It’s not that Californians like or dislike Kamala Harris. It’s that we don’t really know her.
The fact that she is an enigma is a little bit her fault—she has been cagey and cautious—but much more the fault of California itself.
It’s strange to say, but ours is a state where a politician run statewide campaigns three times in seven years—attorney general races in 2010 and 2014, and a U.S. Senate race in 2016—and still not be well-known. But ours is not a cohesive state—it’s a loose confederation of state-sized regions (albeit with an overly centralized budget and tax system in Sacramento) that don’t know each other all that well. In my travels around the state, I find that only in the Bay Area, where she served as San Francisco District Attorney, do people feel like they have a real sense of her.
The times have also worked against her. She won her 2010 election narrowly and dramatically, but that came in a year of very low turnouts in California. Her re-election in 2014 was similarly low turnout. And her 2016 race was a very low-wattage contest that turned into a runoff between two Democrats. She and her opponent debated once, for less than an hour.
Harris also was cautious. As attorney general, she took on no difficult or challenging or dramatic fight that galvanized attention across California. She is not particularly close to any well-known journalist who knows her story. The LA Times only recently did a personal profile piece of her college years.
She’s not the only enigma out there. Most statewide candidates have gotten even less attention and scrutiny than she has.
But what it means is that she is not only being introduced to the country as a presidential candidate. She’s also being introduced to her own state, and mild controversies—about her prosecutorial record, or about her truancy initiative as attorney general—are finally getting a real airing in California.
If she ends up being nominated and winning the presidency, we Californians won’t be able to say we knew her when. We’ll be saying we hardly knew her.