By Sunita Sohrabji
SAN FRANCISCO, Calif. – In a historic moment here Nov. 30, Kamala Harris declared victory in her bid to take over as California’s attorney general, becoming the first Indian American in the nation to attain that post.
With 100 percent of the precincts reporting, Harris was declared the victor by less than a single percentage point, garnering 4,434,275 votes — 46.1 percent — to beat her Republican rival, Los Angeles District Attorney Steve Cooley, who secured 4,361,392 votes — 45.3 percent.
The neck-and-neck race was finally called Nov. 24, 22 days after Election Day.
The hugely polarized race had Harris leading in some counties by as much as 40 points, and losing by double digit margins in other parts of the state (I-W, Nov. 12).
“I am humbled to have been chosen to be the next attorney general of California, to put the law on the side of the people,” said Harris at a press conference at the Delancey Street Foundation, a residential rehabilitation center for former drug addicts and ex-convicts, among others.
Harris is also the state’s first female attorney general and the first African American to ascend to the post. She is the daughter of breast cancer specialist Shyamala Gopalan of Tamil Nadu, and Stanford economics professor Donald Harris, both civil rights activists in the late 1960s.
“The Indian American community has been very supportive of my campaign, which is a great source of pride for me,” Harris told India-West following the press conference. She thanked the community for their support, and related the story of an aunt in Chennai, who was inundated by reporters there as her niece neared victory.
Harris also said she would “absolutely” look into the case of Trilochan Singh Oberoi, a former Indian naval officer who is being denied a job as a security guard at Folsom State Prison because he refuses to shave off his beard.
The California State Personnel Board ruled in favor of Oberoi on Nov. 10, 2008, but the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has refused to let him serve. Three weeks before the election, the Sikh Coalition launched a petition drive against Governor-elect Jerry Brown, who currently serves as the state’s attorney general, to get him to act on the matter. The attorney general’s office has defended the CDCR’s refusal to let Oberoi serve.
Harris said she would not offer an opinion in the matter until she had reviewed the case, but promised to look into the issue.
At the Nov. 30 press conference in San Francisco, and earlier that morning at the Millennium Biltmore Hotel in downtown Los Angeles, Harris announced her transition team, which will be led by former Los Angeles Police Chief Bill Bratton; former U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher, who served in President Bill Clinton’s administration and as chairman of the law firm O’Melveny and Myers; George Shultz, former secretary of state in President Ronald Reagan’s administration; and Constance (Connie) Rice, a civil rights activist who currently serves as co-director of The Advancement Project.
Rice, considered one of California’s most influential attorneys along with Christopher, has won several landmark civil rights cases in the state.
Addressing the issue of mortgage fraud will be among the highest priorities for her administration, said Harris. “These people are victims of the American dream, who have taken second jobs to pay off their mortgages and suddenly find themselves out of work and stripped of everything, including their dignity,” she said.
Harris also addressed the issue of recidivism, former prisoners re-entering the penal system. California has one of the highest rates of recidivism in the country, noted San Francisco’s district attorney, who will leave her current position Jan. 3, 2011, to move to Sacramento.
Harris also asserted that she would not “waste the state’s resources” by defending Proposition 8, a 2008 ballot measure defining marriage as a union only between a man and a woman. The measure, passed narrowly by voters, was declared unconstitutional in August by Judge Vaughan Walker of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.
The U.S. India Political Action Committee congratulated Harris on her win, in a statement released Nov. 29.
“Kamala Harris has shown tremendous passion for justice and public service, and her election is a testimony to her two decades of relentless service to the country’s judicial system,” said Sanjay Puri, chairman of USINPAC.
“I am sure it will further motivate the Indian American community to participate actively at all levels of government,” he added.