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The New Face of Politics…An Interview with Kamala Harris

Reshma interviews Kamala Harris, the first female District Attorney in San Francisco.
by Reshma Dhawan

Photo by Mona T. Brooks

What inspired you to get into politics?
My family has a long history of civil service. My parents met when they were taking part in the civil rights movement in Berkeley, California. Growing up, I was therefore surrounded by people who were always passionately fighting for this thing called "justice." I was ultimately inspired to make my own contribution to this noble cause through public service. I went to public schools in Berkeley and then on to Howard University in Washington, DC where I decided to pursue a career in the law. After law school, instead of joining most of my friends and classmates at the big downtown firms, I decided to go to the Alameda County District Attorney's office - the same office once headed by the great Earl Warren. It was the best decision I ever made. I decided to run for San Francisco District Attorney in 2003 because I knew what a difference this office could make for the victims of crime and for the communities most plagued by violence.

Who were your heroes growing up?
Apart from my mother, Dr. Shyamala Gopalan Harris, who will always remain my greatest hero in life, my heroes growing up were the architects of the civil rights movement: the lawyers. People like Thurgood Marshall, Charles Hamilton Houston, and Constance Baker Motley demonstrated to me that progressive social change could be successfully achieved in the courtroom.

What do you feel about the idea of releasing criminals from California prisons early in order to help the massive budget deficit?
I am opposed to early release. We need to solve the problem of recidivism. The vast majority of released prisoners -- 7 out of 10 in fact -- will be re-arrested for committing a new crime within 3 years of their release. These are predictable and therefore preventable crimes. Recidivism harms public safety and wastes precious public resources. This method does not prepare prisoners for successful reentry and simply releasing criminals will not change this fundamental problem. We must invest in strategies to reduce recidivism so that fewer people are going IN to prison and more are staying OUT. My Back on Track reentry initiative, which I have implemented in the San Francisco District Attorney's office, is an example of effective recidivism prevention.

What is your position on gay marriage? Do you feel that previous marriages that have already taken place should stay legal?
I support marriage equality. It is a civil rights issue. I opposed Proposition 8 and the recent Supreme Court decision to uphold it was a sad day in California history. The court has allowed a ballot measure to strip rights away from Californians and fundamentally alter our constitution. But the fight for equality is not over. The history of the civil rights movement is a history of perseverance in the face of adversity. I wholeheartedly believe that equal marriage rights for all will soon be the law of the land.

Do you favor the legalization and taxation of marijuana, not just for medicinal purposes?
I support the current legal use of medical marijuana for health issues. I do not support the legalization of marijuana beyond that.

How do you plan to continue to reach out to the youth and keep them safe from violence?
I believe there is a direct connection between public safety and public education. That is why as District Attorney, reducing truancy rates has been a top priority of mine. Additionally, our innovative Back on Track program has reduced the recidivism (or re-offense) rate among a targeted group of young first-time, non-violent offenders from 53 percent to less than 10 percent.

What message would you like to send out to the South Asian community?
I want to stress how important civic and political engagement is in this current day and age. The great thing about the US is that it's a democracy, which is strongest when every experience and voice is represented. And India for example, the world's oldest democracy, serves as a model for us, proving that it is critical that we as a community have representation in elected office and full participation in the electoral process. As evidenced by the level of participation of the South Asian community in the election of President Barack Obama, it is clear that we as an electorate and mobilized constituency can make a visible and impactful difference. I encourage everyone to stay involved.

What message do you want to send to young women who are interested in this field?
Having grown up around strong women, I know firsthand the importance of never taking "no" for an answer and following your dreams. The great Susan B. Anthony once said, "There never will be complete equality until women themselves help to make laws and elect lawmakers." What a long way we have come! But we have so much more work to do. I urge all young women to become active in the community, whether through public service or any other avenue - just be active, be engaged and follow your dreams.

What is your South Asian background?
My mother, Shyamala Gopalan Harris, was born in Chennai (formerly Madras), India. She was the daughter of a diplomat who traveled the world as a government official and didn't think twice about sending his 20 year-old daughter to America to pursue her passion and talent for science, specifically endocrinology and the complex mechanisms of cancer.
When I was a child, every two or three years we traveled to India to visit my mother's family. My earliest memories are of walking along the beach with my grandfather and his friends - retired public servants who had spent their careers trying to make India a better place.
My grandfather would talk to me about the importance of applying an unflinching ethical lens to every single problem you face. He was Joint Secretary for the Indian government, a post akin to our Deputy Secretary of State, and he had numerous fascinating assignments, including several years as an advisor to the government of Zambia in Africa.

Were you born in the US or emigrated here?
I was born in the United States.

What do you think of President Obama's choice for Supreme Court?
With the nomination of Judge Sonia Sotomayor to be the next justice appointed to the United States Supreme Court, President Barack Obama is moving our nation one step closer to fulfilling America's promise. Judge Sotomayor's qualifications are outstanding. Her academic, personal and professional experiences would no doubt enrich the bench, and make our nation's highest court more reflective of the citizens whose rights it protects.

Do you have aspirations to run for state-wide or national office one day?
I am proud to be a candidate for California Attorney General in 2010. For more information, please visit my website at www.kamalaharris.org and join me on Facebook: www.facebook.com/KamalaHarris.

Photo by Mona T. Brooks.

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