occurring to everyone else and you had better address it.

Another tip that I give is that when you’re giving a closing argument, you should always show the jury the math, and let them arrive at the sum, instead of arguing the sum and telling them to bring the verdict to that sum. So always think of your argument literally as a mathematical equation. Show the jury the equation so they must in their terms put in the numbers and so in that way they’re more likely to come back to your positioning.

 

How did you end up in the law?

Because at the dinner table in my family, which always included extended family, there was always some passionate debate about something. And everyone, regardless of their age, was expected to defend, with logic, their positions. In that environment you couldn’t help but develop skills because it was needed for survival. Also lawyers were the heroes of the civil rights movement. There was Thurgood Marshall and Charles Hamilton Houston and Constance Baker Motley. They used the skills of their profession to lead the passion from the streets into the courtrooms of this country.

 

In 2009 you wrote Smart on Crime: A Career Prosecutor’s Plan to Make Us Safer. How was the book received by your fellow prosecutors and do you have a tip from the book on how we can all be safer?

The book was received very well. The title of the book is the tip. We should not be limited in our thoughts about criminal policy to two theses: either you’re tough on crime or you’re soft on crime. We need to be smart on crime. And the book outlines how to do that. First off in the book I have discussed what the myths are that have slowed down smarter criminal justice policy. The second half of the book I talk about best practices based on the work that’s being done by prosecutors and sheriffs and police chiefs across the country that has actually proven to achieve everyone’s goal of public safety.

 

Best advice you ever received?

What my mother gave me and my sister: You may be the first to do many things, make sure you’re not the last. 

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