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Hillary Clinton’s loss to Donald Trump on November 8, 2016 came as a devastating blow to many people across the country eager to see a woman take office. But among Tuesday’s winners is California’s new Democratic senator-elect, Kamala Harris, who may be the next best hope for shattering that glass ceiling.
She’s drawn many comparisons to President Barack Obama, who famously ran for president during his first term in the Senate. Her background and her polished yet personable approach to politics embody what many think the Democratic Party should aim to look like going forward. And even before her Senate win, her name was floated for roles including California governor, Supreme Court justice, and vice president.
Here are some things you should know about the woman who could very well challenge Trump in 2020.
She’s spent six years as California’s attorney general.
Harris, a San Francisco Bay Area native, spent years as a prosecutor and was elected twice as San Francisco’s district attorney before she won the California attorney general race in 2010. That election placed her at the top of the most populous state’s enormous law enforcement system and gave her a platform to fight for the issues she cared about.
Among her more high-profile efforts: waging a statewide campaign to reduce school truancy, eliminating the state’s backlog of untested rape kits, successfully suing the for-profit Corinthian Colleges to the tune of $1.1 billion and negotiating a mortgage relief settlement on behalf of California homeowners (which some critics said made a nice headline but didn’t accomplish much).
She’s also emerged as one of the leading attorneys general standing in solidarity with Black Lives Matter. During a pen-and-pad session with reporters at the Democratic National Convention in July, she spoke at length about police killings of black men and women, arguing that states should take steps like keeping track of the data on officer-involved shootings and increasing training to reduce police bias.
Still, she’s been criticized by activists for not doing enough to investigate police shootings and for her opposition to statewide regulations on body cameras for police.
She’s campaigned on her criminal justice reform record.
Harris has run multiple races on the back of what she describes as her “smart on crime” approach to criminal justice. That approach is largely focused on keeping low-level offenders out of jail. As state attorney general, she has openly addressed the failures of the war on drugs and pointed to the importance of early childhood education in keeping kids out of trouble. In 2013, she launched an initiative to reduce recidivism via partnerships between the state’s Justice Department and local officials.
However, reform advocates have said Harris’ tenure as California’s top cop was too cautious, pointing out that many of the state’s strides over the last years toward reducing the prison population ― including the state’s prison realignment ― happened in the state legislature or via ballot initiative. She’s also been criticized for not taking a strong stand on prosecutorial misconduct, including her lukewarm response to a jailhouse informant scandal in Orange County.
She played a big role in the fight for marriage equality.
Harris refused to enforce California’s Proposition 8, a voter-passed initiative in 2008 that banned same-sex marriage in the state, and in 2011 she pressed a federal appeals court to allow weddings to continue as the court considered the constitutionality of the ban.
“I declined to defend Proposition 8 because it violates the Constitution,” Harris said in 2013, when the case against Prop. 8 made it to the U.S. Supreme Court, which set a process in motion that eventually ended the ban. “The time has come for this right to be afforded to every citizen.”
She’s remained a champion of gay rights, and in 2015 she specifically called out Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia for dismissing California as different from the rest of the country in his dissent of the court’s decision that legalized same-sex marriages nationwide.
“Don’t hate the playa; hate the game,” she said. “Justice Scalia has caused many people to question the dignity of the court when he makes statements such as the statements he’s made in connection with this case. And that’s unfortunate.”
She’s already made history with her Senate win.
Harris is just the second black woman ever elected to the upper chamber. The first, Carol Moseley Braun (D-Ill.), was elected in 1992 and served one term. She’s also the first Indian-American ever elected to the Senate. (Harris’ mother immigrated to the U.S. from India.)
Breaking down these kind of barriers is nothing new to Harris. She was the first woman, the first African-American and the first Indian-American to become California’s top cop.
“My mother had a saying ― ‘you may be the first to do many things, make sure you aren’t the last,’” Harris told CQ Roll Call in June. “We need to work to ensure the leaders reflect the people they are supposed to represent, and until we achieve that full representation, I think we should understand we are falling short of the ideals of this country.”
She’s got friends in high places.
Chiefly, Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, who are on track to leave office with very strong approval ratings and who endorsed Harris over U.S. Rep. Loretta Sanchez, a fellow Democrat, in this Senate race. Obama is a longtime ally of Harris ― he also endorsed her in her first bid for attorney general in 2010. (He also praised her as the nation’s “best-looking” attorney general, a statement he later had to apologize for.)
She also has support from a deep bench of prominent and popular Democrats, including Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, California Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer (whom she’ll replace), New York Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand and Chuck Schumer, California Gov. Jerry Brown, California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom and many House members.
These alliances could help boost Harris’ profile across the country should she choose to run for president in 2020.
Her first move as senator-elect? Denouncing Trumpism.
Harris’ Tuesday night victory party was overshadowed by Trump’s victory, giving what would typically be a jubilant event a rather somber tone. She took the opportunity to make a full-throated case against embracing the racist, xenophobic values espoused by Trump throughout his campaign, urging her supporters to continue to fight inequality.
“It is the very nature of this fight for civil rights and justice and equality that whatever gains we make, they will not be permanent. So we must be vigilant,” Harris said. “Do not despair. Do not be overwhelmed. Do not throw up our hands when it is time to roll up our sleeves and fight for who we are.”
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