Sexism shadowed Kamala Harris' rise to power. It's an experience that could prepare her well for future campaign battles against Trump.

  • Californians first met Kamala Harris in splashy newspaper stories that zeroed in on her clothes, personality, and boyfriend. It wasn't the first time she'd be treated to sexist media coverage.
  • The times have changed, and the nationwide reckoning with the treatment of women may shield the Democratic senator a bit, but those early experiences could prepare Harris well for the scrutiny she would face if she's picked to be Joe Biden's running mate in a no-holds-barred fight with President Donald Trump.
  • Insider interviewed 10 people in Harris' orbit — including journalists who covered her, her former colleagues, and California Democratic insiders — who view the early reporting on her political career as regrettable. 
  • "I do think women candidates have always been treated differently than men candidates, and I think that's true today," Louise Renne, a former San Francisco city attorney who was Harris' boss, said. "But Kamala never let it stop her, and she persevered." 
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

Californians met Kamala Harris more than a quarter century ago through splashy newspaper stories that zeroed in on her clothes, personality, and boyfriend. Political opponents didn't mince words either, targeting the aspiring politician with all manner of sexist attacks based off her relationships.

Though times have changed, and the nationwide reckoning with the treatment of women may shield the Democratic senator a bit, those early experiences could prepare Harris well for the scrutiny she would face if she's picked to join a no-holds-barred fight for the White House with a rival who labeled his last opponent a "nasty woman."

For Harris, one of the first times San Francisco's beloved Chronicle put her name in the newspaper came in a 1994 gossip column that described Clint Eastwood spilling champagne on her during a celebrity-packed birthday bash. The story dubbed Harris "the Speaker's new steady" because of her romantic relationship with Willie Brown, then the leader of the California State Assembly.

Harris' ties to Brown — he'd go on to become San Francisco's mayor — would shadow her a decade later during her first political campaign in 2003. That's when an alternative weekly published a cringeworthy sentence in a profile about the 38-year old prosecutor's aspiration to be the city's first female Black Asian American district attorney: "Harris is clearly striving to be her own person, to act independently of special interests, to negate the bimbo/sugar daddy imagery propagated by her opponents."

In light of the #MeToo movement, much of the language used to describe Harris throughout her early law-enforcement career appears sexist. Her love life, looks, and personality were all thoroughly dissected by columnists, political reporters, and some of her friends. Even President Barack Obama stepped into the morass in 2013, apologizing to Harris after calling her the "best-looking attorney general in the country." 

To better understand Harris' rise in California politics and how it shaped a career in which she's now a serious contender to square off against President Donald Trump as presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden's vice-presidential running mate, Insider interviewed 10 people in the Democratic senator's orbit, including journalists who covered her, her former colleagues, and Golden State party insiders. 

Many said they viewed the old press coverage as regrettable. 

"Was it fair? Probably not. Was the media sexist? Absolutely. Is it still sexist in many ways? Yes," Louise Renne, a former San Francisco city attorney who was Harris' boss, said. 

"I do think women candidates have always been treated differently than men candidates, and I think that's true today," Renne added. "But Kamala never let it stop her, and she persevered."

Coverage 'cut both ways' 

The same press attention may have helped boost Harris' name recognition and early political career. But it has dogged her ever since.

"To be honest, I think it cut both ways," said Joan Walsh, who profiled Harris for San Francisco magazine during Harris' 2003 bid to become the city's district attorney. Walsh, now a national-affairs correspondent for The Nation, wrote last year that she was embarrassed by her own coverage of Harris from the time. 

Walsh had described Harris in her original story as "black-eyed, raven-haired, latte-skinned" and played up her stylish clothes.

"Yikes. I apologize, to her and to all women everywhere," she wrote last year. 

In an email, Walsh said the early coverage of Harris in San Francisco media "certainly helped her entree with the city's monied elite, which boosted her chances to oust an incumbent DA." 

"On the other hand, it set a high bar for her to prove her smarts and fundamental seriousness," she said. "The sexism peddled by her opponents — on the right and left — shocked and disgusted me at the time."

'She's a woman, not a girl. And she's black.'

Much of the early coverage of Harris came under the byline of Herb Caen, a legendary gossip columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle and a friend of Brown's. 

His March 1994 article details a glitzy star-studded 60th birthday bash for Brown that included Eastwood, Barbra Streisand, "and many other earthy immortal" on the guest list. Ink dedicated to Harris, then a 29-year-old deputy district attorney in Alameda County, recounts the Eastwood champagne episode and describes her as "something new in Willie's love life." 

"She's a woman, not a girl. And she's black," Caen also wrote.

Other California news outlets would pick up on the Harris-Brown relationship, since Brown was married but estranged from his wife. After Brown appointed Harris to plum spots on state boards, a Sacramento Bee political reporter dubbed Harris "Brown's — how shall we say it? — close personal friend." 

Harris' December 1995 breakup with Brown, just after he'd been elected San Francisco's mayor, also made news in Caen's column. The power couple's split "came as a shock to many, including those who found Kamala Harris attractive, intelligent and charming," he wrote. "The brain-trusters who found Kamala the perfect antidote to whatever playboy tendencies still reside in the mayor-elect's jaunty persona." 

While Caen's column was a must-read in San Francisco's in-crowd, it was also perceived as sexist, even at the time, Leah Garchik, another longtime Chronicle columnist who retired last year, said.

"He was a guy from a different era," she said.

Caen, who died in 1997 at 80, "would write ridiculous, old, sexist things about women all the time," Garchik said. But he was forgiven for it because "he was like a favorite uncle and also because he wrote so brilliantly," she added. 

San Francisco's 'queenmaker'

Harris remained a VIP on the San Francisco social circuit long after her breakup with Brown. The San Francisco Examiner mentioned she wore "head-to-toe buttery soft black leather" to a gala in 1997. She was spied dancing with Brown at a wedding that year too. 

For her part, Harris doesn't appear to have shied away from the coverage. She and Brown were guests at the wedding of Caen's son, for example.

San Francisco political insiders said Harris benefited — at least at first — from the media attention and her association with Brown, who has been labeled a "kingmaker" and "queenmaker" in the city. 

But Harris has also sought for years to distance herself from the former mayor.

"The mere mention of their former liaison makes her shoulders tense, her hands clench, and her eyes narrow," SF Weekly wrote in its 2003 profile, which included an interview in which she called Brown the "albatross hanging around my neck."

Brown, who doesn't get a single mention in the Democratic senator's 2019 memoir, regularly criticized Harris throughout her recent presidential campaign.

"Forget any talk about a possible VP slot on the Democratic ticket or chatter about an attorney general nomination under a new president in 2021," Brown wrote in a Chronicle column published in December, just after Harris ended her White House bid. "Kamala Harris should go on vacation, get away from the cameras and then get back to work."

A double standard? 

After Harris ended her presidential campaign, her 2020 rival Julián Castro accused the press of holding Harris to a different standard than other candidates.

The former Obama-appointed secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development cited a series of articles that surfaced before Harris ended her White House bid that focused on campaign dysfunction. A New York Times story from November also offered an embarrassing glimpse at infighting among staffers. 

Such coverage, Castro said, "trashed her campaign and focused on one small part of it, and I think held her to a different standard, a double standard."

Walsh of The Nation said there was a "resurgence of some of that sexism (and probably racism) in the presidential race" that Harris encountered early in her career.

"When you're diminished as a socialite who got where she did because of a powerful boyfriend you're probably primed to doubt the motives of at least some reporters on your beat," Walsh said.

But Harris' experience dealing with chauvinistic attacks — her office did not respond to requests for comment for this story — could also come in handy should Biden pick her to join the Democratic ticket.

For one, Trump has mocked plenty of other powerful women in politics, referring to Hillary Clinton as a "nasty woman," calling Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren "Pocahontas," and deriding Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer as "the woman in Michigan." 

Indeed, the president already picked a fight with Harris once on Twitter after she dropped out of the presidential race in December.

"Too bad. We will miss you Kamala!" Trump wrote on social media. 

Harris — who was slated to hear impeachment charges against the president the following month — hit back: "Don't worry, Mr. President. I'll see you at your trial."

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