Elections

Whither Kamala Harris? A Failed-State Senator’s Failing Campaign

Sen. Kamala Harris speaks at the 2019 National Forum on Wages and Working People in Las Vegas, Nev., April 27, 2019. (Gage Skidmore)
Her ambitious rise and ignominious fall mirror California’s trajectory.

The junior senator from California, Kamala Harris, is laying off dozens of campaign staffers and redirecting most of her dwindling resources to Iowa. In recent polls, Harris has cratered to just 3 percent, falling behind Hawaii congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard. Harris memorably slighted Gabbard after a July debate. “I’m obviously a top-tier candidate,” she explained. “There are a lot of people that are trying to make the stage for the next debate. . . . Especially when some people are at zero or 1 percent, whatever she [Gabbard] might be at.”

Now it’s obvious that Harris is not a top-tier candidate. Gabbard had attacked Harris for laughing at the idea of smoking marijuana herself, while compiling a record as a draconian drug warrior and a dodgy prosecutor willing to do what’s unjust if it advanced her political career. The attack is effective as a symbol of Harris’s hypocrisy and opportunism, and it points to the fundamentally dysfunctional political culture of California: The rules are applied vengefully to the peons, the rules are rewritten or ignored for the privileged.

California is one of the most unequal states in our society. California has more superrich than anywhere else in the country. It also has one of the highest poverty rates. There, the rich are indulged, protected, and cosseted, while the poor are punished, humiliated, and cast into chaos. The parts of the middle class that haven’t fled the Golden State for Boulder, Colo., Austin, Texas, Nashville, Tenn., Columbus, Ohio, or Atlanta are now subjected to semi-regular preemptive power outages. Which means school closings, lost days at work, and spoilage at grocers and restaurants.

What strikes most visitors to Los Angeles and San Francisco these days is the obscene wealth and squalor in close proximity: billion-dollar work campuses at one edge, but human feces in the old neighborhoods. California’s infrastructure is among the worst in the nation, despite the fact that the state could be counted as one of the five largest economies in the world. The infrastructure that has been built out in recent years has mostly served the tech giants in Silicon Valley. It has connected the enclaves of the superrich and facilitated their travel. California is leading the country in building new lanes for high-occupancy vehicles and those willing to pay a toll for reduced travel time. Even the highways can be made to resemble gated communities.

Harris’s life and success has mirrored the growth and success of the Bay Area. She was born in Oakland in the 1960s, when much of California was considered a middle-class paradise. Her career in the San Francisco district attorney’s office and her political relationships within the California Democratic regime were built when the city was still on an upward trajectory due to the influx of the tech industry. She was part of the social scene with Willie Brown; she ate dinners at the legendary Stars restaurant.

But something ugly has grown alongside this ambitious region. A recent San Francisco Chronicle article surveyed a long-established social-media group of locals about the changes in the past decade. “‘More poop on the sidewalks,’ ‘the homeless sleeping all over the place,’ ‘tech companies have ruined the city,’” respondents said over and over again. Rents have been surging endlessly for nearly a decade.

And the Democratic political class that the state produces is singularly ill-equipped to address the yawning social problems of homelessness, unaffordability, congestion, declining quality of life, and now environmental rationing, blackouts, and seemingly untamable wildfires. Instead California’s legislature is busying itself with culture-war items. Charter schools are being attacked. De jure and de facto drug decriminalization is coinciding with a massive surge of drug overdoses. Anti-anti-vax legislation is top of mind. But the institutional sclerosis leading to homelessness and power outages is simply tolerated. Like her state’s political culture, Harris has lately tried to adopt a “woke” persona that belies her actual record of accomplishment.

California’s dysfunction is tolerated only because the system has been rigged to insulate the richest stakeholders from the worst costs of it. With one hand, California creates disorder through misgovernance, and then with the other it creates more gated communities, protected in an authoritarian manner. Kamala Harris’s campaign began to implode almost the moment her pretenses and self-image were directly challenged. And the moment that Silicon Valley stops being a gusher of money for Sacramento, the California model will crater as well.

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