By DeWayne Wickham
In the world of politics, this could be called the “Year of the Woman.”
From the rise of Republican Nikki Haley, who came from nowhere and fought off a scurrilous personal attack to win South Carolina’s governorship, to the surprising staying power of Barbara Boxer, the three-term Democratic member of the U.S. Senate who handily won reelection in California, women dominated the political landscape.
There was Sarah Palin, a darling of the Tea Party Movement, shooting moose on her own reality television show; and Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand easily winning election to the New York U.S. Senate seat she was appointed to last year after Hillary Clinton resigned to become Secretary of State. Florida voters made Republican Jennifer Carroll their state’s first black lieutenant governor. And in Delaware, Christine O’Donnell – who once said she dabbled in witchcraft, but never joined a coven – captured national attention while being soundly defeated in her third attempt to win a Senate seat.
But the woman the 2010 election cycle might eventually catapult to the greatest heights is one who barely made a blip on this nation’s political radarscope this year. Her name is Kamala (pronounced Comma-la) Harris and on January 3 she’ll take the oath of office as California’s first female attorney general.
Some people have called the 46-year-old Harris, whose father is Jamaican and mother is from India, “the female Barack Obama.” But to see Harris as that would be to misjudge her badly. Obama was a Harvard-educated community organizer before he waded into the political arena. Harris, who graduated from Howard University – the Citadel of black higher education institutions – was a prosecutor for more than a decade before ran for office. Elected San Francisco’s district attorney in 2003, won a second term in 2007.
While many of the women who crowded onto the political stage this year fit comfortably into an ideological mold, Harris does not. A self-described “child of the civil rights movement” who was raised in Berkeley, the hotbed of California liberalism, Harris touts her record for putting violent offenders behind bars and getting tough on parents of elementary schoolchildren who are chronically absent from class. She also champions programs that offer non-violent first offenders job training instead of jail time and rehabilitation to people released from prison.
“I hope to serve this nation as the attorney general of California. I believe in that old adage that ‘as goes California, so goes the country,’ ” Harris said, rejecting my suggestion that she could be a new breed of national politician. Even so, I think she is destined to land in the nation’s other power center: Washington, D.C.
While O’Donnell writes a book about her most recent unsuccessful bid for a U.S. Senate seat (she lost earlier races in 2004 and 2006) and Palin morphs between her roles on a reality TV show star and a right-wing political operative, Harris is expanding her political base.
The transition team she named to oversee her move into the California attorney general’s office is headed by two former U.S. secretaries of state – Republican George Shultz and Democrat Warren Christopher. It also includes former Stanford Law School dean Kathleen Sullivan and ex-Los Angeles police chief William Bratton; and Connie Rice, a highly regarded civil rights attorney.
“It’s an incredible group of leaders and professionals and I’m really humbled that they’ve dedicated their time to work on the transition…I wanted to have people who understand California in the context of the globe,” Harris explained.
It is also the kind of team building that will lift Harris above many of the other women who are part of the political class of 2010. She’s too smart to acknowledge that her sights are set on anything other than the job she’s about to take on. She’s too politically astute to get caught looking that far ahead.
But Harris, I think, is destined to become a commanding presence in the political life of this country, and a major player in this nation’s other power center – Washington, D.C.