Kamala Harris Is Building a Network for Black Candidates

Senator Kamala Harris. Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

If you showed up at Sisters Chapel at Atlanta’s Spelman College last Friday hoping to divine some sort of 2020-themed meaning from Kamala Harris’s address, you were amply rewarded. The potential presidential aspirant planned to ruminate on four words from the school’s hymn — “undaunted by the fight” — she told the audience at the historically black women’s college, proceeding to outline why she believes “we are at an inflection point in the history of our country;” why she thinks “if something is worth fighting for, it is a fight worth having;” how “in this moment, a big fight worth having is a fight for the best of who we are as Americans;” and, finally, why “being undaunted by the fight means identifying the fight worth having, and — this is important — not asking permission to solve it.” When the first-term California senator initially decided to run for district attorney in San Francisco, she said, “You can imagine what I was told. It’s what you will be told many times in your life: ‘It’s not your turn, it’s not your time, there is nobody like you who has done that before, it’s going to be a lot of work.’ God forbid we want to work hard. And I didn’t listen, and part of my advice to you is: You don’t listen, either. You do not listen when people tell you that. In fact, I like to say, I eat ‘No’ for breakfast. And so, I decided to run.”

The most revealing piece of her swing through the state, however, was not Harris’s hinting about her political future. Rather, it was the emphasis she placed on another message laced throughout her comments, nowhere more explicitly than when she explained, “My mother used to tell me, ‘Kamala, you may be the first to do many things. Make sure you are not the last.’”

That’s because Harris, who is 54 and the only African-American woman currently in the Senate (and the second, ever), has in recent years — but especially now — quietly prioritized supporting a sprawling group of young people of color running for office. They’re often first-time candidates, and they’re often women. The effort has included joint appearances, but also hours of behind-the-scenes advice and political groundwork for a wide range of newcomers. It’s no unusual thing for an influential politician to help other candidates, but in Harris’s case it’s an especially long-running and personal practice that she doesn’t go out of her way to publicize. It’s something for which, she told me after her speech, “I do feel a responsibility. It’s about paying it forward: other people did it for me, and it’s kind of like, this is what you do. It’s not whimsical. It’s — literally, I feel — a duty.”

The result is a burgeoning coast-to-coast network of Harris endorsees who, in many cases, feel serious loyalty to the senator considering a run for nationwide office next year. One Democratic fundraiser who is fully supportive of a Harris 2020 campaign said he’d heard other fans speak of the group as an obvious political asset. But building this kind of network isn’t a strategy at all, Harris insists (“People are cynical,” she said, eyebrow arched). Those who have been close to her for years agree: one told me Harris has privately spoken about the importance of her mentoring and endorsing work at least since her early days as district attorney, almost 15 years ago. She’s the longtime mentor, for example, of London Breed, who is now San Francisco’s mayor. “There’s a saying in the community where I grew up: Each one, pull one,’” Harris said. “The idea being that — you know, it’s self-explanatory. Each one, pull one. You get there, and you pull others up with you.”

It is, in some ways, not a surprising activity for Harris, whose own rise in politics inspired further participation as soon as it started: when she began running for district attorney, in 2002, she spoke with her friend Andrea Dew Steele about how she needed to create handouts describing her campaign for voters. Steele agreed, and the pair drew some up. Steele then turned around and founded Emerge America, which, 16 years later, is now an influential organization that recruits and trains women candidates across the country.

When it’s helpful, Harris shows up for candidates, or endorses them publicly. Her Georgia trip included stops on behalf of gubernatorial hopeful Stacey Abrams, who would be the first black woman elected governor in any state, and congressional candidate Lucy McBath, who rose to prominence as an activist after her son, Jordan Davis, was killed in 2012. When we spoke, Harris had recently returned east from a campaign swing with Deidre DeJear, the nominee for secretary of state aiming to become Iowa’s first ever black statewide official. Soon after, she was in Florida with Andrew Gillum, who would be that state’s first African-American governor. Those candidates all have wide mainstream support from national figures in the party.

But in the last two years, Harris has endorsed Baltimore state’s attorney Marilyn Mosby for reelection, Tony Thurmond to be California’s state superintendent of public instruction, and Rob Richardson to be Ohio’s state treasurer, too. At times, her support lands in the midst of messy primaries, gaining her significant gratitude from the candidates while exposing her to a measure of political risk: in Wisconsin’s gubernatorial race, she backed underdog Mahlon Mitchell, the head of a firefighters union, against the party’s favored contenders. He lost his primary. In Maryland, she threw her weight behind former NAACP chief Ben Jealous, who was running for governor, while he was locked in his own contentious contest with other Democrats. He won his primary.

The bulk of any of these processes, however, happens behind closed doors. When Harris heard about Jahana Hayes, a Connecticut teacher running for Congress this year, the two connected over the phone multiple times, and then sat down to meet in Washington. “She was offering me advice just when I was kind of nervous in the beginning, about: ‘Do I have a message that people want to hear?’ And she said yes,” said Hayes, who stepped into — and then won — a competitive primary against the state party’s pick, a local legislator.

“I had gotten other endorsements from other people and other groups, but this one meant so much to me because there are only a handful of people who understand, who’ve done it,” said Hayes, who will be the first black Democrat elected to Congress from Connecticut if she wins next week.

When she sits down with candidates and aspiring politicians, Harris explained, some of the advice she offers is practical, and some is more about talking through what it’s like to run. “It ranges from a conversation about, ‘You can do this, don’t be deterred,’ [to,] ‘Get out there and tell your truth and be confident in it,’” she said. “Another part of it is just the cold, hard reality of what it means to run for office, and that conversation is: ‘Pick a good campaign team.’ That conversation is: ‘If you are like me’ — and almost every woman I’ve met who runs for office is the same way, where we were raised the same way, to be independent, and part of that was that you’re not to ask anyone for money — and then you run for office, all of a sudden you gotta ask everyone for money. You’ve got this little psychological thing that really creates a problem in a way that doesn’t necessarily impact men. To, you know, advice about how to just talk to the people in the party who need to be talked with, to claim your stake.”

In the case of Angela Alsobrooks, the pair connected only after Alsobrooks was elected to be the state’s attorney for Prince George’s County in Maryland, in 2010. At the time, Harris was a district attorney running to be California’s attorney general. Alsobrooks, then campaigning to be the first female and first black woman state’s attorney in her county, read about Harris in Essence Magazine, then picked up her book, and started talking about her on the campaign trail as a model, noting her reentry and recidivism program. Harris caught wind of what Alsobrooks was doing, and made sure to be one of the first people to call her after she won, inviting her to San Francisco to learn more about the aforementioned program.

Six years later, Alsobrooks joined Harris for the final week of her California senatorial campaign, speaking on her behalf at churches. About a year after that, Alsobrooks said, she told Harris she was considering running for county executive. Harris met her at a local restaurant and spent two hours mapping out the shape of Alsobrooks’s campaign with her, walking through her positions on issue after issue.

In 2018, Harris is making sure she’s not the last. This year, she said, “there are a lot of [candidates] who are women, who are women of color, who are people of color. I mean, people who have not traditionally [represented the] stereotype [of] who holds these offices.”

“And that’s the key, I guess,” continued the person who may soon embark on an attempt to become the first African-American woman in the Oval Office. “Stereotypes about who holds which positions.”

Kamala Harris Is Building a Network for Black Candidates