"I'm tier one." The real Kamala Harris

August 10, 2019

In Blog News

How San Francisco’s Wealthiest Families Launched Kamala Harris

At splashy weddings, charity balls and all the right restaurants, she hobnobbed with San Francisco’s moneyed elite—and made lasting allies who backed her at every stage of her political career.

SAN FRANCISCO—In the summer of 1999, in the monied Napa Valley north of here, a bejeweled bride rode sidesaddle on a speckled horse into what the press would label “the Bay Area’s version of an outdoor royal wedding.” The lavish nuptials of Vanessa Jarman and oil heir Billy Getty—replete with red carpet, hundreds of flickering votives, and “a fair amount of wine,” according to one deadpan attendee—featured a 168-person guest list stocked with socialites and scions, philanthropists and other assorted glitterati.

This coterie of the chosen included, as well, a 34-year-old prosecutor who was all of a year and a half into her job in the San Francisco district attorney’s office. And she wasn’t just some celebrity’s all but anonymous plus-one. She was featured in the photo coverage of the hot-ticket affair, smiling wide, decked out in a dark gown with a drink in hand.

Born and raised in more diverse, far less affluent neighborhoods on the other side of the Bay, Harris was the oldest daughter of immigrant parents, reared in a family that was intellectual but not privileged or rich. As a presidential contender, running against opponents who openly disdain elites and big money, she has emphasized not only her reputation as a take-no-prisoners prosecutor but also the humbleness of her roots—a child of civil rights activism, of busing, “so proud,” as she said at the start of her speech announcing her candidacy, “to be a child of Oakland.”

Her rise, however, was propelled in and by a very different milieu. In this less explored piece of her past, Harris used as a launching pad the tightly knit world of San Francisco high society, navigating early on this rarefied world of influence and opulence, charming and partying with movers and shakers—ably cultivating relationships with VIPs who would become friends and also backers and donors of every one of her political campaigns, tapping into deep pockets and becoming a popular figure in a small world dominated by a handful of powerful families. This stratum of San Francisco remains a profoundly important part of her network—including not just powerful Democratic donors but an ambassador appointed by President Donald Trump who ran in the same circles.

Harris, now 54, often has talked about the importance of having “a seat at the table,” of being an insider instead of an outsider. And she learned that skill in this crowded, incestuous, famously challenging political proving ground, where she worked to score spots at the some of the city’s most sought-after tables. In the mid- to late ’90s and into the aughts, the correspondents who kept tabs on the comings and goings of the area’s A-listers noted where Harris was and what she was doing and who she was with. As she advanced professionally, jumping from Alameda County to posts in the offices of the district and city attorneys across the Bay, she was a trustee, too, of the museum of modern art and active in causes concerning AIDS and the prevention of domestic abuse, and out and about at fashion shows and cocktail parties and galas and get-togethers at the most modish boutiques. She was, in the breezy, buzzy parlance of these kinds of columns, one of the “Pretty Thangs.” She was a “rising star.” She was “rather perfect.” And she mingled with “spiffy and powerful friends” who were her contemporaries as well as their even more influential mothers and fathers. All this was fun, but it wasn’t unserious. It was seeing and being seen with a purpose, society activity with political utility.

Because three years after the Getty wedding, in mid-2002, Harris called Mark Buell. She knew him because Harris was friends with his stepdaughter, Summer Tompkins Walker, the daughter of Susie Tompkins Buell, the major Democratic donor. Harris told him she wanted to run for district attorney. At first, Buell was skeptical, he said recently when we got together for dinner at an old Union Square haunt called Sam’s; he considered Harris “a socialite with a law degree,” he explained over salmon and sauvignon blanc. The more Harris talked, though, the more impressed he became. By the end of their conversation, Buell offered to be her finance chair. His first piece of advice: To knock off an incumbent in what would be a nasty, three-candidate fight, Harris was going to need to raise an early, eye-popping amount of money. Buell saw her friends, people he knew, too, as an asset to deploy. “So we put together a finance committee that primarily was young socialite ladies,” he told me. The group included Vanessa Getty, by then one of Harris’ closest pals, and Susan Swig—head-turning surnames in the city’s choicest circles. Buell’s directive: “I said, ‘No one has ever raised more than $150,000 for a D.A.’s race, totally. I want this group to raise $100,000 by the first reporting period.”

Outfitted in sharp designer suits and strands of bright pearls, Harris kickstarted her drive to become San Francisco’s top cop—in its ritziest, most prestigious locale. Predominantly white Pacific Heights—hills upon hills, gobsmacking views of the Golden Gate strait, mansions built and bought with both new tech money and old gold rush cash—is home to Nancy PelosiDianne FeinsteinGavin Newsom and others, one of the country’s foremost concentrations of politicians and their patrons. Including the Buells. In late 2002, this became the campaign routine, Buell recalled: “Thirty to 50 people in a room … cocktails … a nice introduction by the host.”

And then?

“Kamala would make her pitch.”

And then?

“We’d go around with the bag and collect the money.”

“A well-qualified prosecutor with a lot of ties to the Pacific Heights crowd, Harris should have no trouble raising money,” the San Francisco Chronicle noted that November, and so it was: By the close of the calendar year, Harris had raised $100,560—nearly 23 percent of which came from the three ZIP codes of Pacific Heights. It’s a roster of early donors that reads like a who’s who of the city. “That crowd really got her started to be taken seriously,” Buell said.

These people who seeded the start of Harris’ political career got something in return as well. “You always had the feeling that she was going somewhere,” Dede Wilsey told me. Wilsey is a stalwart fundraiser and a philanthropist, the widow of real estate bigwig Alfred Wilsey, and a Republican who nonetheless is a Harris supporter and friend. “You might want to go along for that ride, too.”

Harris, whose campaign did not respond to a request for comment for this story, put her headquarters in the Bayview, a poor neighborhood six or so miles south of Pacific Heights and a world away, and she would earn the backing of a swath of the city’s black, Chinese and LGBT leaders. But in January of 2003, she also was on the cover of the Nob Hill Gazette, the monthly paper of record of San Francisco society—one of the faces in a collage of people deemed to be the crème de la crème.

Harris, said the Gazette, “may be our next D.A.”

Eleven months later, it was true.


“… Kamala Harris, an Alameda Co. deputy D.A. who is something new in Willie’s love life,” Herb Caen wrote in his column in the San Francisco Chronicle on March 22, 1994, making public her romantic relationship with Willie Brown, who was still married (albeit long estranged), 30 years older than Harris and by then approaching a decade and a half into his unprecedented reign as speaker of the California State Assembly. “She’s a woman, not a girl,” Caen continued in his signature three-dot style. “And she’s black …” Beyond the wince-worthy language, it’s hard to imagine in that time and space a more spotlit debut.

Caen, for his part, was at the tail end of a nonpareil, nearly 60-year career. Six days a week, he two-finger-typed a thousand or so of the most-read words in San Francisco. “If he put your name in boldface, you’d get calls from everyone you knew saying, ‘I saw you in Herb Caen today,’” Jesse Hamlin, one of his former assistants, told me. “If your name wasn’t in there, you weren’t anybody,” longtime local press agent Lee Houskeeperadded. In his columns, Caen called Harris “attractive, intelligent and charming.” He called her a “steadying influence” for Brown. And in December of 1995, when Brown was elected mayor, Caen called her the “first-lady-in-waiting.”

Brown, meanwhile, was one of Caen’s best friends, and his mayoralty would cap a lengthy career in which he proved to be one of the shrewder getters, keepers and users of political power of the last half of the 20th century. The dapper, hyper-connected bon vivant and unashamed showman wore pricey Brioni suits and drove fast, fancy cars. Brown didn’t want to talk to me for this story, but he once wrote: “Being able to cross over into the white community is essential for any black, female or male, to succeed as a political figure. I suggest black women lay the groundwork by looking to become active on the boards of social, cultural and, charitable institutions like symphonies, museums, and hospitals. It’s the way to get respect from a world that otherwise is content to eschew or label you. You have to demand the opportunities to enter these worlds.”

It’s hard to think honestly about the origins of the rise of Harris without grappling with the reality of the role of Brown. He helped her. He put her on a pair of state boards that required not much work and paid her more than $400,000 across five years on top of her salary as a prosecutor. He gave her a BMW. He helped her, too, though, in a way that was less immediately material but arguably far more enduringly important.

“Brown, of course, was the darling of the well-to-do set, if you will,” veteran political consultant Jack Davis, who managed Brown’s mayoral campaign, told me. “And she was the girlfriend, and so she met, you know, everybody who’s anybody, as a result of being his girl.”

“I met her through Willie,” John Burton, the former San Francisco congressman and chairman of the California Democratic Party, said in an interview. “I would think it’s fair to say that most of the people in San Francisco met her through Willie.”

“He was the guy that put her right in the ballgame,” said Dan Addario, the chief investigator for the district attorney whom Harris ultimately would topple.

“He made her,” Davis said.

Many people bristle at this, castigating such sentiments as tired, sexist and racist, rightly pointing out that Brown dispensed favors and counsel to hundreds of aspiring politicians and only one of them is currently a U.S. senator running for president near the head of the heap.

“Look,” Rebecca Prozan, Harris’ campaign manager in 2003, told me, “those of us that want to be in public service in an elected capacity can be used by people who are in public office, taken around town, and there’s a whole host of us that have had that opportunity, and it didn’t work out for us. There has to also be something special about her.”

“Kamala Harris was plenty capable of impressing anyone she met … all on her own,” said P.J. Johnston, a consultant in San Francisco and a former Brown press secretary, “and did so frequently.”

Harris broke up with Brown shortly after he won the election to be mayor. “She ended it,” Brown told Joan Walsh, writing for San Franciscomagazine in 2003, “because she concluded there was no permanency in our relationship, and she was absolutely right.” But in the society and gossip columns in the Chronicle, in the San Francisco Examiner and in the Nob Hill Gazette, her mentions didn’t go down. They ticked up.

When she was still a deputy D.A. in Oakland, Harris joined the board of trustees of the Museum of Modern Art in San Francisco. She was a member of the San Francisco Jazz Organization. She was a patron dinner chair for the San Francisco Symphony’s annual Black & White Ball. She was the executive director of the San Francisco Domestic Violence Consortium, and she was president of the board of directors of Partners Ending Domestic Abuse. She was on the board of a nonprofit called Women Count. “Few women,” gushed the Gazette, “are more involved than (equally glamorous) attorney Kamala Harris.” In the outlet distributed specifically to the neighborhoods of the rich, she was featured in a fashion spread, shown wearing $565 boots, a $975 skirt and a $1,095 coat, all made by Burberry. In the descriptions of P.J. Corkery of the Examiner—who also ghost-wrote Brown’s book—Harris was “super-chic” and “super-smart” and “drop-dead elegant” and “very visible.” She was seen at Harry Denton’s Starlight Room. She was seen at Jeannette Etheredge’s Tosca. She went to a ball to benefit local arts museums at which celebrity event planner Stanlee Gatti’s elaborate set-up incorporated centerpieces of large balls of ice—and was spotted “sometime around midnight” trying to bowl the frosty orbs with Gavin Newsom, who was then a city supervisor as well as a friend and business partner of the Gettys. She went to the 25th anniversary showing of San Francisco’s “Beach Blanket Babylon” and was spotted slipping out of the afterparty for a dinner at Jardinière with Willie Brown and high society grande dameDenise Hale. She went to a Ricky Martin concert in a limo with Hale and Denton and scenester Harry de Wildt. She went to the parties of haute couture clothier Wilkes Bashford. She went to ladies’ luncheons at Pacific Heights homes. She had Sunday dinners with the Gettys.

“For society—and I hate that word—for things to continue to be exciting and interesting,” Vanessa Getty once told Vanity Fair, “circles have to keep expanding.”

By 2002, at the start of her campaign for D.A., she showed her packed, jumbled, leather-bound Filofax to Andrea Dew Steele, who was working at the time as Susie Tompkins Buell’s political and philanthropic adviser. Harris had organized her contacts in an inefficient and outdated way, Steele told me, but the list itself was formidable. “Definitely,” she said.

Recently, in the sitting room in the Pacific Heights house of socialite-turned-attorney Sharon Owsley, I visited with Owsley as well as Debbie Mesloh, a longtime Harris friend, and we talked about these inroads Harris was able to make.

“Kamala also comes from, you know, kind of an intellectually established family,” Mesloh said.

Owsley agreed. “A very fine family,” she said. “Her mother was east Indian and came to this country and became a renowned scientist, and her father came to this country and became a professor of economics. So, she has, you know, the genealogy to move in any circles. But I also have to emphasize that … you don’t need that—but she had it all right.”

The support from the crowds in the homes on the hills was the fuel, and Harris took it from there. She pulled in campaign contributions from “every ZIP code in the city,” she emphasized to magazine—and the share of her contributions from Pacific Heights got progressively smaller through 2003, down to 21 percent from January to June, 19 from July to September, 13 from October to November and 12 percent from November to December. “I walk very comfortably in a lot of communities in this city,” Harris told the Chronicle as her campaign crescendoed. The newspaper endorsed her in October, saying she had “shown an ability to work with neighborhood groups from the Bayview to Pacific Heights—in essence, all of San Francisco.” Said Buell when we met: “That’s part of Kamala’s gift, I think, is that she can go into a room in any part of town, and she can act appropriate to that room.” There remained, though, no question which candidate San Francisco high society was behind. Joining those donors who maxed out at $500 before the end of 2002 (Bashford, Gatti, Billy and Vanessa Getty, Summer Tompkins Walker, Susan Swig, Steven Swig, Darian Swig, Mary Swig, Marjorie Swig, Roselyne “Cissie” Swig, and Ann Moller Caen, Herb Caen’s widow) now were Wilsey, her son Trevor Traina, toy tycoon John Bowes, Frances Bowes, Ann Getty, Peter Getty, George and Charlotte Mailliard Shultz, in addition to a slate of Fishers (founders of the Gap) and Schwabs (as in Charles).

“You have to have your feet in a lot of different communities in order to win citywide office in San Francisco. It is by no means enough,” Jim Stearns, a top strategist on the ’03 Harris campaign, said of Pacific Heights. “It is just, you know—it is helpful in that it is a good community to raise money out of, and it is a good community to get some visibility.”

“The challenge with San Francisco politics, even more then than now, is that almost everybody agrees with everybody else on everything,” said Dan Schnur, a longtime Republican-turned-independent political operative who worked at the highest levels of state and presidential politics and lived in San Francisco from 1995 to 2002. “Up-and-comers are less likely to distinguish themselves by policy differences than the way they navigate these political-cultural-philanthropic-community circles.”

“Particularly with candidates of color, you know, often they don’t have those kinds of networks,” Steele said, “so this was very, very important for her success … to have some funding stream for her first race, and subsequent races.”

Harris had put in the work.

“I could have met Kamala through Sharon,” Wilsey said. “I could have met her through Ann Getty, I could have met her through, you know, any one of those people.”

“We had mutual friends,” Cissie Swig told me. “If she was born in Oakland, she found her niche, perhaps, in San Francisco, and her expertise and her smarts served her well when she decided to come and be in San Francisco,” she added.

“She has a presence,” Owsley said. “She has a star quality.”

An “aura,” Wilsey added.

“Her strength. Her determination,” Frances Bowes said when I asked her what had attracted her to Harris. “She’s not scared of anybody.”

“Why shouldn’t we have a fabulous D.A. like that?” Owsley asked.

“I think it started with the fact that people wanted to be able to say they’d met her and were supporting her because of this quasi-social network that we started with, and the more she raised, and the more she got traction, the more everybody else wanted to say they heard her, they talked to her, and were supportive,” Buell told me when we met for dinner. “I have to be careful here, because I still live in this town, but they were kind of professional socialites, and they wanted to help her. They saw it as a two-way street.”


This past spring, at a 2020 fundraiser at the house of one of her Pacific Heights neighbors, Dede Wilsey wanted to talk to Kamala Harris.

To thank her.

“She was very, very helpful,” Wilsey told me when I reached her in Newport, Rhode Island, where she’s been summering, “when my son was recently appointed ambassador to Austria. … And I said, ‘Kamala, I really wanted to be sure to come to this because I wanted to thank you for being so nice to Trevor.’ And she said it was the right thing to do. And I said, ‘But, Kamala, people don’t always do the right thing. And I want you to know how much I appreciate it.’”

The next day, I reached Traina, President Donald Trump’s pick to be the U.S. ambassador to Austria, in Vienna, where he’s been based since last May.

“Kamala is an old friend,” Traina told me. “We all kind of grew up together, you know, Gavin, Kamala and many others.”

He supported her when she was running for D.A. “And she was very nice and very supportive of me when I was going through my Senate confirmation process. And she was one of a number of different senators who put in a good word for me with the staffs at the Foreign Relations Committee, which I really appreciated. That was nice of her. And I think the proof was in the pudding because I was unanimously confirmed by the Senate.”

He, too, was at that Napa Valley Getty wedding, back in 1999.

“Great party,” he said.

Chris Cadelago contributed to this report.