It’s a safe bet that no United States senator in the history of the 228-year-old legislative chamber has ever heard of vathakkuzhambu or puliyodharai. That may change late next year if Kamala Harris, 50, currently California’s attorney general, is elected to the Senate from the West Coast state. But if she wins, she will bring many more firsts to the table than just a taste for traditional dishes from Tamil Nadu. She would become the first person of Indian descent in the Senate and the first woman from the community to reach either house of the US Congress. Harris, who is the daughter of an Indian mother and an African-American father, will also be the first African-American senator to be elected from California, America’s most populous state. If political observers are already dusting off the record books for an election that’s still over 21 months away, it’s because of the strength of Harris’s candidacy and her rising stature in the Democratic Party.
“Harris has the ‘it’ factor, capital I, capital T. She has a talent, an intellect and a charisma that very few candidates I’ve encountered have,” says Anurag Varma, an attorney with the Washington, DC lobbying firm Akin Gump and a former board member and vice-chairman at the Indian-American Leadership Initiative, or IALI, a group that works to promote Indian-American candidates.
Harris’s niece, Meena Harris, who has also been her deputy campaign manager, and is an attorney with the Washington, DC law firm of Covington & Burling, adds: “It will be historic if she gets elected. Given the embarrassing lack of diversity in the Senate, it’s even more important.” There are only 20 female senators in the 100-member body at present, and very few non-white senators have ever been elected.
Harris, who was born in Oakland, California, declared she would seek the state’s Senate seat on January 13, less than a week after Senator Barbara Boxer, also a Democrat, announced she would not run again in November 2016. “I will be a fighter for middle class families who are feeling the pinch of stagnant wages and diminishing opportunities,” Harris said in a statement announcing her candidacy.
While Harris starts out as an early favourite, even her closest supporters expect a tough race. First of all, the position doesn’t open up often. There are no term limits for senators, and Boxer will have completed four terms and 24 years in the office when she steps down. Potential Democratic rivals include former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and hedge fund billionaire and environmentalist Tom Steyer. California has an open primary system where candidates from both the major parties as well as independents contest, and the top two vote-getters advance to the general election.
The state has proved to be a Democratic stronghold in recent years, and Harris’s main challengers will likely come from within the party. But the Republican Party has fielded strong and well-funded candidates in recent statewide elections, including Hewlett-Packard CEO and former head of e-Bay Meg Whitman, and Carly Fiorina, a former CEO of Hewlett-Packard.
“It always comes down to raising enough money,” explains Meena, who is the daughter of Harris’s younger sister, Maya. “One of the biggest challenges in California is that it’s a huge state and in order to get name recognition and exposure that you need to run competitively for office you need to raise huge amounts of money. It may be an unfortunate aspect but it is the reality so that will definitely have to be a focus of hers.”
Harris’s exposure to political and social issues started at home. Her mother, Shyamala, a breast cancer researcher who came from Chennai to study at the University of California in Berkeley, was a strong supporter of the civil rights movement in the US. Even after she separated from her husband, Donald Harris, an African-American from Jamaica and a professor at Stanford University, she encouraged her two daughters to stay in touch with their roots in both communities. For Kamala, that also translated into a close association with IALI throughout her political career.
Varma recalls that when Harris was running to become San Francisco’s district attorney in 2003, IALI was not even aware of her Indian connection until she approached the group and identified herself as an Indian-American candidate. Later, when she was in the race to become California’s attorney general, she attended a small event to mark IALI’s entry in the West Coast. “She called us and asked if she could attend,” says Varma. “There was no political reason for her to come to our very tiny event. There were no high-level donors that she was going to get, it was just a group of 40-50 young people and she came to support all of us. We were shocked and surprised that she attended.”
Harris will rely on support from the Indian-American community, even if their numbers in California, at around half a million, are too small to decide an election. Indians in the US have typically rallied behind candidates from the community regardless of their party affiliation, as seen in the elections of Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal and South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, both Republicans. Kathy Kulkarni, a former IALI chairman and Congressional staffer, and currently a principal with the Washington, DC lobbying firm Rubicon Advisors, says Indian Americans can help Harris’s campaign from across the US.
“There are several ways in which the community can be helpful to her,” says Kulkarni. “Fundraising is obviously important. There is also on-the-ground grassroots efforts, and now support can be provided virtually from any part of the country, so having people making calls and knock on doors is going to be very important, as well as support on social media.”
Another ace up Harris’s sleeve could be US President Barack Obama. Harris has been a visible and strong supporter of Obama from the time he campaigned for the Senate from Illinois. He has returned the favour, endorsing her in her elections for attorney general. He famously described her as “by far the best looking attorney general in America” during a fundraiser in 2013, and later apologised for the politically incorrect compliment, though few would dispute him on the facts. “We’ll have to wait and see, but given his support in the past, I think we might be able to count on his support this time,” says Meena, who has often watched the two friends interact on substantive issues as well as trade jokes.
Harris, who married California attorney Douglas Emhoff last August, has closely guarded her personal life. According to Meena, her aunt’s main hobby is cooking, be it family recipes from Chennai or a Mexican dish. “She’s always looking at new things to cook, and reading cookery magazines and books to figure out new recipes. The kitchen is really where her heart is, outside of her family,” she says.
Harris’s connection to India is also deep-rooted. She took her mother’s ashes back to her native country after she died in 2009. Visits on happier occasions are spent going to the beach and shopping at Chennai’s famous sari store, Nalli, and jewellery store, GRT. “We all love, love, love south Indian food. We’ve all travelled to India multiple times to visit family,” says Meena, 30, who shares her birthday, October 20, with her aunt.
So strong are Harris’s profile and track record that she is widely spoken of as a future Presidential candidate, and has even been dubbed “the female Obama”. She has shown her political chops repeatedly. She squeaked through in her first election for attorney general in 2010 by a margin of less than 1 per cent, but won 58 per cent of the votes during her re-election last year. She will again need to leverage all her political skills and capital to beat strong candidates who are likely to have deep pockets or their own connections to other strong constituencies, like Hispanics and Asian-Americans.
But if Harris takes office as a US senator in January 2017, she will join a growing list of elected officials, including Jindal, Haley, and California Congressman Ami Bera, to bring a greater familiarity with India to the corridors of power in the US. And aspiring White House chefs might want to look up recipes for pongal and sambar. Just in case.