Democratic women had a lot to celebrate this weekend. With the formal entrance of California Senator Kamala Harris to the 2020 presidential race, it was official: Three of the top prospects are women. Although Senators Elizabeth Warren and Kirsten Gillibrand have merely said they’re exploring a run, both women drew big crowds on their first trip to Iowa, which holds its first-in-the-nation caucuses next February 3. (Hawaii Representative Tulsi Gabbard has also announced, but she has yet to hold a campaign event or confirm hiring staff.) Warren’s strong start led The Guardian’s Ben Jacobs to anoint her as the Iowa “frontrunner,” even as national polls show former vice president Joe Biden and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders in the lead.
Kamala Harris, at least temporarily, blew by Warren on Sunday, drawing a crowd of more than 20,000 to her hometown of Oakland, California, for her official announcement. To be fair, since neither Gillibrand nor Warren has declared, they have not yet invested the money or advance work into staging this kind of super-event. It wasn’t just the adoring crowds, though: I’ve been covering Harris for 16 years, since her first race for San Francisco district attorney in 2003, and I’ve never seen her so inspiring, quoting Frederick Douglass and Bobby Kennedy.
“When we have children in cages crying for their mothers and fathers, don’t you dare call it border security,” she declared mid-speech. “That’s a human-rights abuse and that’s not our America.” I don’t have a candidate; I hope to stay neutral in this thrilling and historic 2020 race at least until 2020—but Sunday was a great day for Democratic women, whoever you support.
Except when it wasn’t: The day began with the right wing buzzing over a supposed bombshell from former San Francisco mayor Willie Brown, “confirming” what has never been a secret, in his gadfly weekly column for the San Francisco Chronicle: that he dated Harris in the mid-1990s, when he was running for mayor. “Extramarital affair with Kamala Harris?” Fox News blared. “Former San Francisco Mayor, 84, admits it happened.” Townhall, RedState, WorldNetDaily, American Thinker and a host of other wingnut sites piled on, some more pervy than others (I won’t give them the traffic by linking). But mainstream outlets picked up the news, too. “Willie Brown on Kamala Harris: ‘We dated. I influenced her career,’” USA Today told us. NBC political reporter Jonathan Allen confessed on Twitter that “both Republicans & Democrats have whispered ‘Willie Brown’ to me in recent weeks when the subject of Harris’ run has come up. That’ll hurt her, they say.” Allen, correctly, went on to predict the whispers will “backfire” on Harris’s opponents. But the whispering—and shouting—is appalling, on so many levels.
For one thing, it shows the short memories and/or disturbing laziness of many political reporters: Brown can’t “admit” to anything that’s been well known in San Francisco political circles since it was going on, in the mid-1990s. Harris’s relationship with Brown came up frequently when she ran for DA in 2003. In fact, it was an enormous issue: She faced down charges that he’d helped her career—and he probably did; what successful pol hasn’t had help from someone powerful?—and given her two plum state-commission assignments. Worse than that were the lurid rumors about their relationship I heard “on background”—from other Democrats. It was sexist and appalling—the sex lives of California Democrats like Brown himself, and many of his contemporaries, burnished their legends. Harris’s romantic past was supposed to shame and sideline her. It sickened me, and I wrote that at the time. In the end, it was her own work in the San Francisco and Alameda County DA’s offices, not Brown’s “help,” that convinced voters to take a chance on Harris, and reject the aging progressive incumbent Terence Hallinan (who was himself accused of sexual harassment by several women while he served on the Board of Supervisors; he settled with one out of court).
Now, some are claiming that Harris is hiding her past with Brown; apparently, she didn’t mention him in her new book, The Truths We Hold: An American Journey. Newsflash: This happened almost a quarter-century ago. She was around 30. No one has an obligation to discuss the men they dated that long ago. Early in her career, she was open about it: She had to be. The night Brown was elected as mayor she shared the stage, and famously presented him with a baseball cap emblazoned “Da Mayor.” (You can easily find the photo on the Google.)
Others are taking a moralizing approach: Brown was “married,” so she conducted an extramarital affair. Newsflash: While living in the San Francisco Bay Area and even working under Speaker Willie Brown in the California State Assembly, it took me years to learn that the Democratic leader was still married. That’s because he was a notorious womanizer, who used to joke that his age, combined with his girlfriend’s, could never break 100 (at 84, he better have relaxed those rules, lest he break the law). He nonetheless remained close to his wife; he reportedly promised he would never divorce her. Still, the late, legendary columnist San Francisco columnist Herb Caen even predicted Brown and Harris would marry.
Brown’s decision to publicly confirm his relationship with Harris, on the day she declared her candidacy for president, seems churlish to me—but also a little bit sad, a sign that the once-most-powerful man in California feels sidelined and is seeking the limelight once again. But the notion that his “help” contributed significantly to Harris’s success is laughable. As a veteran San Francisco journalist told me Monday: “If all it took to make it in politics was dating Willie Brown, then every job in government would already be filled. It takes more than ambition, and clearly Harris has way more going for her than that.”
The saddest development on Sunday, though, was that a creepy cadre of Bernie Sanders fans blasted the news of Harris’s long-ago relationship all over the media. Happily, 2016 Sanders staffers like Melissa Byrne and Josh Orton quickly shut them down. But it showed that misogyny is a hell of a drug, on the left as well as on the right. Where Hillary Clinton, who began her political career in her 50s, was attacked for being too old, supposedly unattractive and enduring a cheating spouse, Harris, who began her career in her 30s, is now attacked for being young and glamorous and, for a while when she was single, dating a so-called cheating spouse.
Of course, her female Democratic rivals have their own troubles with sexism: Gillibrand is being bitterly (and absolutely unfairly) blamed for Senator Al Franken’s 2017 resignation, in the wake of eight charges that he touched women inappropriately, while Warren has had to endure comparisons with Hillary Clinton on the grounds that she is similarly “unlikable.” (So far, criticism of Tulsi Gabbard has stayed political, thankfully, focused on her support for Syrian dictator Bashar al Assad and her history of opposition to LGBT rights.) The most heartening development in this election cycle, though, is that the supporters of these Democratic female rivals are sticking together, vowing to have one another’s backs and beat back the sexists this time around. On Twitter Sunday afternoon I saw women who work for other candidates defending Harris passionately. That told me there will be millions of women working to blunt this attack on the California senator—even if they go on to vote for another woman, or even for a man.
Harris will face plenty of questions about her past, particularly from criminal-justice-reform advocates who question some of her decisions as both district attorney and attorney general. She has been criticized for moving too slowly against banks and mortgage lenders after the 2008 crash, and in particular, for failing to prosecute Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin for breaking foreclosure laws when he headed OneWest Bank. Those questions deserve a lengthy airing; this is not the time or place for that. If Democratic voters find her answers unsatisfying, and if other candidates strike a stronger chord with criminal-justice- and financial-reform advocates, Harris’s bid will fail. If she answers those questions with the passion and eloquence she showed in her kickoff speech, she could very well prevail.
Those are the issues that should dominate this race, not whom candidates dated a quarter-century ago. I trust every decent Democrat agrees and will act accordingly. I should note, as well: In the same column where he “admitted” their relationship, Willie Brown cast doubt on whether Harris could draw the kind of crowd in Oakland Barack Obama did in 2007, contrasting the former president’s “months of old-fashioned organizing” with what he dismissed as Harris’s use of “social media.” With that, the savvy pol showed he’s lost a step: Obama drew roughly 10,000 people to Oakland’s Frank Ogawa Plaza; police say Harris drew more than 20,000.