Originally Published October, 2017
Democrat Savior or Smooth Operator
Does Silicon Valley control U.S. Senator Kamala Harris?
The late-August temperature hits 100 degrees in Oakland, California as U.S. Senator Kamala Devi Harris throws a town-hall meeting at Beebe Memorial Cathedral. The unair-conditioned church is sweltering, but hundreds of Kamala fans flow into pews. They await the manifestation of the Democratic Party’s newest savior.
Reverend Charley Hames, Jr. introduces Harris as “the tireless advocate for the voiceless and powerless.” In the superheated press section of the balcony, network-television cameras pan the crowd rising for Harris. It’s as if she is the third coming of Barack Obama or the anti-Trump personified.
Wearing a black suit and necklace of pearls, Harris soaks up the adoration. She roams the stage with a wireless mic, preaching her gospel of how to dislodge the twittering misogynist lounging in the Oval Office: Vote for more Democrats!
Raised to power as a Democrat, Harris was narrowly elected district attorney of San Francisco in 2003. She won a close race for California attorney general in 2011. Last year, she grabbed the brass ring of senator with 61% of the vote. Her experience is as a law enforcer, not an arm-twisting, favor-dispensing legislator. But she is a born schmoozer; she looks you in the eye with a smile inquiring after your health. She is intelligent, articulate, and charismatic. Her campaign slogan is “fearless for the people,” and it is easy to believe.
At the top of the fight card is protecting the “Dreamers” who Trump has threatened to deport. Harris empathetically reminds us, as she often does, that she, too, is a woman of color, the daughter of a Jamaican economist and a scientist of East Indian ancestry. Her earliest memory is marching in the streets for civil rights alongside her parents. She has a mixture of protest and smarts encoded in her genes.
Plus, a colloquial sense of humor.
“We need a new word for trouble, Reverend” – she turns to Hames, laughing – “how about ‘hot mess’?” The crowd is angry, and Harris is on a roll: Will we continue to be governed by a science-denying, health care-killing, Jim Crow billionaire with his digit on the nuclear button? She unleashes the magic word that motivates liberals and terrifies conservatives: change!
Change a la Harris means defanging immigration laws, protecting transgender soldiers and marriage equality, terminating the failed war on drugs, creating tuition-free college programs, plugging oil-company tax loopholes, and chastising polluters. Harris talks about the bipartisanship of her bill to study the possibility of reforming the cash bail system, co-authored with Republican Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky. The audience clamors for more.
Breaking with the anti-universal health care position of California Senator Dianne Feinstein, Harris extolls Bernie Sanders’ “Medicare for All” legislation. Indeed, compared to Harris’ progressive-sounding rhetoric, Feinstein, 84, comes across as downright Republican. Hours before Harris’ event, “DiFi” stunned millions of liberals by saying that Donald Trump has the ability to be a “good president.” Harris disagrees and the crowd soaks it up.
Change is in the air as younger Californians are looking for alternatives to the politics of Feinstein, who is perceived as a pro-war Wall Street finagler.
In a much-criticized conflict of interest, companies owned by Feinstein’s husband, Richard C. Blum, sold more than a billion dollars in weapons and construction services to the U.S. military during the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. The contracts were vetted by a subcommittee chaired by Feinstein. In 2014, the inspector general of the United States Postal Service pilloried Blum’s realty firm, CBRE, for violating its contracts to privatize post offices. And last year, the federal government shuttered a largely Blum-owned, for-profit college corporation, ITT Education, for misuse of federal funds. The family business plan relied on leveraging taxpayer money.
As state attorney general, Harris closed down a similar for-profit college corporation, Corinthian Colleges. She negotiated a $20 billion homeowner payback by Wall Street banks who had gamed the foreclosure system. Unlike Feinstein, Harris owns few assets. Her husband, Douglas C. Emhoff, liquidated his stock portfolio in 2015 as she geared up for the senate race. That year, the couple paid $450,000 taxes on income of $1.7 million. Harris does not appear to care about money as much as she lusts for power.
Now that she has national power and the good will of millennials, will Harris deliver genuine change for the Trump-traumatized liberals? Is she shaping up to be a fearless president capable of fixing a fractured political system? Or will she morph into just another corporate-controlled politician trolling for campaign dollars in the Washington, D.C. swamp?
There are clues.
Do Black Lives Matter?
Beebe Memorial Cathedral is Christian Methodist Episcopal, a historically African-American denomination. Pastor Hames is African-American, as is most his congregation. But only a scattering of people of color attended Harris’ town-hall meeting. Aside from a handful of Oakland City officials sitting in the front row, nearly all of the audience was white folks, including Harris’ chief of staff, Nathan Barankin, and her husband Emhoff. Most of the audience were enthusiastic supporters of Indivisible, a national “grassroots” movement with more than 6,000 local branches.
Indivisible is dedicated to ousting Trump from office and electing “progressive” Democrats, i.e. politicians to the left of Feinstein. The fast-growing organization was created by the San Francisco-based Tides Foundation, which partners with Google and other undisclosed corporate donors. Tides pumps $150 million a year into organizations of a liberal, progressive bent; politically, it is the mirror opposite of the Koch Family Foundations.
The town hall was not attended by Beebe’s congregation, nor, obviously, by neighborhood folks. There were no hecklers, no MAGA hats, no Tea Party or Black Lives Matter or Code Pink protestors. During a short question and answer period after Harris’ speech, the softball, non-confrontational questions were asked by self-identified Indivisible members. Harris’ show was stage-managed, politically sterilized, and almost cultish.
Why were there practically no black people? Hames told me that he did not announce the meeting to his congregation and the event was held during working hours. The town hall was not advertised, except through social media to the press and Indivisible supporters.
Also to the point, Harris is not exactly a working-class hero.
As a career prosecutor, she was the gatekeeper to a prison system that is disproportionality composed of people of color. Prosecutors are not generally beloved of the poor and disenfranchised. For example, California’s Legislative Black Caucus has criticized Harris for failing to investigate police shootings and prosecutor misconduct. Judges have slammed Harris for “defending convictions obtained by local prosecutors who inserted a false confession into the transcript of a police interrogation, lied under oath and withheld crucial evidence from the defense,” according to a 2016 New York Times profile of Harris that found her leadership skills lacking.
Mary Ratcliff edits and publishes San Francisco Bay View, the “National Black Newspaper.” Ratcliff told me there is strong support in the black community for Harris’ bill to study reforming the cash bail system that penalizes poor people. But she took Harris to task for rejecting local demands to examine unprovoked police killings, including the slayings of Oscar Grant in Oakland, 13-year-old Andy Lopez in Santa Rosa, and Alejandro Nieto in San Francisco – all of whom were unarmed and nonthreatening.
Ratcliff fears that Harris is tone-deaf to the needs of the urban poor. “Here in Bayview Hunters Point, we have a wait and see attitude toward Kamala on issues of social and economic justice. Obama was a disappointment. We hope she is not also a leopard who changes her spots.”
Hames was more upbeat, “People in the black community generally like Kamala; there is not a great deal of distrust. She is seen as a smooth operator, like in the song.”
As a career prosecutor, Harris has consistently declined to ask for the death penalty, but she has gone to court to defend the practice of capital punishment against lawsuits calling for its abolition as cruel and unusual punishment. Conversely, Harris used her prosecutorial discretion to not defend the state against lawsuits calling for gay and lesbian marriage equality, which then became state law because she did not defend the statutes outlawing it.
Harris appeased conservatives by not challenging the practice of solitary confinement in state prisons. She was praised by liberals for replacing jail sentences with job diversion and educational services. She has publicly recognized the existence of racial profiling by police, but done little or nothing to alleviate it. She has highlighted the issue of children forced into sexual slavery, but proven ineffective at alleviating it.
No politician can please all constituencies. The primary focus of most policymakers is on attracting at least one more vote than the opponent come election time. And that requires ballet dancing through a minefield of explosive emotions.
Neurobiologists and campaign consultants know that we vote with our guts, not our brains.
Tapping into worries about personal security works best for rallying voters to a conservative brand. Sewing up holes in social-services nets attracts liberals.
According to a famous study published in Nature, “U.S. conservatives may not seem to have much in common with Iraqi or Italian conservatives, but … political ideology can be narrowed down to one basic personality trait: openness to change. Liberals tend to be more accepting of social change than conservatives. [They] tolerate more ambiguity and uncertainty, whereas conservatives are more decisive, conscientious and attracted to order.”
And so Harris’ media avatar has been designed by the professionals.
Averell “Ace” Smith learned the art of politicking from his dad, Arlo Smith, a four-term San Francisco district attorney. Known as “Doctor Death,” Smith the younger is a feared opposition researcher. But he has a soft spot for Harris. For her senate campaign, Smith’s consulting firm, SCN Strategies, packaged Harris as a tough, yet compassionate career prosecutor. She was exhaustively imaged as a woman of color who loves children and joneses on civil rights.
One can imagine Smith ticking off items on a checklist…
A year before her senatorial campaign rolled out its first videos, Harris, a lifelong singleton, married Emhoff, who has two children from a previous marriage….CHECK!
Harris’ advertisements featured child actors of color strolling hand in hand with the beaming career prosecutor through the halls of justice. Politicians kiss babies for a reason….CHECK!
A central theme of the Harris-for-Senate campaign was her championing of children abused by sexual predators via online sites such as Craigslist and Backpage. A few weeks before the election, Harris arrested the white male owners of Backpage and their mugs reverberated around the globe….CHECK!
However, Harris’ legally flawed case against Backpage was dismissed by a judge on the basis that the First Amendment can be construed as protecting websites from prosecution for crimes committed by third parties. Harris’ successor as attorney general, Xavier Becerra, subsequently charged the Backpage owners with money laundering – a charge that is more likely to stick…..HALF CHECK!
Harris’ media spots bragged about how the compassionate but tough career prosecutor harassed Big Oil, Big Banks, and transnational gangs while working on behalf of battered women. And it is true that Harris negotiated a better-than-average subprime-mortgage settlement from Wall Street banks; she indicted off-shore oil polluters; she sent batterers to prison; she targeted drug lords.
But, said kvetches to her left, Harris failed to criminally prosecute the bankers who had ripped off homeowners; the cash settlement was a sliver of the illegally begotten profits. Investigative-news website Intercept revealed that against the advice of her legal staff, Harris decided not to sue OneWest Bank, a foreclosure mill operated by Steven Mnuchin, who is now Secretary of the Treasury. Pundits ballyhooed the fact that Mnuchin, a Republican, contributed $2,000 to Harris’ campaign, the only Democrat he so blessed. And after reporters discovered that state auditors had repeatedly dinged Harris for exhibiting laxity enforcing gun-control laws, critics insinuated that she had pandered to the National Rifle Association, which might be true, but is hardly an unusual maneuver for a politician. Just look at Bernie Sanders!
Thus, the bottom of the barrel of paranoid politics was repeatedly scraped.
Harris emerged as a liberal, but not very progressive winner who is probable presidential material in an age when most politicians are viewed as controlled by special interests. Like Trump, Harris is a magnet for love or hate trolling by the denizens of our bipolar political system. The main goal of campaigning in the age of social-media tagging is to be perceived by emotionally labile voters as the lesser evil.
As Harris’ star gains national shine, the progressive Indivisible types will continue to sing her praises. Conservative media are already on the march to besmirch her.
In July, the conservative American Spectator labeled Harris “a left-wing dingbat of singular rudeness … a clawing feline … vapid and dim … feminist whining … culturally degenerate.” But in an interesting twist, Jerry Roberts, a veteran California newsman of the liberal variety, wrote that Harris is “a shallow narcissist” who looks in the mirror and sees a president. Proof: she avoids reporters. In truth, Harris has very little to gain from stepping into the national searchlight at this stage of her political career. She might be seen as too smooth.
Can You Spare a Fiver?
Harris’ high-tech $15 million senate campaign smothered conservative congressperson Loretta Sanchez’s $4.5 million fizzle. Harris’ marketing was designed by Revolution Messaging and ActBlue, the same imagery and fundraising wizards who guided Bernie Sander’s race. Targeted e-mails flew out of Revolution’s server farms like virtual hordes of perseverating, flying monkeys homing in on my ruby slippers.
On Thanksgiving Day a year before the election, Kamala e-mailed me her recipe for corn bread dressing and requested $5 or more. In February, she rhapsodized about traipsing the black housing projects in Iowa, canvassing for Obama in 2008, and could I spare $5? E-mails addressed personally to me from Kamala praised her fight to make Congress stop child sex trafficking on the Internet, and could I give $5 or more to the struggle? Every day, I learned again about her family’s ancestral and civil-rights background and her knowledge of hip hop and Obama, Obama, Obama, he likes Kamala. How about $5?
One day, Kamala’s husband asked me for $5 or more. At the time, Emhoff was a managing partner at Venable LLP, whose core clients include Microsoft, ExxonMobil, Playboy Enterprises, Apple, Verizon, and trade associations that lobby Congress against Internet regulations. According to money-in-politics data website OpenSecrets, Google’s parent corporation Alphabet paid Venable $80,000 to lobby lawmakers on its behalf last year. Venable rakes in about $10 million a year lobbying lawmakers on behalf of scores of companies ranging from Native American tribes (gambling) to Oracle (government software) to Lockheed Martin (aerospace, weapons, parking meters) to Altria Group (tobacco). Last month, Emhoff joined the international DLA Piper law firm to represent digital media and Internet technology clients.
Potential conflicts of interest?
As if reading my mind, Kamala reassured me in a campaign e-mail, “We’re not powered by special interests or corporations,” and asked me for $26.
Our relationship ended abruptly when I clicked on “Questions for Kamala” and my foreign-policy query could not be delivered unless I ponied up as much as $2,700. Spam filter: activated.
No doubt, some donors got face time with the actual Kamala. Public records show that multibillionaire San Francisco socialite Gordon Getty and his family members each maxed out with $5,400 contributions to her campaign committee. But the major action was happening over at Harris’ “independent, non-controlled” Victory Fund, into which socialites, Internet barons, and Hollywooders dumped cash…
The Swigs (real estate), the Schwabs (banking), the Shorensteins (real estate), and the Bowes (Hula-Hoop) collectively ponied up $100,000. Facebook’s first president Sean Parker and his wife plunked down $40,000. Lobbyist Darius Anderson and his spouse, $20,000; likewise, Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff and his wife donated. Actor Sean Penn dropped $10,000, as did Russian oligarch Leonard Blavatnik. Google’s political action committee (PAC) and its CEO Eric Schmidt each paid $10,000 to be players.
According to OpenSecrets, only one in five of Harris’ contributors donated less than $200. Most was contributed by large donors who could afford to pay the limit of $5,400 to the official campaign, plus multiples of that into the “unrelated” Victory Fund. Special interests seeking influence with politicians typically circumvent donation limits by bundling contributions. Lawyers for Harris led the pack, collectively donating $2.2 million. Employees of Internet giant Time Warner, a Venable client, gave Harris the most money, $128,000. Venable itself ranked second with more than $105,000 in employee donations, followed closely by ultra-conservative media mogul Rupert Murdoch’s 21st Century Fox. Alphabet ranked fifth, investing $86,000 in the senator-to-be.
The flood of billionaires’ money flowed out as fast as the checks were cashed. Harris’ lifestyle on the campaign trail was nothing less than epicurean – no stays at Motel 6 for Kamala. In 2015, the campaign reportedly spent $18,000 for her overnights at the St. Regis in Washington, D.C., the Waldorf Astoria in New York, the Four Seasons in Boston, and the opulent W Hotel in Los Angeles. Which is weird since she was supposedly campaigning in California. Harris reportedly flew first class and was chauffeured through the inner cities in limousines. And she kept a stable of expensive lawyers happy. In 2016, the Harris campaign paid $85,000 to the national Democratic Party’s go-to law firm, Perkins Coie. The firm’s clients include Microsoft, Amazon, Google, Facebook, Twitter, and other social-media companies.
And here is where we find a crack in Harris’ narrative.
Wending its way through the Senate is a bipartisan bill to criminalize enablers of Internet child sex trafficking. Proposed by Ohio Republican Rob Portman in early August, it has garnered 35 co-sponsors. But Harris is not one of them.
The Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act ends legal protections for the owners of websites who knowingly service sexual predators. It authorizes federal and state law enforcers to arrest and prosecute owners of websites who facilitate illegal sex trafficking, such as the owners of Backpage who stand accused. Backpage was a target of a two-year congressional investigation from which Portman’s bill emerged.
But Google and 10 Internet trade groups representing the Internet’s biggest players – including Microsoft, Facebook, Reddit, PayPal, Airbnb, and Amazon – are waging a lobbying war against the legislation. Silicon Valley believes the bill will expose Internet providers to lawsuits and criminal charges. The social-media giants claim that the bill violates their Constitutional right to free speech. And it is not their responsibility to censor unlawful content posted by their customers.
In 2013, Harris joined 50 state attorney generals in demanding that Congress outlaw online child sex trafficking. And whether or not you believe the bipartisan legislation is drafted narrowly enough to only apply to websites that facilitate trafficking children and sex slaves, a major theme of Harris’ political career has been changing the law to allow the prosecution of websites connecting child molesters with enslaved children.
That quest now seems to be moot.
Could it be because her campaign-funding machine is anchored in Silicon Valley? Is Kamala Harris really fearless? Is she for the people? Or is she a sad, empty hologram of liberal hopes enthralled to algorithms beyond her control?
Harris did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Kamala as the Democrat Front-Runner
As we go to press, Kamala Harris is currently the most likely candidate out of the possible 2020 Democratic presidential nominees, according to online political-betting market PredictIt.
She comes in above Vermont Senator and former presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, former Vice President Joe Biden, and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren. (Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is eighth on the list, so take these early results with some generous liberal wishful thinking.)
Boosting Kamala’s potential campaign as “the new new thing” is a date change to California’s Democratic primary… Moved up from June to March. California will now be one of the first states to vote for presidential nominees – after Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina.