Kamala Harris has broken the California curse. In addition to her other historic firsts, she will be the first Democrat from the nation’s most populous state to run on a major-party presidential ticket.
In some ways her nomination seems a fitting reflection of her home state. She’s the daughter of immigrants, her father from Jamaica and her mother from India. They came to study at the University of California, Berkeley, in a state that has attracted large numbers of immigrants ever since the Gold Rush. Born an outsider, Ms. Harris grew up to be the consummate insider, breaking barriers along the way but never burning bridges.
In its vastness and complexity, California is a shifting mosaic, with an intangible identity that encompasses multitudes, its notoriously fractious Democratic Party no exception. And in this way above all, Kamala Harris embodies her state in being many things to many people — outsider, insider, prosecutor, progressive, a rising star who has made it hard for even her harshest critics in the party not to root for a Hollywood ending.
The failure of other prominent California Democrats to make the national ticket in part reflects the history of a state that has only relatively recently become blue. For generations, California was solidly Republican, and then moderately Democratic. More environmentally and socially conscious than many Republican states, but Republican nonetheless. Between 1948, when Gov. Earl Warren ran for vice president, and 1984, when President Ronald Reagan was re-elected, Californians were absent only twice from the Republican national ticket. Even when Richard Nixon lost to John Kennedy in 1960, he eked out a win in his home state. Lyndon Johnson was the last Democrat to carry California until Bill Clinton in 1992, when demographics began to shift in favor of the Democrats.
For a long time, California Democrats who ascended to offices that could have been springboards for president or vice president battled the perception that their state was too left, too wacky or too out of step. Until last year, no Democrat from California had even run for president since 1992 — Jerry Brown, then still referred to as Governor Moonbeam, in his third attempt.
Last January, when Mr. Brown completed his fourth term as governor and handed over the reins to Gavin Newsom, it was the first Democrat-to-Democrat transition in the State Capitol in modern times.
The political histories of Ms. Harris and Mr. Newsom — whose own presidential hopes may be derailed by a Biden-Harris victory — are closely entwined. Both emerged from the longtime power base of the state’s Democratic Party and its one political machine, San Francisco. Both got their start as protégés of Willie Brown, the powerful Assembly speaker and then San Francisco mayor. Both won their first citywide elections in 2003, Newsom as mayor, Harris as district attorney, in contests where they ran as centrists and defeated more liberal opponents. Both won statewide in 2010.
California is like the elephant in the parable about the blind men who each touch a different part — trunk, ear, tusk, leg — and describe an entirely different animal. You can look at skid row encampments and agricultural towns where a million people lack drinking water, or you can look at gleaming Silicon Valley campuses and multimillion-dollar Brentwood mansions. You can look at the majesty of the sparsely populated Sierra Nevada or the urban sprawl of Los Angeles County, with 88 cities and a population larger than those of 41 states. You can look at school districts in Oakland and Los Angeles that are slashing police budgets, or Central Valley “sanctuary” cities that are defying state orders by reopening all businesses despite the pandemic. You can look at the overwhelming victory of moderate Senator Dianne Feinstein over the party’s progressive choice, or you can look at San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin, who embraced the term “radical” and defeated the establishment choice by promising to end mass incarceration.
In Ms. Harris, some people see a hard-line prosecutor who defended rogue law enforcement officials and passed up opportunities to push for criminal justice reform; others see a pathbreaking crusader for racial equity who sponsored federal legislation to reform money bail. Some see a calculating campaigner whose team was ready to sell T-shirts with her photo and the tagline “That Little Girl Was Me” after an ostensibly spontaneous moment in a presidential debate; others see an unscripted, vibrant fun-lover who likes to cook, shop and dance. Some see an overly cautious law enforcement official who failed to lead and shifted positions along with shifts in polls; others see a pragmatic politician whose views evolved as times changed.
She is all those things.
Perhaps it is no longer risky to have a Californian on the Democratic ticket, either because the rest of the country has become more like the Golden State or because geography is less relevant in political destiny. Perhaps the image that Ms. Harris has succeeded in projecting is such a tabula rasa that her home state is really beside the point. She and California can be whatever you want them to be, and that might make her a quintessential Californian.