Who is Kamala Harris? Meet the California Democrat running for president

California Sen. Kamala Harris questions Judge Brett Kavanaugh in September 2018. Associated Press file photo
California Sen. Kamala Harris questions Judge Brett Kavanaugh in September 2018. Associated Press file photo

Democratic U.S. Senator and 2020 presidential candidate Kamala Harris is relatively new on the national scene, though she's quickly become recognized for her tough questioning of Trump administration appointees in Senate hearings.

But the majority of voters across the country are just beginning to know the 54-year-old former prosecutor from California. What about her background, how do you pronounce her first name — it’s ‘Comma-luh’ — her education, prior career and stances on vital issues?  

PolitiFact California examined some key facts about Harris to fill in her biography:

Born in Oakland

Harris was born in Oakland in 1964, the daughter of an immigrant mother from India, Shyamala Gopalan Harris, and an immigrant father from Jamaica, Donald Harris. She has one sister, Maya Harris, who is 51.

Her first name gets butchered by some national news anchors and pundits. Harris’ U.S. Senate campaign produced this video in 2016 to help people say her name, which is derived from Sanskrit.

She would be the first African-American woman and first person of Indian descent to be a major-party nominee for president if she secures the Democratic nomination.

"I grew up going to a black Baptist Church and a Hindu temple," Harris told the Los Angeles Times in 2015.

She also told the paper she grew up in a black middle-class neighborhood in Berkeley, where her parents would often join civil rights protests. Her campaign website describes Harris as having "a stroller-eye view of the Civil Rights movement."

Move to Canada

Harris’ parents separated when she was five. When she was about 12, she moved with her mother and sister to Montreal, Canada for several years after her mother took a research position at the Jewish General Hospital and a teaching role at McGill University, according to articles by Vox and the Los Angeles Times.

The senator's mother died in 2009. Her father remains an emeritus professor at Stanford University, following a career in which he also served as an economic consultant to the government of Jamaica and as an economic adviser to several of the country’s prime ministers.

PolitiFact National on Tuesday rated Pants On Fire a baseless claim saying Harris was not eligible to run for president, after the charge gained attention on Twitter. Jacob Wohl, described by media outlets as a "far-right conspiracy theorist," claimed that because Harris "was raised in Canada," and that her parents had not been legal residents prior to Harris’ birth, she couldn’t legally run.

Constitutional scholars shot that down, telling PolitiFact the only factor that matters is that Harris was born in the United States. The 14th Amendment, an 1898 Supreme Court decision and a 1952 statute make clear that anyone born in the United States is qualified to run for president.

Harris moved back to the United States after graduating from Westmount High School in Quebec in 1981, according to the Toronto Star.   

She enrolled at Howard University in Washington D.C. where she earned an undergraduate degree in Political Science and Economics and graduated in 1986. Harris received her law degree at the University of California at Hastings in San Francisco in 1989.

Law enforcement career

Harris started her career as a deputy district attorney in Alameda County, where she worked from 1990 to 1998, before joining the San Francisco City Attorney’s Office.

In 2003, she was elected to a four-year term as District Attorney of the City and County of San Francisco. Harris was re-elected in 2007, though she did not complete her full second term.

That’s because Harris in 2010 won a close race for California Attorney General, becoming the first African-American and first woman to serve in that office. She was re-elected in 2014.

She successfully ran for U.S. Senate in 2016, with a focus on civil rights, criminal justice reform, the environment, foreign policy and higher education. As a senator, Harris has introduced 73 bills and worked on a total of 453 bills. 

She serves on the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, the Select Committee on Intelligence, the Committee on the Judiciary, and the Committee on the Budget.

Positions on key issues?

Death penalty -- Harris is personally against the death penalty but promised California voters in her run for state attorney general that she would enforce it. That’s what she did in 2014 when Harris appealed what she described as a federal judge’s "flawed" decision that California’s enforcement of the death penalty was unconstitutional. In 2015, the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reveresed the ruling that had declared the state's death penalty unconstitutional.

Cash bail reform -- Harris opposes the practice of cash bail. In 2017, she introduced a bill which she co-sponsored with Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky encouraging states to reform or replace the practice. The bill is still pending.

President Trump’s border wall -- Harris has called Trump’s plans to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border a "vanity project." Speaking on The View in January as part of her book tour, Harris said: "I was a prosecutor for many years, including the attorney general of California. I specialized on transnational criminal organizations. That wall ain’t going to stop them. Let’s actually be honest about that."

Climate change -- Harris supports the Paris climate accord and criticized President Trump for his decision to withdraw the U.S. from it.  "It’s wrong for America to abdicate our responsibility to address this planetary crisis," she wrote in 2017.

Health care -- Harris has said health care will be top priority in her presidential campaign. She was among the first senators to back the "Medicare for All" bill by Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. The proposal would create a government-run health care system providing access to all Americans and ending private health insurance as it currently exists.

PolitiFact California will occasionally update this article with Harris’ position on other key issues. Is there a statement by Harris you would like us to fact-check? Email us at [email protected], or contact us on Twitter or Facebook.

PolitiFact California intern Sami Soto contributed research and writing to this report. 

Clarification: An earlier version of this article said Harris served two terms as San Francisco District Attorney. We have updated the article to clarify that she left her second term early after winning election as California Attorney General.