We now have the prospect of electing a woman president of the United States whose political career was powered at its launch by a sexual affair with a top political boss.
Would Senator Kamala Harris have made it in politics without the patronage of her lover San Francisco Mayor and Assembly Speaker Willie Brown? It’s a question her sudden rise to prominence begs us to ask.
Harris had a publicly acknowledged affair with Brown — the legendary boss of San Francisco — in the early 1990s while Harris was in her late twenties and Brown was forty years older, the Speaker of the California State Assembly. During their romance, he appointed her to the California Unemployment Insurance Appeals Board and also to the Medical Assistance Commission. Both of these well-paid positions supplemented Harris’ income as a deputy district attorney in Alameda County, California.
But Brown’s influence was on full display in 2003 when Harris left her job in the office of San Francisco District Attorney Terence Hallinan, after two years, to run against her boss. In a tough election — with Brown’s help — she beat Hallinan 56-44.
Hallinan made an issue of Harris’ relationship with Brown, painting her “as indebted to her onetime boyfriend and political sponsor, San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown.”1
Brown, for his part, confirmed his influence in his protege’s career. “Yes, I may have influenced her career by appointing her to two state commissions when I was Assembly speaker,” Brown wrote in the San Francisco Chronicle op-ed. “I certainly helped with her first race for district attorney in San Francisco.”2
Defending himself against the charge that he was bestowing favors on a former lover, Brown noted that “I have also helped the careers of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Gov. Gavin Newsom, Sen. Dianne Feinstein and a host of other politicians.”3
He helps all the girls.
Would a 39-year-old assistant in the District Attorney have stood much of a chance pitted against a 67-year old two term incumbent who happened to be her boss without the fundraising momentum and endorsement of Brown?
Once elected District Attorney, Harris was off, capitalizing on her exposure in San Francisco to get elected Attorney General of California in a tough race in 2010, again with fund raising assistance from the Brown organization.
There is nothing unprecedented, God knows, in a political boss helping an aspiring politician on the way up. Harry Truman would never have made it without the help of Boss Pendergast of Kansas City. But, with the advent of female candidates, we now have the additional factor to consider of whether sexual intimacy was a basis for the relationship.
Consider the broader circumstances of Harris’ rapid rise to fame. She ran for State Attorney General in 2010 as all eyes were focused on Jerry Brown’s return to the governorship. Facing wealthy and powerful Republican Meg Whitman, Brown was decisively elected.
Less noticed was Harris’ squeaker victory as Attorney General where she defeated Republican Steve Cooley by less than one percent of the vote (4,443,000 to 4,368,000). So close was the contest that Cooley did not concede until the next day.
After a pro-forma re-election in 2014, Harris ran for the U.S. Senate in 2016, this time under the new rules that now govern California elections. Candidates all run together and the top two face each other in a runoff, regardless of party (assuming nobody got a majority in the first round).
With the Republicans not fielding a serious candidate, (their candidate only got a 7% of the vote), the race featured Harris against Democratic Congressman Loretta Sanchez.
Harris overwhelmed Sanchez by spending $9.8 million on the race, compared to only $3.3 for Sanchez.
With the seat going Democratic anyway, it attracted only local interest.
And so, Harris arrived in the Senate. Elected district attorney as the protege and lover of Willie Brown, she was elected Attorney General in a race few noticed in the wake of the big story: Jerry Brown’s defeat of Meg Whitman in that same election. Then, she won the Senate seat with only nominal GOP opposition against a weak opponent.
So, really without scrutiny and never having had a tough battle, Kamala Harris entered the Senate in January 2017 and was immediately swept up in speculation about a presidential run.
After serving in the Senate for only two years, we are asked to consider seriously her presidential candidacy and the dubious circumstances that led to her ascension to high public office.
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