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.