Who is the real Kamala Harris? Her sister, Maya, knows the answer
DES MOINES - It was the Fourth of July, Independence Day, and Kamala Harris was explaining to her sister, Maya, that campaigns are like prisons.
She'd been recounting how in the days before the Democratic debate in Miami life had actually slowed down to a manageable pace. Kamala, Maya and the rest of the team had spent three days prepping for that contest in a beach-facing hotel suite, where they closed the curtains to blot out the fun. But for all the hours of studying policy and practicing the zingers that would supercharge her candidacy, the trip allowed for a break in an otherwise all-encompassing schedule.
"I actually got sleep," Kamala said, sitting in a Hilton conference room, beside her sister, and smiling as she recalled walks on the beach with her husband and that one morning SoulCycle class she was able to take.
"That kind of stuff," Kamala said between sips of iced tea, "which was about bringing a little normal to the days, that was a treat for me."
"I mean, in some ways it was a treat," Maya said. "But not really."
"It's a treat that a prisoner gets when they ask for, 'A morsel of food please,' " Kamala said shoving her hands forward as if clutching a metal plate, her voice now trembling like an old British man locked in a Dickensian jail cell. "'And water! I just want wahtahhh....'Your standards really go out the f---ing window."
Kamala burst into laughter.
The Harris sisters don't look all that much alike. Kamala resembles their father, taller and angular; where Maya has the softer features of their late mother who clocked in at 5-foot-1. But the sisters share a contagious, body-shaking laugh so similar that strangers often guess they're related.
Only now, Maya kept a straight face. Getting exercise and sleep aren't a treat, she said, but a necessity. Maya has always got Kamala's best interest at heart, whether it's ignoring the former prosecutor's joke comparing a campaign to incarceration, making sure she's fully up to speed on policy, or getting enough rest - and not just because she's Kamala's little sister, but because she's Kamala's campaign chairwoman.
It's a job she's uniquely qualified for: She was a senior adviser for Hillary Clinton in 2016, knows her sister better than anyone else (at campaign events she takes mental notes and drapes her arm around Kamala afterward to whisper advice), and is something of a yin to Kamala's yang.
Where Kamala, California's former attorney general, came up through politics as a law enforcement official - a job that has become controversial among liberal Democrats - Maya has been at the forefront of criminal justice restructuring: as a leader at the American Civil Liberties Union, as a vice president at the Ford Foundation, helping edit her friend Michelle Alexander's seminal book about mass incarceration, "The New Jim Crow."
Maya is, in other words, exactly the type of person who might criticize Kamala's campaign from the sidelines. It's your classic good-cop/not-a-cop routine.
"If people knew who Kamala was, and really what she believes and really where her heart is," Maya said,"I think it would be hard not to reach the conclusion that this is the person who would be the most passionate advocate for the things we've been fighting for for a long time."
Over the course of Kamala's political career, she's been many things: tough on crime, progressive, pragmatic, hard to fit into an ideological box. Sometimes during this campaign it can seem as if she's trying to please all the people all the time, and sometimes it's like she just can't please anyone.
Questions of who she is, what sits at her core, and why exactly she wants to be president have become central to her campaign and chances of winning. Few, if anyone, have had these concerns about Maya, and Maya doesn't have these concerns about Kamala. Her trick then, in her own words, is this:
"How do you bridge the gap between what you know about someone, and what people think about someone?"
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On a recent swing through South Carolina, Kamala spoke to an audience of overheated, mostly black voters who had packed into a gymnasium in Columbia to feel her out.
"I was raised that you don't talk about yourself," Kamala said. "But I've also realized that in order to form the relationships, it's important to let people know about my people."
It's the kind of thing a faux-humble person might say when running for president: Now, I hate to make this whole thing about me. But even the book she wrote to launch her campaign revealed little about her inner terrain.
Her inability to get personal had been so much of a problem in the early months of her campaign that at one point, with her poll numbers treading water, she felt the need to apologize.