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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

Page 5 of 6

San Francisco Assemblyman Mark Leno sees the efforts of Hallinan and Fazio to smear Harris with her past association with Brown as misogynistic. He says the two male candidates are focusing on the Willie factor because Harris "presents a real threat and they have no other cards to play."

His sentiments are echoed by Harris' sister and fellow attorney, Maya Harris West, director of the Racial Justice Project for the ACLU's Northern California chapter. "This hype around Willie Brown is such a distraction and so opportunistic, sexist, and ridiculous," says West. "When a woman dates an accomplished man, why are people so willing to assume it's only because of him that the woman is successful?"

Harris' mother agrees. Shyamala says the "malevolence" of the personal attack on her daughter makes her angry. "What has Willie Brown done for her? Introduce her to society people when they dated? If they did not like Kamala on her own right, they would have dropped her after she dropped Willie. Kamala is comfortable in all kinds of social scenes. She can pull it off in high society, too. She has the manners, the eating habits.

"Why shouldn't she have gone out with Willie Brown? He was a player. And what could Willie Brown expect from her in the future? He has not much life left."

Given the voter demographics she is targeting, and her own ethnicity, it's not surprising that Harris' campaign headquarters is smack in the middle of Bayview­Hunters Point.

"I feel the black community is my base," she says. "I feel comfortable there, with people coming in off the street to check out the headquarters." Local African-Americans, she notes, turn out in relatively small numbers at the polls, even though they are disproportionately represented as the objects of the district attorney's prosecutorial attention.

But with her law degree and upper-middle-class background, Harris doesn't always seem completely in tune with her would-be constituents.

One day, she visits the decrepit Sunnydale housing project escorted by Ruth Jackson, a community activist who lives nearby. During Brown's administration, the Housing Authority spent more than $25 million remodeling Sunnydale, but the most prominent improvement appears to be the huge letters decorating one building: MAYOR WILLIE L. BROWN COMMUNITY YOUTH CENTER.

Down the street, young men sell drugs, glancing sideways at strangers. Outside the center, Harris talks to three other men who are friends of Jackson. She tells them why it is important to vote against Prop. 54, a ballot initiative intended to prevent the state from gathering racial information from Californians. Harris explains that Prop. 54 will undo affirmative action, that it is a step backward toward Plessy v. Ferguson, the infamous 1896 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that legalized segregation. The men listen politely, genuinely interested in what she has to say.

Harris has a brainstorm: The men should sponsor a mayoral debate in the community center. They are lukewarm to the idea. They're planning to stage a protest demonstration the next day because, they say, Muni broke a promise to hire black youths from their ZIP code to help build the new light-rail system snaking down Third Street. Harris brightens.

"You should ask a police captain to conduct a protest training," she says. "That way you can protest safely. For example, people need to know not to run!"

Harold Kyer, who is organizing the Muni protest, seems a bit embarrassed to have to straighten her out. "Our community is not police-friendly, Ms. Harris," he explains gently. "They will not come to a meeting if the police show up."

The get-together ends. Harris zooms away in a black BMW (not hers) piloted by a volunteer campaign chauffeur. She's on a tight schedule, and does not have time to walk the community and talk to the low-income women and children who populate it. She insists, however, that she won't forget them.

"I have no intention," she says, "of turning a blind eye to the problems at Sunnydale."

From his Marina District office, political consultant Philip Muller is raising money for Kamala Harris -- without her consent.

Muller, who worked on both of Willie Brown's mayoral campaigns, is doing this through an independent expenditure committee innocuously called the California Voter Project. (Such committees are often used by special interests to raise political cash far in excess of state limits on individual contributions.) Muller plans to buy radio time for Harris, and he says he might air commercials critical of Hallinan and Fazio. He's also printing up window signs and bumper stickers for Harris.

His main fund-raising tool is a letter signed by Brown that requests $500 donations to "help Kamala win." He says the mayor's signature is legitimate, and Brown's spokesman confirms that.

Harris says she has had no contact with the mayor about his fund-raising on her behalf. She is "not sure" how she feels about his efforts, but she doesn't spend her time worrying about it.

Muller's unsolicited involvement in her campaign is galling in another way though. Unbeknown to Harris, Muller's committee was behind an anonymous mailer that attacked Harris' brother-in-law, Tony West, when he ran for a San Jose Assembly seat in 2000. The mailer suggested that West lived in Oakland (he didn't) by superimposing his head on the Oakland Raiders logo, with two swords sticking through his skull. Months after West lost the election, the San Jose Mercury News criticized Muller for unleashing "last-minute mailers riddled with distortions" and not revealing their true source.

When SF Weekly shows her a copy of the Mercury News article, Harris yelps, "You are kidding me. This is outrageous. Offensive. I will have no part of this. You watch what I do!" A few days later, after she calms down, Harris notes that there is nothing she can do to stop Muller, since the law forbids her campaign from even contacting his committee.

About The Author

Peter Byrne


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