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Kamala's Karma 

She's smart, she's experienced, and she's running for DA. But she's Willie Brown's ex-girlfriend, and her opponents are trying to crucify her for that.

Wednesday, Sep 24 2003
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Now, as a candidate in her own right, she's even more eager to distance herself from Da Mayor. She hired as her chief strategist a political consultant who's used Brown as a punching bag in a number of recent campaigns. While her candidacy is endorsed by many longtime Brown supporters, it is also backed by several politicians known for butting heads with the mayor. And Harris promises that, as district attorney, she will investigate corruption allegations that have been directed at an array of city agencies -- and will indict any past or present city official who is prosecutable, including Brown.

While she enjoys significant support in Pacific Heights (one of her best friends is Vanessa Getty), Harris also is trying to generate enthusiasm for her run in poorer neighborhoods such as Bayview-Hunters Point, the Mission, and the Tenderloin. But her candidacy is hardly of the grass-roots variety. Most of the $400,000 she has raised so far has come from the city's social and legal elites, people with power and money, people who respond well to Harris' message that Hallinan is erratic, divisive, and soft on crime.

Some of them are people Brown introduced her to. But Harris' pollster says that voters, especially the minority voters she is targeting her campaign at, are not as turned off by the mayor as they were in 2000, when the electorate put a solid majority of anti-Brown candidates on the Board of Supervisors, then widely perceived as a rubber stamp for the mayor's pay-to-play administration.

"People told me that Hallinan and Fazio would throw the Willie thing at me," Harris says with a sigh. "The Willie factor is a personal attack, and we want to marginalize it."

She and her campaign manager, Jim Stearns, came up with that strategy last winter as they discussed how to respond to the inevitable assaults on her old relationship with Brown. There were, Harris says, two basic options: "Do we put it out there in our own words and defend, frame, and deconstruct it? Or do we push ahead with an affirmative campaign and respond when hit?" She decided on the latter approach: "When the Willie factor is raised, I respond by saying, 'Let's talk about the real issues.'

"Am I supposed to stand before a group of people and talk about my critique of Willie Brown? They would think that truly odd. He is not one of my opponents. That would be the tail wagging the dog."

She has no doubt that Hallinan and Fazio will unleash blizzards of hit mailers linking her to Brown in the final days of the campaign. Pollster David Binder, who has worked for the Harris campaign, isn't worried. "I believe that voters are less and less concerned about Willie Brown," he says. "His era is over and he is not the lightning rod for public opinion that he was a few years ago.

"In this race, the swing voters are white women and people of color. ... People of color are now the majority in San Francisco. And most nonwhites are not going to be upset that Brown is raising money for Harris."

Supervisor Aaron Peskin, a frequent Brown nemesis, agrees that the mayor is no longer the political stink bomb he once was. "It's a great line in the press to say that Kamala was Brown's girlfriend, therefore she won't prosecute him if evidence of criminality turns up," he says. "But two-thirds of the people in politics here can be associated with Brown. The question is, 'Are you a Willie Brown hack or no?' And if the answer is no, then move on." Peskin points out that Supervisor Bevan Dufty was recently elected despite being labeled a Brown crony by his opponent, Eileen Hanson, whose campaign was run by Stearns, Harris' current manager.

Nonetheless, the mayor's embrace may be harder to shake than the Harris camp realizes.

On the night of the Central Committee vote, a reporter for the Bay Guardian, which has vociferously criticized Harris for her association with Brown, stands staring outside the State Building as Harris drives off in a stylish black car. "Willie Brown gave her that BMW!" the scribe remarks with unconcealed disgust.

The reporter is about half right. In fact, as Harris later tells SF Weekly, the mayor gave her a 1994 BMW, which she traded in for the 1997 model she now drives. The car remains a tangible link to a man whom many San Franciscans associate with political chicanery and self-dealing -- a connection that doesn't bode well for Kamala Harris.


The person who truly wields influence over Harris isn't Willie Brown. It's her mother, the renowned breast cancer scientist Gopalan Shyamala.

Shyamala immigrated to America from her native India in the early 1960s. "I came to study at UC Berkeley," she remembers. "I never came to stay. It's the old story: I fell in love with a guy, we got married, pretty soon kids came." The guy she married was Donald Harris, who later became a Stanford economics professor.

Kamala was born in 1964; her sister Maya arrived two years later. The maternal side of the family has a tradition of public service. Shyamala's father was a high-ranking Indian civil servant; her mother was an upper-class feminist concerned that the women who did her laundry were the victims of domestic violence.

"In Indian society we go by birth," Shyamala explains. "We are Brahmins, that is the top caste. Please do not confuse this with class, which is only about money. For Brahmins, the bloodline is the most important. My family, named Gopalan, goes back more than 1,000 years."

By marrying an American, Shyamala was the first person to break the ancient Gopalan bloodline. The union collapsed when Kamala was 5. ("My father is a good guy, but we are not close," she says.) Shyamala earned a doctorate in endocrinology from Berkeley and went on to become an internationally recognized expert in breast cancer research.

About The Author

Peter Byrne

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