Kamala Harris Is Dreaming Big

IT’S A COLD JANUARY NIGHT in D.C., and I’m at the Hart Senate Office Building, trailing U.S. Senator Kamala Harris into a conference room. Inside, a group of young Latino congressional staffers has gathered to meet the Democratic star from California. When she enters, flanked by aides, and dressed in a navy suit, matching ruffled blouse, black pearls, and stilettos that give her petite five-feet-four frame a few extra inches of height, the staffers immediately rise from their chairs.

Harris has an air of celebrity that, under normal circumstances, a freshman senator wouldn’t have had time to acquire. But this year has been anything but normal. She greets the 20-somethings as though they’re relatives at a family reunion: “Hi, everybody! Hi, guys!” Then she notices that one of the staffers is still seated, and her voice drops a full octave: “Stand up, man!”

The startled staffer springs to his feet. “Kevin,” he says, extending a hand.

“What’s your last name?” demands Harris.


Thank you!” She shakes his hand. “Kamala Harris.” (That’s pronounced “comma-la,” by the way, and you’d better get it right.)

Harris is a courtroom litigator. This means that, although she is warm and funny, she is also comfortable with confrontation—at home with it, even—and a casual conversation can become a rapid-fire deposition without warning. But exchanges like this one are also tutorials. In Figueroa’s case: Here is how you greet an elected official. He’s going to need to know this, you see, if he runs for office, or applies to law school, or makes any of the life choices Harris expects of him.

She settles into a chair and tells the group—they are all policy fellows with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute—that, in her sophomore year of college at Howard University, she worked as an intern for the senior senator from California at the time, Alan Cranston. “So you’re looking at your future,” Harris says. “He was succeeded by Barbara Boxer, and I succeeded Barbara Boxer. So you neva know!”

Tonight is the State of the Union. In two hours, at the Capitol Building, President Trump will address the fate of DACA—the legal protections that the Obama administration granted to some 700,000 undocumented immigrants, and which Trump rescinded in September. Harris reads the room. “You guys are living in a pivotal moment in the history of our country, and you’re witnessing something we’ve never seen before.” The group nods solemnly. Harris says she’s resolved to leave anger behind. “At the end of the year, I thought back to 2017, and I was like, ‘Bye, Felisha.’ ” The Friday reference draws big laughs. “This year, I’m just gonna be a joyful warrior.”

Harris calls on the staffers to say what they’re working on. It’s a heavy list: deported veterans, bail reform, Puerto Rico relief, affordable housing. One staffer from Arizona reports that she is investigating the dangers posed to pregnant women in immigration detention centers. “Arpaio—is he running?” Harris asks, referring to Joe Arpaio, the former sheriff of Maricopa County known for vigilante-style roundups. Yes, the staffer responds, Arpaio has announced his campaign for Senate. “Another reason to be a joyful warrior!” Harris exclaims.

The meeting ends. Before Harris heads to the Capitol, she must first stop by her office to welcome the date she’s bringing along, a DACA recipient named Denea Joseph, who emigrated from Belize at the age of seven and grew up in South Los Angeles. (She cofounded a Facebook group called “Slay, Kamala, Slay.”) At Harris’s office, Joseph is waiting on a beige couch, wearing a graphic-print blouse, black slacks, and heels. Harris settles down next to her while an aide runs through Joseph’s lineup of media interviews. “It’s about you, but it’s not about you,” Harris says to calm her nerves. “Think of all the people who are counting on you to deliver your message.” Before they leave, Joseph asks to take a selfie with the senator. I pretend not to be listening as Joseph, fumbling with her phone, tells Harris: “You’re my Beyoncé.”

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