By Josh Richman
Long before Kamala Harris made tabloid headlines after President Barack Obama last week called her "the best-looking attorney general in the country," she was a darling of the national mainstream press: The New York Times had named her among the women most likely to become the nation's first female president. Time magazine had called her "the female Barack Obama."
Californians, too, have come to know Harris, 48, as a rising political star who has taken on big banks, Big Oil, human traffickers and gay-marriage opponents -- and clearly has ambitions beyond her current job.
Most experts believe it's only a matter of time before she runs for governor or another high office, or until she's named to some high-ranking post in the nation's capital -- perhaps to succeed U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, some have speculated, or even to the U.S. Supreme Court.
And some political analysts say the kerfuffle will more likely than not raise her profile.
"Her name ID probably went up in Southern California -- and in the shallow Hollywood culture of Southern California, it is better to be Kamala Harris than Janet Reno," said Bruce Cain, a political-science professor at Stanford University.
Harris was too busy to comment Monday and Tuesday, said her spokesman, Gil Duran.
This isn't the first time Harris' gender and appearance have been political fodder. As recently as her prime-time speech at last fall's Democratic National Convention, some were repeating the old charge that she got started in politics in part through a widely reported romantic relationship in the '90s with former Assembly Speaker Willie Brown, before his stint as San Francisco's mayor.
Brown on Monday said a few days of hubbub over Obama's comment will affect Harris' upward career arc "not at all."
"It's a bogus story; the public knows it's a bogus story," Brown said. "It's the press that's the issue. ... It takes nothing away from such a distinguished career."
But Siobhan "Sam" Bennett, president and CEO of She Should Run, said that as Harris looks to the future she must "stamp this stuff out as it happens or have someone else stamp it out for her, because if they don't, there is an electoral impact."
Bennett, whose group aims to increase the number of women in public office, unveiled new studies Monday showing that "even benign, supposedly positive references to appearance" can be devastating for female candidates because they reinforce deep-seated stereotypes that women are less qualified. Research shows a candidate fares better if she deals with it immediately and decisively, she said -- or if the commenter promptly apologizes, as Obama did the same day he made his "best-looking" remark at an Atherton fundraiser.
Fifteen years ago, Harris probably had no inkling that she'd be getting an apology from the leader of the free world. Back then, she was an Alameda County deputy district attorney prosecuting child sex crimes. That job and stints as a San Francisco prosecutor and in the San Francisco City Attorney's Office set her up to unseat Terence Hallinan, a two-term incumbent, to become San Francisco's district attorney in 2003. She was unopposed for re-election in 2007, when she networked and raised funds for Obama's first presidential campaign.
Her 2010 campaign for attorney general was grueling. She defeated six Democratic primary rivals, then faced off in the general election against Los Angeles District Attorney Steve Cooley. Even after Obama attended a fundraiser and a rally for her campaign, the race was razor tight. Cooley didn't concede until three weeks after Election Day, and Harris won by eight-tenths of a point.
Since then she's been at least as tough as any male predecessor in the Attorney General's Office. She has expanded prosecution of mortgage-related fraud and had a role in the national mortgage settlement that led banks to cough up $18 billion, including $12 billion in principal reductions. She authored a "California Homeowner Bill of Rights" foreclosure-reform legislation package that took effect Jan. 1, ensuring fairer borrowing and lending practices for the state's homeowners.
She also stood by the refusal of her predecessor, Gov. Jerry Brown, to defend the state's same-sex marriage ban; created policies and prosecutorial units on piracy, privacy and other online crimes; sued oil companies for environmental violations at gas stations; filed briefs supporting Obamacare and opposing Arizona's immigration law; and championed the expansion of data-driven policing, including a first-in-the-nation system to seize guns from recently released convicts or mental patients.
For someone with a solid career like that, Obama's comments might be less harmful than they'd be to women who might decline to ever seek office in the first place lest they be judged on their looks, said Ange-Marie Hancock, a University of Southern California associate professor of political science and gender studies.
"If they feel like they're going to be running for homecoming queen all over again," she said, "most women would say, 'I left that behind in high school.'"
Residence: San Francisco (born in Oakland)
Experience: California attorney general, 2011-present; San Francisco district attorney, 2003-10; chief of the Community and Neighborhood Division, San Francisco City Attorney's Office, 2000-03; managing attorney of the Career Criminal Unit, San Francisco District Attorney's Office, 1998-2000; Alameda County deputy district attorney, 1990-98
Education: Bachelor's degree in political science and economics, Howard University (1986); law degree, University of California Hastings College of the Law (1989)
Family: Mother, Dr. Shyamala Gopalan Harris, breast cancer researcher (died 2009); father, Donald Harris (Stanford economics professor emeritus); sister, Maya Harris, vice president of the Ford Foundation's Democracy, Rights and Justice Program