What Law School Taught Kamala Harris About Political Change

Jesús A. Rodríguez is a Politico Magazine contributing editor.

The signs in downtown San Francisco that day, outside of the University of California Hastings College of the Law, might as well have been plucked from today’s racial justice protests. “Rise Above Racism,” “Should This Still Be Happening?” and “What Is Next?” they read. It was February 15, 1989, and the campus had been pulsing with tension for a week, after students discovered that a bulletin board decorated by the Black Law Students Association (BLSA) to commemorate Black History Month had been vandalized with a racist marking: a grotesque caricature of a Black man with a “forbidden” sign slashing his face.

A third-year law student named Kamala Harris rose to address the crowd of roughly 300 students, faculty and local reporters gathered at “the Beach,” a concrete patio in front of the main classroom building, to make clear that racism wasn’t just one isolated incident. For Black students, she said, according to archives of the Hastings Law News, the cartoon was an example of “what we deal with all the time.”

To hear the now-vice president tell it, this was the kind of role she reprised time and again throughout her life. Harris was introduced to protests as a toddler by her parents, who met as activists on the streets of Berkeley in the 1960s. At Howard University, she demonstrated in front of the South African Embassy in Washington to call for an end to apartheid. Her political memoirs are replete with stories about family members who felt emboldened to pursue democratic change, signaling that activism was virtually Harris’ birthright.

But that demonstration was likely among her last as an outside agitator. By the time Harris spoke out about the cartoon at UC Hastings, she already had completed an internship with the Alameda County District Attorney’s office and was determined to work there. She soon would become a prosecutor and then, of course, a politician, immersing herself in the kinds of institutions and rules that her parents and Harris herself had once protested.

Harris has long talked about wanting to “go inside the system” to “change what needs to be changed.” Yet by depicting herself as a progressive changemaker on issues like policing and immigration, while governing largely as a pragmatist, she often has befuddled the left. Some voters hoped that, as vice president, she would be able to push her more moderate boss, President Joe Biden, to the left. Instead, Harris herself at times has faced pushback from her own side of the aisle, for telling migrants not to come to the United States, for example, or failing to push harder for a minimum wage increase.

What happened to the changemaking instinct that Harris exhibited at Hastings? Her law school years — the era of Harris’ life that perhaps has gotten the least public scrutiny to date — offer a window into how she thinks about her role as a politician and a Black woman in politics as she navigates being Biden’s No. 2, while also attempting to carve out her own political future.

In interviews, former classmates and professors said that even though Harris pressed for change on campus, her activism always had an institutional flavor to it. While her work with BLSA, for instance, involved protest, it also put her in the room with school administrators. It was at Hastings that Harris became comfortable with pushing for greater recognition of marginalized communities within the law school and the legal profession — in part, by setting an example herself. “Just her presence, as a woman, as a leader of color, will automatically change the attitude and the environment of a meeting when she walks in,” says Diane Matsuda, one of Harris’ closest law school friends and now a staff attorney at Asian Pacific Islander Legal Outreach.

Even though Harris has said her more liberal family members viewed her career choice with skepticism, those who studied the law alongside her say she always appeared committed to working inside the criminal justice system after graduation. “There were a lot of people who thought that one way to make the system fair was to have some people of color in those positions,” recalls Keith Wingate, a retired Hastings professor who taught Harris in a seminar on community economic development.

More than 30 years later, those who knew her in law school say that while Harris always advocated for Black civil rights, she didn’t convert from diehard activist to political insider. Rather, her approach of working within the system has remained a constant in her career — including in the White House. (Harris’ office declined to respond to a list of questions for this article.)

But if Harris’ fundamental approach to politics hasn’t changed in those decades, Democratic politics has. According to recent polling, a majority of Democrats now oppose the filibuster, want major policing reforms and favor large-scale student debt forgiveness. To some progressives, it might appear that Harris is happy to be a cog in an unjust machine. “The idea that she was going to change the system from the inside, while certainly not a unique perspective, is one that is somewhat naïve,” says Briahna Joy Gray, former national press secretary for Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign. “I say this with no malice, but there is not a progressive in America who was appeased by Kamala Harris’ appointment” to the Biden team, Gray says.

Harris’ political future could depend on how she balances the same insider-vs.-outsider dilemma she grappled with in law school, and her ability to build trust with an agitated party base that is demanding systemic change — not just representation.

In the fall of 1986, Harris arrived on campus at Hastings a week before most of her classmates. She was part of the pre-orientation Legal Education Opportunity Program (LEOP), which had been founded in 1969 to help law students from disadvantaged communities navigate the stringent demands of the first-year curriculum. Harris had come to a predominantly white institution after four years at a historically Black university. Beyond introducing students to Socratic pedagogy, case-briefing and exam-taking, the pre-orientation also gave students of color a sense of community and a hamlet of solidarity in a cut-throat environment.

“There was already a disadvantage that we didn’t know how things like wills and trusts and intestacy would affect real people,” Matsuda, who met Harris through LEOP, says. “It was a big learning curve for a lot of us.”

In a class of about 125 LEOP first-years, Harris quickly made an impression on Richard Sakai, a professor of leadership who was then the program’s director. Even now, he can picture the lawyer-to-be, with her “very polite” and “reserved” demeanor, sitting to the far right of the very last row in the auditorium, listening intently but not saying much.

“She was very intense. … It was almost like still waters,” he told me. “You could tell she was absorbing and taking everything in.”

After LEOP, Harris took the same classes that still dominate the first-year legal curriculum today: civil procedure, contracts and property, among others. The late Jeff Adachi, a career public defender who worked opposite Harris when she was a prosecutor, was a fellow student and tutored Harris and Matsuda in torts. As she got used to the rhythm of law school, she also became more involved in BLSA, where Sakai recalls that she became more vocal about the issues that law students — especially Black students and other minorities — faced on campus.

Unusually early in her law school career, Harris became president of BLSA during her second year — a position that entailed representing and advocating for Black law students on campus. BLSA was founded in 1968 at New York University School of Law to “increase the number of culturally responsible Black and minority attorneys,” according to the organization’s national website, and its chapters have become the go-to affinity spaces for Black students at U.S. law schools. From organizing pre-law conferences designed to attract Black college seniors, to frequently leading the response to acts of racism on campus, BLSA members volunteer what free time they have to push for increased awareness of the challenges Black people face in the legal profession — as well as the law’s disparate impact on Black communities.

“It was in the second year that, all of a sudden, she was more in the forefront,” Sakai says of Harris. She attended monthly meetings that he hosted with the heads of the other campus affinity groups. As president of BLSA, Harris also had the attention of deans and administrators who wanted to improve the diversity of the student body. In particular, she pushed the admissions office to dedicate more resources to the retention of students from communities underrepresented in the legal community, including ethnic minorities. Sakai and Matsuda said members of affinity groups like BLSA and the Asian Pacific American Law Student Association, of which Matsuda was president, also interviewed some applicants and made recommendations to the law school about whom to admit.

“I never thought of [Harris] as a moderate,” recalls Veronica Eady, another classmate, who is now an executive policy and equity officer at the Bay Area Air Quality Management District. “She often talked about her parents, and she often talked about civil rights. And I took those things to mean that she was progressive.” Still, Eady says, “She was somebody that people wanted to know — it was clear that she was an important person or going to be an important person.”

In those days, Hastings had emerged as a prestigious perch for aspiring litigators as the elite private law schools churned out corporate lawyers, according to Matsuda. (Michelle Obama, for instance, became an associate at Sidley Austin after graduating from Harvard Law School in 1988.) Smack in the middle of San Francisco, Hastings lay within a block of the local trial court, the federal courthouse, the California Supreme Court and City Hall. Public figures frequented the school for speeches, as well. One Senator Biden from Delaware gave a speech on campus during Harris’ last semester, telling students he planned to run for president again in the future, after having dropped out of the 1988 race. Rev. Jesse Jackson was Harris’ commencement speaker.

Harris arrived as an intern at the Alameda County District Attorney’s office during the summer of 1988, between her second and third years of law school. Late one Friday afternoon, according to her memoir The Truths We Hold, she was reviewing a report involving the arrest of a woman who had been an innocent bystander in a drug case. Noting the time, Harris realized the woman likely would have to spend the weekend in jail. Her mind raced with questions about the woman’s children at home, who might not have someone to look after them. “I rushed to the clerk of the court and asked to have the case called that very day. I begged. I pleaded,” she writes.

Helping the woman get released from jail was “a moment that proved how much it mattered to have compassionate people working as prosecutors,” according to the memoir, and it would set Harris on her career path. By the end of the summer, she had an offer for a deputy district attorney position waiting for her after graduation and the bar exam.

As passionate as she might have been, Harris’ relatives, including her mother, a cancer researcher, initially resisted her choice. Her Indian ancestors, including the vice president’s grandfather, had defied the conservative values of their eras, so Harris had to defend her chosen path to other family members “like one would a thesis,” Harris said in a 2019 speech to the South Carolina NAACP. “I know, and I knew then, prosecutors have not always done the work of justice.” (Harris’ sister, Maya, also a lawyer, would go on to a career in advocacy and legal defense, including as executive director of the ACLU of Northern California.)

Wingate, Harris’ former professor, says her career choice was not necessarily unusual — Black students ended up at both the public defender’s office and the district attorney’s office, in both San Francisco County and the adjacent Alameda County, which includes Oakland and Berkeley. (“I used to joke that I couldn’t get arrested in Alameda County,” Wingate says. “A lot of the students that I knew ended up there.”)

Harris underwent this professional coming-of-age in the 1980s and ’90s, which were defined by the dog-whistle narrative of “tough on crime” — when becoming a prosecutor was an asset for a future career in politics, less so a liability. George H.W. Bush’s notorious “Willie Horton” ad dropped in the summer of 1988. Not long afterward, Democrats in Washington, Biden among them, also embraced punitive policies. “It was a culture where the expectation was that people seek conviction or sentences,” says India Thusi, a professor at Indiana University Maurer School of Law.

But for Hastings classmates, Matsuda says, choosing to go into a prosecutor’s office over legal defense work was not seen as a character-defining decision. “We were all very respectful of one another and knew that whatever public service office we went into, we would go into that position knowing that we need to represent people who have not been adequately represented,” she says.

That was in 2004. Today, Thusi says, “There are some people who would argue that there is no such thing as progressive prosecution — that all forms of prosecution are problematic.” Paul Butler, a Georgetown Law professor and former federal prosecutor, has written that Black prosecutors rarely, if ever, change the system — rather, they often adopt its harmful stereotypes. “Every time I stepped into court and sat at the prosecutor’s table, I sent the message that not every African American man was like the bad dude I was prosecuting,” Butler writes in his 2017 book, Chokehold.

Today, Biden has entrusted Harris with two of the most polarizing issues the country faces: addressing the root causes of migration and preserving the right to vote. But the administration’s legacy in these areas has yet to take shape. In Guatemala, Harris outraged members of her own party and immigrant advocates when she stood next to that nation’s president and told Central and South American asylum-seekers fleeing tough environments not to come to the United States. “If you come to our border, you will be turned back,” she said. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez decried the remarks as “disappointing to see,” adding, “We can’t help set someone’s house on fire and then blame them for fleeing.”

Eady, Harris’ classmate, says that although she has been “pleasantly surprised” by the administration’s more progressive stance on climate change, she wishes the approach to immigration featured that same humanity: “Telling people at the border not to come — it’s not that simple.”

Defending and expanding voting rights has not proven any easier for Harris. As Republican governors have enacted more than 20 laws restricting mail-in voting, imposing stricter voter ID requirements or shortening voting hours, advocates have pressured the White House to negotiate a Senate filibuster carveout that would allow some form of federal voting protections to get through the upper chamber. Harris told CBS News last month that she had lobbied Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski on the Democrats’ stalled voting-rights legislation, only to be rebuffed by the Alaska senator moments later in a statement that claimed the two had merely discussed infrastructure.

All the while, Harris has not clearly articulated what filibuster reforms she supports, to the frustration of activists. “Even as it appears that the call for a voting rights [filibuster] carveout is gaining momentum, we’re still not hearing anything from the White House,” Cliff Albright, the executive director of the Black Voters Matter Fund, said in an interview with CBS News.

It remains unclear what big changes Harris could make in the historically limited vice-presidential position. But her potential aspirations for higher office have been complicated by her sinking approval rating post-Guatemala and doubts from some Democrats as to her ability to beat Trump or another Republican rival in a future election. A recent Atlantic profile portrayed Harris as “trapped” in her role.

The playbook she began writing in law school, though, appears to rely mostly on changing institutions incrementally, and largely by pushing for greater representation, rather than challenging the very systems that nurtured her political success.

“In law school, I didn’t necessarily think that she was politically driven. But it all makes sense now,” Eady says. “She definitely seemed like she was at the beginning of a journey.”

SAKHRI Mohamed
SAKHRI Mohamed

I hold a Bachelor's degree in Political Science and International Relations in addition to a Master's degree in International Security Studies. Alongside this, I have a passion for web development. During my studies, I acquired a strong understanding of fundamental political concepts and theories in international relations, security studies, and strategic studies.

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