There, members of the low-profile but powerful San Francisco County Democratic Central Committee are wrangling over the temperamental district attorney's fate. Hallinan badly needs the Central Committee endorsement to bolster his bid for a third term in November. Behind him sits Bill Fazio, a defense attorney who has twice lost to the incumbent by thin margins. Both men studiously avoid looking across the room, where neophyte candidate Kamala Harris huddles with her campaign team. Harris has been lobbying Central Committee honchos -- who include U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein and House Majority leader Nancy Pelosi -- for months, asking them to deny their influential support to both male candidates.
And in the end, that's exactly what the leaders of San Francisco's one-party system do. In a significant victory for Harris, they vote "no endorsement," withholding their blessing for the first time from the incumbent DA. A few days later, Harris adds a valuable endorsement from Local 790 of the Service Employees International Union to her growing trophy list, which includes a number of other union locals and Democratic clubs that traditionally have gone for Hallinan (she even bags the Irish American Democratic Club).
But political plugs only take a candidate so far. And outside of local political, legal, and society circles, few people even know the 38-year-old Harris' name. She is a well-regarded criminal and civil prosecutor with an enviable record on domestic violence and sexual abuse issues. Hallinan and Fazio, however, are doing their best to make sure that when their younger opponent's name finally registers in voters' brainpans this fall, it's irrevocably linked with another name: Willie Brown, Harris' spurned ex-lover and unsolicited political backer.
Hallinan and Fazio aren't attacking Harris' platform (which they both profess to generally share) or professionalism (each admits that Harris is a competent prosecutor). Rather, they are knifing her with innuendo, saying her ties to the outgoing mayor would cause her, as district attorney, to look the other way should her former beau or his political minions ever be credibly accused of committing crimes in office.
The charge that she is Brown's puppet -- that she's guilty by association with a mayor who has not been found guilty of anything -- infuriates Harris. Though in third place in recent polls, she's a political comer. She's whip-smart, hard-working, and well-credentialed to be San Francisco's top criminal prosecutor. She's hauling in campaign cash like there's no tomorrow. And topping it all off, she's a beautiful blend of East Indian mother and African-American father who may draw votes particularly well among women and minorities. If she manages to come in ahead of Fazio in the Nov. 4 election, and if Hallinan fails to win more than 50 percent of that vote, she'll face the district attorney in a December runoff. In a high-profile sprint against an aging incumbent, Harris -- with her brains, connections, and buppie glamour -- might just emerge victorious.
If she can just get out from under this damn Willie Brown thing.
Harris routinely tries to distance herself from her ex-squeeze, whom she hates even talking about. The mere mention of their former liaison makes her shoulders tense, her hands clench, and her eyes narrow.
"I refuse," she says vehemently, "to design my campaign around criticizing Willie Brown for the sake of appearing to be independent when I have no doubt that I am independent of him -- and that he would probably right now express some fright about the fact that he cannot control me.
"His career is over; I will be alive and kicking for the next 40 years. I do not owe him a thing."
She acknowledges that Brown is an "albatross hanging around my neck" and fears that voters who dislike him will ignore her candidacy -- even as she dismisses such an act as irrational. "Would it make sense if you are a Martian coming to Earth that the litmus test for public office is where a candidate is in their relationship to Willie Brown?" Harris asks. "Willie Brown is not going to be around. He's gone -- hello people, move on. If there is corruption, it will be prosecuted. It's a no-brainer, but let's please move on."
Would that politics were so simple.
San Francisco voters tend to have long memories, and Brown himself is complicating Harris' attempts to shed him politically. He personally gave $500 to her campaign, and a political consultant who worked on both of his mayoral runs is raising money for Harris -- without her consent -- using a pitch letter signed by Brown. Harris denies asking the mayor for fund-raising help and knows it gives her antagonists even more ammunition.
She also knows there's not much she can do about it, except to keep saying that the affair is ancient history and that she is a good candidate with good ideas. But as Harris well understands, the more she tries to explain away the Willie factor, the bigger a factor he becomes.
Kamala (pronounced "KAH-mah-lah") Harris is clearly striving to be her own person, to act independently of special interests, to negate the bimbo/sugar daddy imagery propagated by her opponents. And in person, she does this successfully -- she consistently comes across as forthright, intelligent, and competent.
In a series of lengthy interviews with SF Weekly, Harris acknowledges that she benefited from her relationship with Brown, but insists there was nothing improper about it. (Through a spokesman, Brown declined to be interviewed for this story.)
Harris met Brown in 1994 when he was speaker of the state Assembly. She was 29, he was 60. Their May/December affair was the talk of the town during the year before Brown's successful 1995 bid to become mayor. But shortly after he was inaugurated, Harris dumped Brown, a notorious womanizer.