Kamala Harris’ campaign held a pair of intimate fundraisers last week in New York and Connecticut, where two dozen or so guests gathered at each event to hear the headliner offer a glimpse of the inner sanctum.
The featured guest, however, was not the candidate; Kamala didn’t attend. It was Maya Harris, her campaign chair and younger sister.
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Since launching her White House bid, no figure in Kamala Harris’ orbit has loomed so large. A regular presence on the trail, Maya has been involved in virtually every facet of the race, from soliciting donors and recruiting the most diverse staff of any Democratic hopeful, to helping draft policy and talking up early state politicos.
A no-nonsense boss who became a single mom at 17 and earned a law degree from Stanford before embarking on a long career in progressive activism, she’s emerged as a primary attraction in her own right. Aside from standing in for Kamala at fundraisers, Maya can be seen at campaign stops posing for pictures with selfie seekers who recognize her from social media and her time as an MSNBC talking head — a gig she landed after advising Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign.
Maya is often the first point of contact for her sister in early states, where officials and operatives said she frequently touches base to gauge the lay of the land. In South Carolina, Marguerite Willis said she was eager to meet Maya because she speaks with authority for the candidate. Willis’ own sister was the No. 2 in her campaign for governor last year.
“It’s as close in the world to having a double as it gets,” Willis said of Maya.
Willis reached out to Maya on Twitter, and they met in Columbia, S.C. She ended up endorsing Kamala, as did several others who first connected with her sister: Willis’ running-mate, state Sen. John Scott, and Constance Anastopoulo, a past nominee for state attorney general.
On a recent swing though South Carolina, Maya broke away from the trail to lead a call with women’s health organizations on Kamala’s newly released abortion plan.
“If Kamala Harris isn’t part of it, it’s Maya Harris,” said Juan Rodriguez, Kamala’s campaign manager. “Our constant job is finding out where she can help us expand our bandwidth.”
Political families have long been a public fixation, with spouses and siblings filling official and unofficial roles, from confidant to security blanket and everything in between. But the fascination seems to have reached new heights in the Trump era: The president has appointed his relatives to posts they probably wouldn’t have landed if not for their ties to him.
Maya, who headed up the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California on her way to becoming a well-known civil rights advocate, is a different story. The 52-year-old — who holds the post that John Podesta had for the Clinton campaign, and has been aspirationally referred to by political types as Kamala’s Bobby Kennedy — would almost certainly be serving in a Clinton administration had she won.
“Everyone is used to relatives that are doofuses,” said Center for American Progress President Neera Tanden, who brought in Maya as a senior fellow in 2013. There, she authored a prescient paper on politics titled, “Women of Color: A Growing Force in the American Electorate.”
“When you have a relative that is competent and capable, what does that mean?” Tanden asked.
Maya’s close relationship with her older sister hasn’t shielded her from internal disputes about the direction and message of the campaign. Kamala fosters an environment of creative tension that aides describe as part-Socratic method, part mock court. Aides on opposite sides of an issue present their case — backed up by research, because anything less is dismissed — and the former prosecutor acts as judge.
Maya, according to campaign sources, is acutely aware of the liabilities that her sister’s law enforcement record poses with Democratic voters who’ve moved left on criminal justice reform. She’s given voice internally to those concerns — and how to address them politically — while serving as a conduit to activists on the outside with hesitations about Kamala.
The candidate herself has shown sensitivity about her record, including on school truancy and independent investigations of officer-involved shootings. As her campaign has unfolded, she’s offered more nuanced — and at times contradictory — stances than she did as California’s top law enforcement official.
But in backing away from her past, some aides and advisers believe she risks weakening her main argument: that she has the backbone to take the fight to Trump. Along with Maya, family input comes from her husband, Doug Emhoff, and Maya’s spouse, Tony West, chief legal officer at Uber and the Justice Department’s third-ranking official under President Barack Obama.
“Family members — if used right — can play a big role,” said a Kamala confidant familiar with her campaign’s dynamics. The person added that campaign aides have used family members to deliver messages that Kamala wasn’t immediately receptive to. “It’s a matter of utilizing them strategically and in spots where it makes the most sense — and not as the center-point of campaign strategy.”
Kamala declined to address a question about the advice she’s receiving. Asked about Maya’s role in the campaign, Kamala leafed through her sister’s resume—from her time, at age 29, as one of the youngest law school deans in the country to being a vice president at the Ford Foundation, where she worked on social justice and democracy issues.
“I think most people who know Maya will tell you she’s one of the smartest people they know,” Kamala said. “The fact that she has volunteered to work on this campaign at such a high level, and she’s exactly who she’s always been—she works around the clock and she’s probably the hardest, if not one of the hardest working people on the campaign—I feel very blessed.”
Maya’s own “radical, left-wing politics,” as one friend affectionately put it, appears in her work and through an extensive contact list that’s outside her sister’s sphere: “She has activists, radicals and revolutionaries on her speed dial,” the friend said.
At PolicyLink, which advocates for racial and economic equity, Maya wrote about community-centered policing practices and was the lead author of an activist’s guide to police reform. She helped edit manuscripts of the New York Times bestseller “The New Jim Crow,” by legal scholar Michelle Alexander, which argued that “we have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it.”
Yet it was her policy work for Clinton that transformed Maya into a major player in electoral politics. She won Clinton’s trust by taking on difficult issues around criminal justice reform, recalled Minyon Moore, a senior adviser to the 2016 campaign. Moore insists Maya is not an ideologue despite her progressive beliefs.
“Maya was the one that was always asking the tough questions even when Hillary was embracing issues that would make you go, ‘Huh, OK,’” Moore said, keying on the adviser’s skill in framing complex issues. “Maya is not the type of person that is going to pull you left. She is going to pull you to the right position.”
“Hillary loved her. She loved her,” she added.
Maya, who declined to be interviewed for this story, later headed up Clinton’s platform committee, a group comprised of people aligned with the 2016 Democratic nominee as well as the vanquished Sen. Bernie Sanders. The draft included language opposing the death penalty and calling for new legislation similar to the Glass-Steagall Wall Street reform Act. Maya, who worked alongside Sanders’ policy director Warren Gunnels, at the time called it “the most ambitious and progressive platform our party has ever seen.”
Reflecting on internal Clinton policy discussions, Moore said Maya would often raise the possibility of unintended consequences when a particular position was floated as the obvious choice.
“Sometimes that wreaks havoc and people don’t like it. People don’t want to be questioned,” she added of her friend. “But her unique combination of being a lawyer, a policy wonk, and understanding politics causes her to be a lot more layered than people give her credit for.”
Maya has had a hand in every facet of the campaign’s ramp-up, both behind the scenes and on the trail. On the fundraising front, she’s focused on New York-area donors in the African-American and Indian-American communities, with an eye on engaging what political fundraisers call “new-prospect” targets who weren’t previously active.
She traveled to Mississippi, Louisiana and Georgia ahead of Kamala’s trips to New Orleans and Atlanta, meeting state Rep. Erick Allen before he threw his support behind Kamala at a stop in Atlanta. And Maya is in regular touch with members of the Congressional Black Caucus, particularly women in the group.
Publicly, she’s often at the candidate’s side. At a soup dinner earlier this year in Iowa, Kamala walked one side of a long table shaking hands, answering questions and posing for pictures, while Maya paced the length of the other side doing the same. She appears in nearly every one of her sister’s stump speeches (“My sister Maya’s here,” Kamala will say) as a kind of narrative bridge to stories about their late mother, an Indian-born breast cancer researcher who friends attest instilled in her daughters a fierce loyalty and abiding bond.
“When you’re being raised by a single mom your sister is your best friend and confidant,” said Lateefah Simon, who was introduced to Maya by civil rights lawyer Eva Paterson, then went to work with Kamala before learning the two were related. Like Maya before her, Simon was a young mother, and she became like an auntie to her. When Maya was at the Ford Foundation, Simon said she got a no-B.S. reply to a poorly done grant application she had drafted.
“Don’t you ever send anything that is not perfect to this foundation,’” she recalled Maya telling her.
“Maya, like Kamala, she has a surgical precision of management,” Simon said. “She is absolutely not easy on the people that work for her, especially young black women. She wants them to do their best. She demands perfection from them.”
Simon remembers seeing the intensely private sisters in their downtime, in one moment laughing hysterically, and in the next their foreheads touching as they strategized. A years-old interview of the two talking together, which was posted online, underscores their sibling dynamic.
In the clip, they joke about how Maya refers to Kamala, then the attorney general of California, a title that’s sometimes shortened to “AG,” or “general.” Until she’s president of the United States, Maya says, “she’s just Kamala.” Kamala interjects, swatting aside what she seemed to view as a ludicrous suggestion at the time.
“No, I’m ‘big sister,’ Kamala says, pausing before landing her punchline—‘Big sister ‘general!’”
They break out in laughter.
“Maya is not going to sugarcoat Kamala,” Simon said. “But running for president of the United States as a black woman is almost unprecedented. You can’t buy that kind of loyalty, the kind of confidant who is also your best friend.”
Carla Marinucci contributed to this report.