SACRAMENTO, Calif. — On a Tuesday evening in this capital city, a small crowd gathered in an upstairs conference room at the downtown Sheraton. People clad in suits sipped Heineken, Sierra Nevada and Corona beers as they waited for the guest of honor.
When Attorney General Kamala Harris (D) arrived, she heard greetings of "glad you’re running." Some had paid as much as $2,600 to attend one of the first fundraisers for Harris, the front-runner — and the only declared candidate for now — in the race to replace retiring Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.).
It was a low-key affair — in contrast to how some people describe Harris.
She’s seen by allies as a powerhouse, the favorite in the race that still has nearly two years to go. Harris, 50, is the first woman, first African-American and first Asian-American attorney general in California. If she wins the Boxer seat, Harris would be the second female African-American U.S. senator in history, after former Sen. Carol Moseley Braun (D-Ill.).
"When you meet Kamala, you immediately feel like this is a woman who has to be in charge," said Andrea Steele, founder and president of Emerge America, a group created to get Democratic women elected at the state and local level. She first met Harris in 2000 when Harris was working in the San Francisco city attorney’s office. Steele, then a political consultant, said she knew Harris was destined for bigger roles.
"She has a commanding presence," Steele said. "From the moment I met her, I said, ‘You should run for office.’" In fact, Steele said, Harris was the inspiration for starting Emerge America.
Harris came to her current post after two terms as San Francisco’s district attorney. Before that, in addition to her time in the city attorney’s office, she worked in the San Francisco DA’s office as head of the Career Criminal Unit. She started out in the Alameda County district attorney’s office, where she specialized in prosecuting child sexual assault cases. She graduated from Howard University and the University of California, Hastings, College of the Law.
Harris is the daughter of two immigrants. Her mother, the late Shyamala Gopalan Harris, came from India and worked as a breast cancer researcher. She died in 2009. Harris’ father, Donald Harris, emigrated from Jamaica. He’s a Stanford University professor emeritus in the Economics Department. Kamala Harris grew up in Berkeley and Oakland, Calif., and later in Montreal, when her mother taught at McGill University.
Harris has a younger sister, Maya Harris, who is married to Tony West, former associate attorney general of the United States. Kamala Harris is married to Doug Emhoff, a Los Angeles attorney. Harris in the 1990s dated then-state Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D), and some in their inner circle believed they would wed. But Brown surprised many when he broke up with Harris soon after he was elected San Francisco mayor, according to the book "Willie Brown: a Biography," by James Richardson.
Harris’ parents met while graduate students at the University of California, Berkeley, and both were activists in the 1960s civil rights movement. That influenced her path, she has said.
"We as children grew up in an environment where all the adults around us were pretty much spending full time marching and shouting about this thing called justice," Harris said in a November 2009 speech at Stanford. "For me, in that environment, the heroes were the architects of that great civil rights movement, and they of course were the lawyers," Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, Charles Hamilton Houston and Constance Baker Motley.
In her first AG inauguration speech, Harris called herself "a literal daughter of Brown versus the Board of Education — now invested with the power and the responsibility of enforcing the law and its promise of equal protection."
Harris, in her announcement that she’s running for Senate, said that as DA, and later as AG, she has "worked to bring smart, innovative and effective approaches to fighting crime, fighting for consumers and fighting for equal rights for all."
"I will be a fighter for the next generation on the critical issues facing our country," Harris added. "I will be a fighter for middle-class families who are feeling the pinch of stagnant wages and diminishing opportunity. I will be a fighter for our children who deserve a world-class education, and for students burdened by predatory lenders and skyrocketing tuition."
Pledges environmental protection
Steele sees Harris as a strong contender to replace Boxer. One of the reasons is the environment. Female elected officials tend toward environmental protection, she said, and Harris has a history of seeking to defend communities hurt by polluters.
"I feel confident Kamala will have an open door to the environmental movement," Steele said. "She’s rational. She believes in science."
Harris’ campaign said that she also is "committed to preserving the state’s natural resources and ensuring every Californian can live in a healthy environment." Her priorities in office "have included fighting climate change, improving environmental health, prosecuting polluters and protecting the state’s natural resources," said Brian Brokaw, a campaign spokesman.
"Attorney General Harris has long recognized Sen. Boxer as a champion for the environment, and she will work tirelessly to carry on the senator’s legacy of combating climate change, fighting for clean water and clean air, standing up to polluters and growing the green economy through innovation," Brokaw said.
One Democratic strategist, however, said while Harris hasn’t done anything to upset environmental groups, her green record is limited. One of her main focuses as AG was winning compensation for homeowners hit by the mortgage crisis, he said.
"She’s had a very low-key tenure as attorney general compared to California AGs of the past who’ve been extremely activist," including now-Gov. Jerry Brown (D) and Bill Lockyer (D), said Steve Maviglio, president of Forza Communications. "Her politics have been pretty cautious.
"She’s not been a headliner on environmental issues, that’s for sure," Maviglio added. "Filling Barbara Boxer’s shoes on environmental issues, that would be a giant leap for her."
Former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa (D) — who’s said he’s interested in the Senate race but hasn’t officially jumped in — has a fuller history on green issues, Maviglio said, including work to promote solar. He also advanced a rapid build-out of Los Angeles’ subway system, developing a network of mayors across the country who lobbied Congress for financial help.
But Maviglio said comparing Harris and Villaraigosa on environmental issues is like contrasting "apples and grapefruit."
"When you’re a mayor, you get to do things," Maviglio said. Villaraigosa’s "environment portfolio is very broad." Harris as AG is enforcing the law, he said.
Maviglio noted that California voters care about the environment, but it’s not a top-tier issue they vote on like the economy, jobs and, more recently, the state’s drought.
"If you’re bad on the environment, you’re not going to win, but it’s not something you’re going to run your campaign on," Maviglio said.
Polls that have been leaked in recent days show Harris with a substantial lead over Villaraigosa in a multi-candidate field. With an all-party primary that occasionally produces a general election between candidates of the same party, the race is fluid at this point, even if Harris is the only declared contender.
Harris’ campaign provided a list of her environmental accomplishments. Those included in 2011 suing two plastic bottle makers and one additive manufacture for making "false and misleading claims" in marketing plastic water bottles as "100 percent biodegradable and recyclable," when the additive used rendered the bottles unable to be recycled. The cases settled in 2012 and 2013 with the bottle makers agreeing not to use the term "biodegradable" on the bottles or in marketing materials. They must reformulate to eliminate additives that compromise recyclability of the bottles. The three companies paid penalties ranging from $11,000 to $18,000.
In November, Harris reached an agreement with AT&T to resolve allegations that company facilities in California "unlawfully disposed of hazardous waste and material over a nine-year period." AT&T agreed to pay $23.8 million and spend an estimated $28 million over five years to implement enhanced environmental compliance measures.
Harris investigated Tesoro’s August 2012 acquisition of BP’s Carson, Calif., refinery. Harris ultimately reached a settlement with Tesoro in which the company agreed to: increase production capacity from other regional refineries to safeguard against price spikes during refinery outages; joint monitoring of gas pricing, volume and refinery capacity by the AG’s office and the California Energy Commission; a commitment that Arco stations acquired by Tesoro would remain "a low-cost fuel provider for California consumers"; and an environmental retrofit of both the Wilmington and Carson refineries to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
A few of the cases on the accomplishments list started under Brown’s tenure when he was AG.
Those carryovers included that Harris in 2013 reached a $24.5 million settlement with Chevron Inc. and Chevron Stations Inc. over allegations that the companies violated state laws on hazardous waste by "failing to properly inspect and maintain underground tanks used to store gasoline for retail sale." Another was the 2011 settlement with cargo terminals at the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles over diesel emissions from exhaust. The pact required the terminals to reduce their pollution and better notify the public of emissions.
"She inherited a strong record with the governor" having held the AG’s job, said V. John White, director of the Center for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Technologies. "It’s a very high-quality judicial staff with a long history of environmental stewardship."
White said that while Harris’ environmental record is relatively thin, "my sense is she’s going to be consistent with Barbara Boxer’s record. Harris is certainly known to a lot of people as a strong and articulate leader."
Sought changes to refinery plan
Some green groups see Harris as a clear ally.
"She has demonstrated a commitment to protecting Californians through enforcing all of our environmental law," said Sarah Rose, CEO at the California League of Conservation Voters. "She has always made clear that protecting California, enforcing the laws that we do have, that are designed to protect the people and the environment, is a big priority."
Rose cited Harris’ involvement in Chevron’s bid to overhaul its refinery in Richmond, east of San Francisco. The company sought to modernize the plant to be able to process different types of crude oil, including high-sulfur gas oil. The AG in June 2014 wrote an 11-page comment on Richmond’s review of the oil company’s plan.
Harris’ letter said that the draft Environmental Impact Report (EIR) failed to address whether the proposed project meshed with the state’s objectives for reducing greenhouses gas emissions. California seeks to shrink greenhouse gas pollution to 1990 levels by 2020, and to 80 percent below that point by 2050. The state also wants to sharply increase the number of cars with zero emissions.
"It appears that the proposed Project has the potential to increase the carbon intensity of the fuels the refinery produces — by emitting more GHGs for the same or nearly the same throughput of crude and gas oils," Harris’ comments said.
In addition, she said there were concerns about the impact on local residents.
"The EIR must also analyze whether additional pollution will contribute significantly to the community’s existing public health problems," Harris wrote. She noted that "the residents of Richmond are already facing some of the highest pollution burdens in California," with the city ranking in the 98th percentile for emergency room visits for asthma.
The city ultimately changed the EIR, proposing a project alternative that would have Chevron cut in half the sulfur treatment expansion capacity compared with what the company initially had requested. Harris in a follow-up letter said the added option resulted in "no physical increase in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from Refinery operations."
Chevron agreed to take that negotiated path. The company is awaiting court action allowing the project to proceed.
"Chevron appreciates the leadership of the attorney general in helping to come to an agreement on a project that will result in a cleaner, safer and more efficient refinery in Richmond," the company said in an emailed statement.
Kathryn Phillips, director of Sierra Club California, noted that Harris joined a lawsuit seeking changes to the San Diego Association of Governments’ (SANDAG) blueprint to comply with S.B. 375, a law enacted in 2008. It requires the state’s 18 metropolitan planning organizations to shrink greenhouse gas emissions as they craft future blueprints. California’s Air Resources Board set the targets for each region.
The suit from the Cleveland National Forest Foundation and Center for Biological Diversity charged that San Diego’s plan failed to comply with the state’s environmental law and didn’t meet the state’s climate goals. The AG in her motion contended that the EIR "did not adequately analyze the public health impacts of the increased air pollution. The San Diego region already has a very high cancer risk from particulate matter emitted by diesel engines and vehicles and there is no analysis as to whether this risk will increase."
The trial court and court of appeals agreed with the plaintiffs and Harris. SANDAG has filed a petition for review with the California Supreme Court.
Harris "has expressed and demonstrated an interest in environmental justice issues," Phillips said.
Reporter Debra Kahn contributed.