Joe Mathews: Kamala Harris’ first-class education in politicking

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U.S. Senator Kamala Harris speaking with attendees at the 2019 National Forum on Wages and Working People hosted by the Center for the American Progress Action Fund and the SEIU at the Enclave in Las Vegas, Nevada. Photo credit: Gage Skidmore/CC 2.0, via Flickr

Kamala Harris is both a politician and a lawyer, which doesn’t make her someone who would typically engender a lot of trust. And the Democratic Vice Presidential candidate has been known for calibrating her views to meet the shifting political winds. But Zocalo commentator Joe Mathews says he feels good about Harris’ ascension. After all, she has survived California’s hardscrabble political battles mostly unscathed. Mathews says there’s no better place to learn how to navigate the craziness of the nation’s capital than its biggest state.

Read Mathews’ column below:

In California we trust

Kamala will be fine. She’s a Californian.

Of course, you shouldn’t trust Kamala Harris—she is both a politician and a lawyer, two professions that merit your skepticism. But you should trust the Golden State that made her—as a classroom for navigating the endless complications of 21st century leadership.

Is there any better preparation for running a country as insane as the United States than a political career in a state as crazy as California?

Let’s say you were put in charge of producing a vice president, which is to say, a person who could be president. Where better to raise her than the Berkeley of the late 1960s and 1970s? Just by moving around the city, you would expose her—as Kamala Harris’ mother did—to all kinds of people, rich and poor, activists and academics, those with brilliant ideas for changing the world, and others who were off-their-rockers.

For work, you’d have her start as a prosecutor in Alameda County and San Francisco, so she could see the horrors that ensue when societies and families fail. And you’d assign her to the most wrenching cases, involving domestic violence and child abuse, so she could understand the depths of human vulnerability.

To steel her for America’s nasty politics, you’d have her launch her electoral career in San Francisco, with the toughest political culture of any city in the state. You would not give her an open seat, but rather force her to beat an incumbent district attorney—her former boss—in a tricky three-person race.  You’d have her stay close to the local political machine, while also forcing her to figure out how to collaborate with reformers.

And once she’d triumphed in San Francisco, you’d send her to Los Angeles. You’d have her run for state attorney general against a very popular district attorney, a Los Angeles Republican named Steve Cooley, who had locked up the endorsements of all the state’s law enforcement organizations. And because a Republican who wins Los Angeles wins statewide, you’d have her all but move to a city where almost no one knew her name, and make her find a way to beat the hometown boy in his hometown.

You’d send her, victorious, to Sacramento, where she would work with the most experienced governor in history, Jerry Brown.  Her work as attorney general also would force her to learn the whole California nation-state, with  hyper-complicated regions than most states.

Then you’d have her run again, statewide, for the U.S. Senate. And you’d put her in a strange top-two system that would have her competing not against a hapless Republican—but rather against another popular Democrat, from the state’s largest ethnic group. And in surveys just a few months before that election, you’d have Kamala Harris—the leading Black politician in a state with a small and declining Black population—losing Latino votes by 25 points to Loretta Sanchez. But then by November, she would have figured out how to be more popular with Latinos than her opponent.

Of course, so many challenging experiences also would make her cautious, and disciplined about protecting herself from attacks. And in a polarized time, caution—even from, by voting record, the second most progressive person in the U.S. Senate—would sometimes look like moderation. This would be a distinguishing trick in California. Most people here like to sound progressive but are actually moderate, while she would look moderate while being quite progressive.

The appearance of moderation would draw progressive attacks, and end her presidential campaign before it got started. Of course, abandoning her presidential campaign—a first defeat—would allow her to regroup, to forge new alliances, and to win the vice-presidential nomination.

And she would be ready for whatever came next. California, after preparing her for nearly all her life, had already made sure of it.

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square.

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