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11.03.10

The Nail-Biter Race in California

The “female Obama”—Kamala Harris—refuses to surrender her bid for Attorney General. Gina Piccalo reports from her San Francisco Party.

It was 11 p.m. on election night and Kamala Harris, the telegenic young San Francisco district attorney that Democrats have touted as the “ female Obama,” had been trailing behind her Republican challenger Steve Cooley for hours in California’s Attorney General race.

At her modest party in a small banquet hall over looking the Golden Gate Bridge, Harris had been kept out of sight, while a group of about 100 supporters hovered over small plates of hot wings and crudite, watching on big-screen TVs as Republicans trounced Democrats across the nation. The small cadre of media covering her party were half-expecting her to concede the race.

Then Harris walked onto the postage stamp-sized stage, flashed that beauty queen smile and urged her crowd to hunker down. She told them Cooley, the tough-talking former Los Angeles County District Attorney, was losing percentage points by the hour. “It’s going to be a really long night,” Harris said.  But more importantly, she added, “this campaign is so much bigger than me. It is so much bigger than any one person.”

The Black Eyed Peas’ ebullient pop single “I Gotta Feeling” was cued up. The crowd swarmed Harris as she gracefully disappeared into a back room. And four hours later, well after Cooley had made his victory speech from Los Angeles, the two candidates were tied, with 89% of the precincts reporting.

By Thursday, Harris was up just 8,817 votes, according to the California Secretary of State's count. She declared victory late Wednesday via news release. State election officials, however, do not yet recognize Harris' triumph. It could be weeks before the true total is known as California counties have 28 days after the election to tally ballots. A recount, if requested, would begin Nov. 30.

“We are the state that understands in moments of crisis there are opportunities,” she told supporters.

Harris has been the underdog in this nail-biter of a race. She weathered her share of criticism from San Francisco press, got manacled with the dreaded “soft-on-crime” label and survived a $1 million dollar attack ad campaign funded by the Republican Party’s biggest corporate donors.

Some political analysts had all but written her off. Harris had failed to secure endorsements from most state criminal justice organizations, they noted. And, as an attractive woman with liberal roots in the Bay Area, the daughter of a Tamil Indian mother and a Jamaican American father, she just didn’t fit the profile of the state’s “top cop.”

"Cooley looks like an Attorney General, and she doesn’t," says California political expert Barbara O’Connor, a Cal State Sacramento professor of communications. 

Still, Harris’ campaign successfully launched her onto the national stage as a rising Democratic star.. Should Harris go on to beat Cooley, she will be the first woman, the first African American, South Asian American Attorney General of California.

Harris announced her campaign after Obama swept into office in 2008. But her campaign made national news about a year ago when PBS’ Gwen Ifill went on The Late Show With David Letterman to promote her own book about rising black leaders, calling Harris the “female Obama.” Then Harris went on the chat show circuit herself—sitting down with Oprah Winfrey and Matt Lauer on Today—to promote her book Smart on Crime:  A Career Prosecutor’s Plan to Make Us Safer.

But Harris has been steadily gaining notice since she was first elected San Francisco’s District Attorney in 2003. In 2005, Newsweek named her one of the 20 most powerful women in America. Around the same time, she launched a program that drops the convictions of young felony drug offenders after they complete a year-long boot camp and earn a high school equivalency. A year later, in 2006, she again made headlines when she started prosecuting parents for their elementary school children’s truancy. (Harris says that program has reduced truancy by 23 percent.)

Both programs have served as models for others around the country and inspired local support. "I was looking for some innovation," said Oakland Internet consultant Cynthia Mackey, a supporter at Harris’ election night party. "We could use a breath of fresh air."

With innovation, there’s sometimes a greater risk of error, too. And Harris suffered criticism after it was discovered that some illegal immigrants had felony convictions dropped as a result of her drug offender program. (Harris has said that oversight has since been corrected.)

Harris has run a vigorous campaign against Cooley, flying back-and-forth to his home turf of Los Angeles, raising more than $4 million this year, wooing young Obama voters, Hollywood moguls like Universal Studios president Ron Meyer and Jeffrey Katzenberg as well as African Americans and Latinos. President Obama flew to Palo Alto to raise campaign funds for her just last week and sent an endorsement via his massive email list in early October.

Republicans clearly view her as a threat. The Virginia-based Republican State Leadership Assn., funded by health insurers, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and big tobacco, among others, committed more than $1 million into crafting attack ads aimed at Harris’ opposition to the death penalty.

The local press hasn’t been especially enthusiastic about her candidacy. In August, the San Francisco weekly put Harris on its cover over the headline “A Lack of Conviction,” reporting the district attorney had the lowest conviction in the state among her peers after Harris herself had touted her conviction rate. And the San Francisco Chronicle reported that Harris had failed for years to assure her prosecutors adhered to the so-called Brady ruling, which insures that prosecutors shared information that might diminish a police witnesses’ credibility. 

Ultimately, though, Harris proved to have much more staying power than expected. “We are the state that understands in moments of crisis there are opportunities,” she told her supporters, sounding like the current occupant of the White House.

Gina Piccalo is a senior writer at The Daily Beast. She spent a decade at the Los Angeles Times covering Hollywood and is also a former contributing writer for Los Angeles Magazine. Her work has appeared in Elle, More and Emmy. She can be found at ginapiccalo.com.