Kamala Harris, Protecting and Serving the 99 Percent
California Attorney General Kamala Harris scored a huge victory on July 2 when the State Legislature passed the Homeowner Bill of Rights. The law, which never would have passed without Harris's urging, provides some of the strongest protections in the land to homeowners left vulnerable in the wake of the housing market collapse. Among other things, it bans the notorious “dual track” process by which banks move toward foreclosure while simultaneously renegotiating home loans, and it streamlines the process by which homeowners deal with lenders, providing a single point of contact at the bank.
When it comes to defending ordinary Americans from the banks that wreaked so much havoc during the housing bubble, Harris is on a roll. The Homeowner Bill of Rights was the result of more than two months of hearings and debate during which Harris and her staff relentlessly pushed state legislators to support the measure. It complements the $25 billion national mortgage settlement the "big five" banks agreed to in February, which will bring relief to millions of homeowners who suffered from the banks’ misdeeds. The landmark deal would likely have been severely weakened or killed if Harris had not led more than a year of brass-knuckle negotiations.
Harris’s success rests in part on her insistence that the housing bust was criminal in nature. She has redefined what was at first seen as an impersonal economic disaster, persuading law enforcement organizations and lawmakers that the crash was the product of deliberate choices and stupendously widespread white-collar crime. Her work on the housing crisis has revealed something more essential about her. Young, charismatic and rooted in the ideals of the civil rights movement, Harris is the first woman and the first ethnic minority of either gender to be elected as California’s top law enforcement officer. She says she wants to bring the “passion of the streets to the courtroom.” That she has turned this aspiration into reality has made her a rising star in the Democratic Party.
Harris was elected attorney general in 2010 after beating Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley in a close race. During her first year in office, she became a vocal participant in the complex national mortgage settlement negotiations, teaming up with New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, Delaware’s Beau Biden and a handful of others to persuade federal negotiators to strengthen their positions with the big five banks.
Schneiderman, recently dubbed “the man the banks fear most” by The American Prospect, pulled out of the talks in August 2011 to pursue an independent investigation that, he believed, would yield better results for homeowners (he ultimately signed on to the deal, along with forty-eight other state AGs). After Schneiderman left, it was Harris, undoubtedly the woman the banks fear most, who pushed the hardest, and the most successfully, for an expanded settlement. She wanted more money for her state—not just a ballpark estimate but a guaranteed minimum of $12 billion. She wanted homeowners who got settlement money to retain the right to sue banks. And she wanted her investigative team to retain the power to go after banks in California courts in years to come.
Last September, Harris flew to Washington to meet with the banks' chief counsels, as well as a slew of top Wall Street attorneys and a few other state attorneys general, in the plush offices of the Debevoise & Plimpton law firm. She had been asked to the meeting to address concerns she had raised in larger meetings with federal and state officials.
According to people at the meeting, the negotiators across the table regarded Harris as young and inexperienced (she was 46); they figured she’d be a pushover. The banks tried to bully her into accepting their terms, including their wholesale release from liability. “It was a pretty contentious meeting,” one participant recalled. “There was some yelling from the bankers’ side of the table.” After forty-five minutes, Harris told the banks she wasn’t budging, and the gathering broke up.
On September 30, dissatisfied with the banks’ reticence on improving their terms, she sent a letter to Thomas Perrelli, US associate attorney general, and to Tom Miller, Iowa attorney general, who was coordinating state-level responses during the negotiations. “With 2.2 million California homeowners underwater on their mortgages—and a troubling surge in foreclosures in my state over the last two months—I am writing to communicate my decision that my office will now devote its resources to establishing an independent path forward to resolution,” she wrote.
Within a short period Harris’s office had assembled a crack task force of approximately fifty attorneys and investigators to look into banking industry malfeasance. She began convening conference calls at all hours of the day and night—some participants recall 4 AM strategy sessions—and playing all the angles in her office’s dealings with the banks.
By preparing to move forward with or without federal blessing, Harris made herself a nuisance to the feds and to the many state attorneys general looking for a quick and easy settlement. Ultimately the Justice Department’s negotiators urged the banks to accede to her demands so that California would not walk out of the talks, a move that would have caused the entire agreement to disintegrate.
“They didn’t believe she would stick to her guns,” recalls Michael Troncoso, Harris’s senior counsel and principal policy adviser. They thought that if they offered her a few symbolic carrots she would be satisfied. But she wasn’t interested in cover.” The negotiations, he continued, became a matter of “fist and knuckle, tooth and nail. It was brutal.” In the six months of ever more intense negotiations that followed that meeting, Harris didn’t blink. Several times her team was convinced the negotiations would collapse.
The banks finally caved in February, giving in to almost all Harris’s demands. Her playing hardball secured about $18 billion in relief for California homeowners, many times the initial offer and a larger amount than the baseline guarantees she had been seeking months earlier. The deal created a framework for carefully delineated reductions in the mortgage principal owed by underwater borrowers—a template applied to homeowners in Nevada and Florida, two other particularly hard-hit states. And, crucially, it resulted in a settlement that reserved for California and other states the right to launch their own investigations, to set up their own legal claims against the banks and to push for state regulations regarding the foreclosure process.
Most consumer advocates lauded the deal for forcing the banks to pony up a significant amount of cash, ending abusive practices like “robo-signing” foreclosures without proper review, and improving accountability and enforcement in the mortgage lending industry. But six months after the deal was signed, the banks are dragging their feet on distributing relief. And more than a dozen states are attempting to raid the funds; in California, Governor Jerry Brown has raised alarms by proposing to divert $392 million in settlement money to help plug his budget gap.
But for all its flaws, the settlement remains a historic achievement, a significant step toward economic stability and recovery—and a very good deal for California, which ended up with far better terms than most other states.
Harris is frequently compared to Barack Obama. As she told a women’s leadership luncheon in Sacramento in early June, it is a comparison that “humbles” her. But it’s not farfetched.
Like the president, Harris was raised against the backdrop of the 1960s, and her politics are rooted in the civil rights movement. When she was a child in Berkeley, her parents took her and her sister, Maya, to protests and nudged them to view the world through a social justice lens. “Don’t follow the pack if the pack is going in the wrong direction,” she remembers them teaching her.
“There were very high standards and expectations” in their household, she recalls. The kids were enrolled in music, dance, art and pottery classes. Kamala learned the piano and French horn, dabbled in ballet, sang in a choir. She and Maya were taught gourmet cooking. “At the dining table, we were expected to not engage in baby talk—say what you mean and defend what you say.” Kamala’s mother, a breast cancer specialist, taught her always to challenge the status quo. “Everything can be improved upon” was the lesson the young girl took to heart. “Question the premise and test it.”
Kamala traveled the world as a child: she visited her grandparents in Zambia (her grandfather was a United Nations worker), flew to London en route to India, spent time in Jamaica. She’d tell her teachers about the places she’d been and the wildlife she’d seen—and they’d report to her mother that she had an incredible imagination, not realizing she was simply telling the story of her young life.
From the time her uncle introduced her to chess when she was 8, Kamala was a fan of the game, thinking about strategy, trying to work out her opponent’s next moves. “It’s one of the most valuable tools helping you to think in multiple dimensions,” she explains.
Perhaps that analytical eye, combined with her immersion in social justice issues as a child, is what pushed her toward law as a career. Her pantheon of legal-world heroes came to include such civil rights icons as Thurgood Marshall and Thelton Henderson.
For the young Harris, there was no disconnect between her progressive politics and her love of prosecutorial law. In many ways, her vision of what a prosecutor is, or should be, was molded by her understanding of the power of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division to enforce desegregation and equal access to the ballot box during the Great Society years. “Giving voice to the often voiceless and the vulnerable,” she says, seemed “a noble pursuit.” But as she learned when she turned to the electoral arena in the early 2000s—her mentor was Jim Rivaldo, who had cut his teeth as gay rights activist Harvey Milk’s campaign manager—there’s a big difference between “having a plan to end world hunger and actually ending world hunger.”
Also like the president, Harris has made a point of building bipartisan alliances to achieve her goals. This approach led her to forge some improbable partnerships early in her career, when she spearheaded efforts to expand community courts, crack down on truancy in elementary schools, re-engage young drug offenders in education and job training, and look at teenage prostitutes as victims rather than criminals.
As San Francisco DA, she would meet with conservative groups like the Bohemian Grove to persuade local businessmen to back her rehabilitation strategies for young low-level drug offenders. “You look at cost, economic impact, impact on social services, public health, the education system,” she would explain. The strategy was effective, helping to spur investment in alternatives to prison and jail. Harris presided over a startling reduction in recidivism in San Francisco: for the young people who went through her programs, she says, the return-to-crime rate decreased from 54 percent to 10 percent.
Though she has pushed for a softer, smarter approach to nonviolent crime, she has brought down the full force of the law on violent offenders, transnational gangs and cross-border smuggling. This, she hopes, establishes her bona fides when she talks reform to conservative audiences.
“She can’t just talk a good game,” explains her close friend State Senator Mark Leno. “She has to really prove to those who doubted her that she means what she says and is fully committed to public safety.”
Standing at the podium in a large hall at the Fresno Convention Center, carefully coiffed and wearing a black pantsuit, white blouse, heels and a pearl necklace, Harris smiles. It isn’t a smile contrived for the cameras but a wide, teeth-flashing, from-the-heart grin.
It is mid-May, and Harris is giving out awards to a crowd of Central Valley cops for services rendered—to an officer who set up a task force to crack down on car theft, to another working on anti-gang interventions and so on. Although she is an unabashed liberal in one of the most conservative parts of the state, one of the only women in a room filled with big burly men, she is clearly in her element. She jokes with the officers, laughs out loud, rocks back on her heels, hugs them warmly as she passes out certificates and poses for photographs.
After the event, Harris holds a press conference to push for the proposed Homeowners’ Bill of Rights. To build up her political armor, and to get around the many state legislators who are notoriously reluctant to bite the banking hands that feed them, Harris has been courting support wherever, and however, she can. In Fresno, she has assembled a small army of police chiefs to help her defend the bill.
One police chief after another gets up to warn about the dangers of letting foreclosures accumulate to the level of neighborhood blight; abandoned properties, they argue, can turn into drug houses, gang havens or indoor marijuana grow sites.
A few days later, Harris is using another platform to push the bill. This time she is addressing young military people at sprawling Travis Air Force Base outside Fairfield, home to the nation’s largest midair refueling fleet. Gen. David Petraeus’s wife, Holly, is on hand to discuss the ways military families will benefit from the bill.
The hard work pays off on July 2, when the Homeowners’ Bill of Rights passes by wide margins in both houses.
Harris's tough stance on the housing crisis complements a broader, and similarly ambitious, strategy to improve public safety for Californians. In an era of budget cuts, Governor Brown has proposed a fundamental shift in California’s criminal justice priorities, moving lower-level offenders from state prisons to county jails, and pushing for a wholesale re-examination of who goes to prison and why. Many in law enforcement view the strategy, called “realignment,” with suspicion. It is Harris’s job to sell them on the changes and to convince them that they won’t result in a spike in crime. She has barnstormed the state holding “zone meetings” for local DAs and law enforcement personnel.
Harris often cites arguments she made in her 2009 book Smart on Crime: A Career Prosecutor’s Plan to Make Us Safer, urging her audiences to consider a holistic approach to crime prevention and to measure success by outcomes instead of by a preconceived set of “tough on crime” beliefs. “As a prosecutor, since I see my job as creating a safer community,” Harris wrote, “I need to look at all the factors interfering with that. If I see that we can’t lower recidivism unless we teach job skills to offenders re-entering our communities, well, I need to figure out how our system can teach job skills. It’s not enough to say, ‘Sorry, I am a D.A., so I’m just in the charge and convict business.’”
Harris believes she can streamline the criminal justice system—to use incarceration more selectively and to push more cost-effective alternatives as part of a long-term strategy to reduce the size of California’s prison system. But she’s under no illusions that it can be accomplished in one go. “To change criminal justice policy in any meaningful way means to propose changing a very longstanding system,” Harris declares. “It’s not realistic to think you can do it overnight.”
California faces enormous challenges in the months and years ahead. But, Harris says, “we cannot be so overwhelmed by the enormity of our problems that we just throw up our hands instead of rolling up our sleeves.”
If the stars align for the young attorney general—if the Homeowner Bill of Rights brings relief to a large number of Californians; if Jerry Brown manages to stabilize the budget without resorting to raids on her prized settlement fund; if California’s infrastructure doesn’t implode; if a proposed tax initiative passes in November—Harris will be in a strong position heading into the next governor’s race. Tough as nails yet sunny in disposition, a fierce negotiator who knows how to deliver the goods, she could very well emerge as the "morning in California" candidate Democrats turn to in the post-Brown years.
At times, Harris fantasizes about an alternative life in which she owns a little food stand on the beach. In her fantasy, she cooks whenever she feels like it—she served her 2010 campaign team Jamaican curried chicken to celebrate the victory, but they had to wait until she found a free evening, in 2012—and swims in the Caribbean.
But in the real world, she won’t give up her career anytime soon. Does she plan to seek higher office, either in California or DC? Consummate politician that she is, Harris isn’t saying. “I love my job,” she says, and flashes her epic smile. “I’ve had the good fortune and blessing to run for the offices for which I really wanted to do the work. I’m the chief law enforcement officer for the biggest state in our country. It’s one of the most significant elected offices in this country. I’m one of the luckiest people on earth.”
Editor's note: An earlier version of this article misrepresented the Center for Responsible Lending's position on the national mortgage settlement. The CLR was critical of the financial remediation framework laid out by the Fed and the OCC, not the national mortgage settlement.