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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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A conversation with Shyamala ranges from genealogy to the sociology of cancer to comparative religion and the nature of karma. "We are not born to a higher purpose," she reflects. "Karma simply means ... we schlep. We do what we must, and the less we dwell on it the better.

"But karma is not passive: Every action is based upon intention. The only question is: Are you aware of your intentions? Of the consequences of your actions?" She makes no comment about the ironic karmic fallout of her elder daughter's relationship with the mayor of San Francisco.

Shyamala says that, like her own parents, she did not idly praise the accomplishments of her children as they grew. She expected them to excel in their studies, and they did.

Harris attended public schools in Oakland and Montreal (where she studied art). Then it was off to Howard University, a traditionally African-American college in Washington, D.C. She graduated in 1986 with a degree in political science and economics. During her student years, Harris organized mentor programs for minority youths, demonstrated against apartheid, and pledged a socially significant black sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha.

She reveled in the blackness of Howard. "Close your eyes and imagine: Every Friday night, 10,000 students get dressed up and go out in the yard of Howard University," Harris recently told a youthful audience at a Western Addition church. "It is like a promenade, like the mating season. There is a yard filled with thousands of young people who look like you -- and they are all college students!"

Back in the Bay Area, Harris earned a law degree from Hastings in 1989. She was quickly hired as an assistant district attorney for Alameda County, telling her mother that the world needs socially aware prosecutors. She specialized in child sexual abuse trials, a particularly difficult type of prosecution because juries are, Harris observes, more inclined to accept the word of an adult than a child. (Alameda District Attorney Tom Orloff recollects that Harris has "a good courtroom presence, a high success rate. She is a genuinely good person and her social values will work well in San Francisco.")

When Harris began dating Willie Brown, also an attorney, she had no idea that the affair would generate political consequences for her in the future.

"Black people who go to college have about two degrees of separation with other black professionals, and those who go to law school have even less," Harris explains. "The networks of black lawyers in California are small. Brown and I had lots of mutual friends."

Harris' networks, especially in high society, expanded rapidly while she was going out with one of California's most powerful politicians. The association also had major financial benefits, which Harris talks about reluctantly.

Aside from handing her an expensive BMW, Brown appointed her to two patronage positions in state government that paid handsomely -- more than $400,000 over five years. In 1994, she took a six-month leave of absence from her Alameda County job to join the Unemployment Insurance Appeals Board. Brown then appointed her to the California Medical Assistance Commission, where she served until 1998, attending two meetings a month for a $99,000 annual salary.

"These jobs were created before I was born," Harris says. "Whether you agree or disagree with the system, I did the work. I worked hard to keep St. Luke's Hospital [in the Mission] open. I brought a level of life knowledge and common sense to the jobs. I mean, if you were asked to be on a board that regulated medical care, would you say no?"

In 1998, she left the Alameda County DA's Office to work for Hallinan, managing the San Francisco DA's career-criminal unit and concentrating on Three Strikes cases. She personally tried three cases, including a homicide, negotiated dozens of plea bargains, and supervised five other attorneys.

In 2000, upset by what she says was the politicization of the office, Harris and several colleagues tried to overthrow Darrell Salomon, Hallinan's chief deputy. When the coup failed, Harris abruptly quit and went to work for then­City Attorney Louise Renne, heading up the division of Renne's office that handles child abuse, domestic violence, building code enforcement, and public health matters. (Renne describes Harris as an extremely capable lawyer and a compassionate person. "She will make the best DA this city has seen in years," says Renne.)

Harris was so angry at Hallinan that she decided to try to knock him out of office. She has been running for DA ever since -- attending political events, helping out on other people's campaigns, serving on the boards of nonprofits that work with domestic violence victims. She's attended society bashes from Nob Hill to Hollywood -- always striving to be seen, methodically gathering support, pushing herself as an alternative to yet another duel between two political has-beens.


Stumping in the Castro, the Mission, and the Tenderloin, Harris shows real stuff as a candidate.

She listens carefully to the concerns of ordinary people. She does not patronize them or make idle promises. A cook slaving over a hot wok in a Chinese restaurant greets her with a grin. A janitor stops to chat. A clutch of black men playing dominoes in a Tenderloin park high-five her.

They want to know how she's different from Hallinan. (San Francisco's poorer neighborhoods have never gone for the conservative Fazio.) But differentiating herself politically and ideologically from Hallinan is a problem for Harris. She shares many of the famously liberal DA's views on legal and social issues, including the death penalty (against), medical marijuana (for), and the need to ramp up prosecutions of domestic violence and child sexual assault cases (strongly for).

She argues, however, that Hallinan is running his office into the ground.

"The DA's Office is a mess. It's falling apart. There's one computer for every two or three lawyers, there's no centralized database to track cases. Staff morale is low because he is failing to prosecute serious and violent crimes."

About The Author

Peter Byrne

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