Maya Harris was home from law school and chatting about local Oakland politics when she casually made a bold claim: “I’m going to run this city.”
Family friend Sharon McGaffie still remembers it three decades later as a sign of where her “little sister” was headed.
“She was serious,” McGaffie told TPM. “I kind of let it go, it was this little sweet Maya I’ve known. I said ‘girl you’re just doing too much’ or something, and we laughed. … [But] I thought, ‘this girl is something.’ She’s young with a young daughter, she wasn’t married then, and she was on fire to do things.”
Harris isn’t running Oakland. But after a supercharged civil rights career that’s taken her to the the highest levels of policy and advocacy work, and into Hillary Clinton’s inner circle, she’s trying to accomplish something even more difficult: get her big sister elected president.
Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) is a top-tier presidential candidate. Maya is her campaign chair, helping to shape Kamala’s policy platform and political strategy, with an intense focus on nonwhite and female voters. Those are the dominant groups in modern Democratic politics — and ones Maya has spent decades studying.
“Kamala and Maya are a trip. They are a power couple of sisters unlike we have ever seen in U.S. politics,” said Ben Jealous, a top 2016 Bernie Sanders surrogate and former NAACP president who has known them for decades.
If the Democratic Party and the nation are at a demographic and political tipping point, the Harris sisters may be the ones to push them over the edge. Maya’s former colleagues describe her as brilliant, driven and grounded. She has an explosive laugh that matches Kamala’s, but a softer touch, and unassailable civil rights credentials that could help her prosecutor sister fend off mounting attacks from the left.
This year’s Democratic primary schedule is front-loaded with states with high numbers of black and brown voters. Kamala’s focus on civil rights issues and her Sun Belt-heavy early travel schedule find her leaning into her natural strengths — and pursuing a similar route to the nomination that Maya helped Clinton navigate.
That includes last weekend’s swing to Texas, where Kamala announced at a historically black college a plan to raise average teacher pay that Maya helped craft.
Kamala could be the first nonwhite woman to win a major-party nomination. And Maya could be the first female and first nonwhite campaign chair for a major-party nominee.
It’s not uncommon for candidates to rely on family. George H.W. Bush had his sons. Julian Castro has his twin Joaquin. Bill and Hillary Clinton had each other. But in conversations, the Harris sisters’ friends and colleagues kept coming back to another another pair of history-makers.
“I definitely think there is a greater level of integrity in the way [the Harris sisters] conduct themselves, [but] you think back to John Kennedy and Bobby Kennedy as an example of a very political, intensely ambitious and thoughtful individuals,” said Kate Kendall, a friend of Maya’s and former head of the National Center for Lesbian Rights. “As siblings, the sum is greater than the parts.”
‘Shyamala And The Girls’
The Harris sisters come from a fiercely matriarchal, deeply ambitious and politically active East Bay household.
Their mother, Indian immigrant and breast cancer researcher Shyamala Gopalan Harris, separated from their father when the Harris daughters were young and raised them largely on her own.
A Berkeley civil rights activist whose father was a diplomat, Shyamala took the sisters around with her to protests and communitarian events from a young age, where, as Kamala writes in her book, they were known as “Shyamala and the girls.”
Their mother, who died of cancer in 2009, takes on near-mythic status in family lore. She’s a central figure in Kamala’s book and stump speeches. Maya quotes her regularly.
“Mommy would say to us, ‘You may have many firsts in life. You may be the first woman this, the first woman of color that, the youngest this or that … but you two girls, you better make sure that you are not the last,'” Maya said in 2015.
Kamala headed out east to Howard University for college. Maya had her daughter Meena at age 17 and stayed home for undergrad at Berkeley and law school at Stanford.
There, she worked at the East Palo Alto Community Law Project, helping domestic violence survivors in the poorer, heavily nonwhite community while pushing gentrifying developers to bring in jobs and provide low-income housing.
“Maya was a single mom at that time and was an incredible star. She was not only really bright, I don’t know how she had the energy to do all of the work,” said Shauna Marshall, who ran the project and later worked with both Harrises.
Maya, who declined to talk to TPM for this story, has made it clear how personal that work was for her.“I was a single teenage parent and I could not have done what I’ve been able to do had I not had access to childcare and had I not had mechanisms for me to pay for both my college tuition and my law school tuition,” she said on MSNBC in 2014.
It was there that she met her future husband, Tony West, after her then four-year-old daughter Meena sought him out for hide-and-seek. West, a power player in his own right in Democratic legal and fundraising circles, later headed the Obama Justice Department’s Civil Division (both he and Kamala were in the mix for U.S. attorney general after Eric Holder’s departure). Meena, now in her mid-30s, leads a women’s empowerment organization. Both now hold senior roles at Uber.
After graduating, Maya practiced corporate law and taught law school classes. The Lincoln Law School of San Jose made her its dean at age 29, one of the youngest in U.S. history.
She then headed to the civil rights group PolicyLink for a few years before getting scooped up by the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California. It was then that she made a name for herself in the civil rights community. In 2001, Maya sounded the alarm bell about soaring incarceration rates and deteriorating relationships between police and minorities. Her 150-page study was a comprehensive argument for community-centered policing reforms at a time when zero tolerance, three strikes laws and stop-and-frisk were sweeping the nation.
She then wrote an essay for Tavis Smiley’s best-selling book The Covenant with Black America, declaring, “The mass incarceration of black people is a real and present danger.” She also helped edit a book by a close law school friend — Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow is now a seminal work of the modern civil rights movement.
While Maya steeped herself in the civil rights community, Kamala took a different route, heading into prosecution. She’s often said she had to defend her career path to some family members “like one would a thesis.”
Kamala is having to make that argument with a broader audience now. She earns plaudits from some civil rights advocates for her early death penalty opposition — even in the face of intense pressure following the slaying of a cop — as well as ahead-of-the-curve efforts to promote racial bias training for police and prison diversion programs. But she’s taken heat for a variety of tougher-on-crime positions — she defended the state’s death penalty law in court, supported prosecuting the parents of truant kids, and fought to keep wrongful convictions from being overturned.
Those who know the sisters well say that while their career paths diverged, they share a similar worldview and an uncommonly close bond. And they think Maya can help Kamala soothe concerns on the left.
Campaign Beta Testing
It was at the ACLU that Maya got her first significant campaign experience.
After California passed a referendum barring affirmative action in 1996, the same conservatives who pushed it through were back in 2003 seeking to ban the state from collecting data on race or ethnicity.
Maya was on the steering committee fighting the ballot proposition. The group raised huge sums and polled extensively, finding white voters weren’t moved by moral appeals — they needed skin in the game. The campaign zeroed in on the harm it could do to medical research on genetic diseases.
The proposition was defeated by an almost two-to-one margin after leading in early polls, even as voters recalled the state’s Democratic governor.
“Maya helped run that campaign,” said Equal Justice Society President Eva Paterson. “We found a message that if you don’t collect this data, the children of white people will be hurt by this. And white people swung our way.”
The lessons of that campaign could help Maya as she guides her sister through heavily white early-voting states like Iowa and New Hampshire, and especially if they make it to the general election and must stare down Trump’s race-baiting.
Maya also helped Kamala pull off an upset to become San Francisco district attorney that year. She’d reprise that role on every one of Kamala’s campaigns, serving as a sounding board and confidant even when living across the country.
Maya has discussed the challenge of getting white people to care about civil rights. In a 2015 speech, she said her organization’s research had found that seven in 10 Americans thought widespread racism was a thing of the past.
“They’re exhausted by the conversation about race. For many it’s a conversation that feels dated and feels freighted with the reminders of a history that they would just as soon forget,” she said. “Real, lasting, meaningful progressive change will never just happen by itself. Demography is not destiny … We have to be active participants.”
Maya also helped the ACLU prepare for the legal and political fight for gay marriage. But she moved east in mid-2008, before the fight hit fever pitch with the Prop. 8 campaign, to become the vice president of the Ford Foundation, a deep-pocketed philanthropic group.
Two years later, her sister won a close race to become California’s attorney general. Kamala was already being called the “female Obama” and discussed as a future presidential candidate.
Kamala dismissed questions about her future ambitions at the time, but Maya hasn’t always been so coy.
Joking around offstage at a 2012 Daily Beast event, Maya rolled her eyes at her sister’s fancy title.
“When she was elected attorney general, she actually said ‘you realize you’re going to have to start calling me General Harris.’ So my feeling is, when she’s elected president of the United States, I will call her Ms. President,” Maya joked as her sister tried to wave her off the topic. “But until then, you’re just Kamala.”
“No, I’m big sister,” Kamala replied with a grin. “Big sister General.”
The two exploded in laughter.
Theory of the case
Maya joined the Center for American Progress, where she conducted a deep dive on nonwhite female voters.
“Women of Color: A Growing Force in the American Electorate” found that nonwhite women voted more often than their male counterparts and that black women were the most reliable voters in the Democratic coalition, turning out at higher rates than any other demographic group in presidential elections.
The study found that the number of nonwhite women in the voting pool had increased by 55 percent from 2000 to 2014, far outstripping the 6 percent growth of white women.
That growth’s impact has been borne out by recent election results. Women made up 57 percent of 2018 Democratic primary voters, and nonwhite voters were 45 percent of the Democratic primary electorate, according to a Brookings Institute study. Black women powered Sen. Doug Jones’ (D-AL) 2017 upset win, and nonwhite women drove Democrats’ wins and near misses from Arizona to Georgia last fall.
Maya argued that Democrats must emphasize issues important to nonwhite women to win tough races.
She would soon get a chance to test that hypothesis.
As Clinton geared up for her 2016 presidential campaign, longtime adviser Jake Sullivan began hunting around for other wonks to complement his foreign policy background. He came away impressed after talking to Maya, and said Clinton “agreed right off the bat” to hire her after interviewing her.
Maya was initially hesitant to take the job, according to a source familiar with her thinking. She had decried the “super-predator” stereotype of young black men in past writing; Clinton had used the exact term back in the ’90s.
But once aboard, Maya quickly emerged as a trusted aide for a candidate whose inner circle is notoriously tough to crack.
“She was able to gain HRC’s trust very rapidly,” Sullivan said. “They both blend a kind of wonkiness with a focus on stories, ‘how does this actually effect people.'”
Maya oversaw Clinton’s leftward policy shifts on immigration and incarceration, and encouraged her intense focus on locking down women of color as a bulwark against Sanders’ rise.
Clinton’s first major policy speech was a sharp split from her husband’s tough-on-crime 1990s policies. The call for police and prison reform, according to those on the campaign, was crafted by Maya.
Maya would regularly travel with Clinton. They’d often sit together on the campaign plane, fawning together over pictures of their baby grandchildren in quieter moments.
As Clinton took heat from Black Lives Matter protestors for her previous views on policing, Maya put together a private meeting with black women whose children had been killed by police or gun violence. The Mothers of the Movement became an emotional touchstone for Clinton’s campaign, traveling with the candidate. Maya also pushed Clinton to go to Flint, Michigan, to address the water crisis just days before the New Hampshire primary — a risky move Clinton staff believe payed off with black primary voters.
Maya also had a hand in Clinton’s policies on the opioid epidemic, urban investment and abortion rights, exchanging middle-of-the-night emails with her to hammer out specifics. And in a private moment, she helped younger black staffers grapple with the horror of white supremacist Dylan Roof’s murderous rampage at a South Carolina church.
“Hillary really trusted her instincts,” said Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta. “Maya would cut through the bullshit, brief her quickly, give her something to think about. Hillary ended up with a great rapport with her.”
Every one of the more than a dozen Clinton staffers TPM talked to heaped praise on Maya, both for her analytical skills and for being able to bring levity to an often-arduous campaign marathon.
“She has that kind of infectious laugh. She was down the hall, I’d hear it my office and I was like six offices away. It’d cause me to come out of my office to see what was going on,” said Podesta.
“She’d tell Hillary hard things, things you don’t want to hear. She’d deliver tough messages, but always is a kind person with a lot of credibility,” said Jennifer Palmieri, Clinton’s 2016 communications director.
She even got a shout-out from Clinton surrogate Katy Perry:
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🎂Happy Birthday🎂 to our next great leader @hillaryclinton !!! This past weekend, I was honored to be able to sit down with Maya Harris, one of HRC's senior policy (aka plans for the future) advisors before joining the stage with Hillary the next day. I wanted to be more informed and educated on her plans and dreams for our country. I never want to be a puppet, and always want to feel my own purpose and ownership in everything I do. Maya and I, and some of my closest girlfriends, had the most incredible, eye-opening 3 hours of conversation about the future. We went over so many points and asked the hard questions on everything from gun control to birth control to health care to affordable education to a realistic approach in finding the middle class again. I was never raised with economic privilege and found money to be the main source of pain for my own family growing up, so I understand why there is a need for such change. I am still learning and educating myself on the world of politics and searching for every strand of authenticity buried deep in it. What I heard and experienced this weekend empowers me to believe that real change is possible and on the way! Ladies! There are so many incredible opportunities for us that are possible: equal pay, paid leave (you don't lose your job if you want to have a family) and YOUR choice to have a family when and if it's RIGHT FOR YOU! These are just some of the reasons I am standing with her and will continue to do so. Next year's election is one of the most important ones in decades, and the choices we make will have a profound effect on women for years to come. So, I stand with her for my daughters and their daughters, and beyond what time gives me. Get informed, get involved and become empowered! Strong women help create strong families! ❤️ See link in bio for 📷 from the weekend👗 by @bcompleted
During tense negotiations over the Democratic platform, Maya played a key role. Jealous was there as a Sanders surrogate.
“There was not much love lost between the Sanders and Clinton camps at that point, it had been a very hard fought primary. Maya and I were at a low point in our friendship, too. … And yet there was a reservoir of respect and trust,” Jealous told TPM. “We were able to work together to pull the two teams closer and get us all moving in the same direction and create what became the most progressive platform in the history of the DNC.”
Clinton struggled to excite black voters to turn out through the general election, however. Lingering questions about her past stances, attacks from Trump and Russia, and Clinton’s own failure to reach out enough to black voters in the Midwest may have cost her the presidency.
Clinton staff say Maya could only do so much to fix some of their candidate’s ingrained problems with wary progressives, minorities and blue-collar populists.
Maya will have to reprise her role as the defender on the left for her sister, as Kamala’s career is already being picked over by critics who argue she isn’t the “progressive prosecutor” that she claims to be.
But even those on the left who distrust Kamala heap praise on her sister.
“She is a hardcore progressive criminal justice reformer with impeccable credentials,” said Lara Bazelon, a former director of the Loyola Law School Project for the Innocent who wrote a recent scathing op-ed on Kamala’s record as a prosecutor. “What people like me want from Kamala Harris is accountability for her criminal justice past. We want a reckoning and we haven’t gotten it. And with Maya onboard we might get one. She accomplished something similar with Hillary Clinton, so there’s a playbook for it.”
The role of campaign chair is a nebulous one, defined differently on every campaign depending on the chair’s specific talents and their relationship with the candidate. Unlike the campaign manager, who runs the day-to-day operations, the campaign chair usually focuses more on big-picture strategy questions. They also often serve as the candidate’s top surrogate, both in the media (Maya’s recent stint as an MSNBC contributor helped prepare her for that) and with donors (she has plenty of experience in the donor world, and her husband Tony has even more).
“It’s like the chair of the board versus the CEO. You’ve got to keep your eyes open, try to solve problems,” said Podesta, who chaired Clinton’s campaign after serving as Obama’s senior counselor in the White House and, years before, as President Clinton’s chief of staff. “People are going to get that if there’s one person talking to Kamala every day it’s going to be Maya. If they want to push her to do one thing or another or have a great idea or want to get involved, they’re going to go to her. They know that Kamala’s going to trust her judgment and if you can convince her you’re halfway there.”
Maya has been more hands-on than the average campaign chair, say multiple sources familiar with the campaign’s internal dynamics. She was intimately involved in developing her sister’s first major policy rollout — a plan to increase average public-school teacher pay by $13,5000 — a wonky but aspirational progressive goal that would disproportionately benefit women (who make up three quarters of public-school teachers) and minorities (who make up the majority of public school students), and one that had echoes of Clinton’s big policy rollouts.
“She’s very day-to-day. She’s kind of running everything,” said Center for American Progress President Neera Tanden, a friend of Maya’s and her former boss who’s talked with her regularly about the campaign.
Maya has also been directly involved in staff hiring decisions, helping her sister flesh out the team around her. That partially explains why the Harris campaign is so heavy with Clinton alumni, though many of those have worked for Kamala for years as well. Maya has also regularly popped up on campaign calls from messaging to scheduling that chairs usually don’t bother with. Some staff initially worried she would micromanage the operation, but have grown more comfortable with her approach.
She’ll also need to play guard dog.
“The one thing it just falls to the chair to do is to say no to friends with dumb ideas. You don’t want to put the candidate in that position, and particularly people close to Kamala won’t take it from anyone else,” said Podesta. “You’ve got to be the backstop.”
Maya’s role with Clinton gave her a range of experience across the campaign that helped prepare her for this position.
“Maya got a real look at the mix of policy, outreach groups, some press mixed in in her role on the Clinton campaign. It’s not just the trust of her sister … the experience she had in 2016 is really valuable as well,” said Amanda Renteria, the Clinton campaign’s political director.
Kamala faces a tough road to the nomination. She’ll have to fend off attacks on her record as a prosecutor from the left, grow her support in the African American community against the better-known Joe Biden and Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), and make inroads with white suburban women. It’s no sure thing she’ll attract strong Hispanic support. She’s currently polling behind a handful of other candidates in early-voting states as well. The general election would be even tougher: Polls show Kamala doesn’t match up as well against Trump as a number of other current Democratic front-runners.
But those who know the Harrises best warn that they shouldn’t be taken lightly.
“Don’t underestimate the Harris sisters,” said Marshall, Maya’s law school mentor. “They’re a force.”