Capitol Alert

Big-dollar donors, including Donald Trump, fueled Kamala Harris’ political rise in California

Asked last week if she believes President Donald Trump is a racist, California Sen. Kamala Harris told The Root, “I don’t think you can reach any other conclusion.”

In 2018, the Trump White House accused Harris of “supporting the animals of MS-13,” a gang formed by Central American immigrants in Los Angeles.

Earlier this decade, however, the two weren’t on such combative terms. In 2011 and again in 2013, Trump donated a total of $6,000 to Harris’ campaign for California attorney general. His daughter, Ivanka, also gave Harris $2,000 in 2014.

The first donation from Trump, for $5,000 in September 2011, came months after he had begun popping up on cable news promoting a conspiracy theory that President Barack Obama was born in Kenya, not the United States, something that’s been widely condemned as racist.

Harris campaign spokesman Ian Sams told McClatchy that Harris donated the $6,000 Trump had contributed to a non-profit that advocates for civil and human rights for Central Americans. But that donation wasn’t made until 2015, a year after she won her reelection for attorney general and as she was launching her run for the Senate.

The current president is just one of the notable contributors among the big dollar donors who gave to Harris’ campaigns in California — first for San Francisco district attorney, then attorney general, then United States senator.

Since entering the Senate in 2017, Harris has parlayed a rising national profile into a potent grassroots donor base. Over the past two years, the Oakland native has raised three-quarters of her Senate money from small donors giving less than $200. And her 2020 presidential campaign has been buoyed by a wave of small dollar online donations from around the country.

Harris’ campaign points out that she raised $1.5 million online in the first 24 hours after launching her presidential campaign in January, including individual contributions from all 50 states. The average contribution in the first 24 hours was under $40, according to the campaign.

“We are focused on engaging a broad grassroots network of supporters across the country to power this campaign,” Sams said.

But Harris’ rise in politics was fueled largely by well-heeled donors and interests ranging from California law firms and Hollywood A-listers to Bay Area business titans and San Francisco high society. More than a few out-of-state donors, like the Trumps, also chipped in..

In her 2016 Senate race, Harris raised just 15 percent of contributions from donors giving less than $200.

Those ties to the party’s wealthy donor class — whom she continues to court — could prove a double-edged sword in the Democratic presidential primary. Fundraising will be a major factor in determining who in the crowded field can survive the gauntlet of early primary states.

But as Democrats have moved to the left, the party’s voters have become increasingly critical of the way money influences U.S. politics. It was an issue Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders highlighted to great effect in his dark horse 2016 primary challenge to Hillary Clinton, whom he painted as a tool of the “one percent.” Harris drew flack from Sanders supporters and other liberals for a highly-publicized Hamptons fundraiser in 2017.

Many Democratic candidates (including the California senator) have already sworn off donations from lobbyists and corporate donor committees known as PACs. Now some are taking it a step further. Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren announced late last month that she will not hold high-dollar private fundraisers or participate donor calls in the primary race.

Willie Brown’s network

Harris has proven to be a Democratic donor draw since her first race, for San Francisco district attorney in 2003. Despite being a little-known, 39-year-old prosecutor, Harris pulled in checks from an array of bold-faced names in San Francisco and beyond.

The Getty family, heirs of oil tycoon J. Paul Getty, gave a combined $3,750, as did then-CEO of Wells Fargo Richard Kovacevich. Bill Fazio, a local attorney who ran against Harris in the 2003 race, recalls hearing she received a donation from comedian Chris Rock (he indeed sent along $500 from New York). Actor Danny Glover kicked in another $500.

Fazio and others who observed Harris’ rise in San Francisco believe she made many of those glitzy connections via Willie Brown, then the mayor of San Francisco.

She tapped really strongly into Willie Brown’s political network,” said Boise State political science professor Corey Cook, who was teaching at the University of San Francisco at the time.

Brown, a larger-than-life power broker in the state, also “helped introduce her around to the Pacific Heights area,” said Fazio, referring to the wealthy enclave overlooking the San Francisco Bay that is home to some of the city’s most prominent families.

Brown, whom Harris dated before she ran for office, caused a stir by acknowledging in a recent San Francisco Chronicle column that he “certainly helped with her first race for district attorney.” But Brown also pointed out that he helped Gov. Gavin Newsom get his start, as well as many other politicians from San Francisco. Fazio noted the same thing, and emphasized that he saw “absolutely nothing wrong with” Brown’s assistance..

Cook says there is another reason that Harris drew early financial support from such an array of powerful people. She had “an immediate buzz.,’ he said. “She was identified very early on as somebody who was going places.”

‘Female Obama’

That buzz grew exponentially after Barack Obama was elected president in 2008. Harris was an early backer and key surrogate for Obama in California, and her brother-in-law, Tony West, was co-chair of Obama’s California fundraising operation.

Pundits began labeling Harris the “female Obama.” And her name began popping up in the San Francisco society columns, as she mingled with socialites who would go on to host fundraisers for her attorney general campaigns and 2016 Senate race.

But Cook says Harris was also engaged at the grassroots level while she was district attorney.

“San Francisco is a small town. It’s got dozens of these local political organizations and they all expect to meet the candidates,” he noted. “There was never any whiff of, she wouldn’t put in the work. She showed up to all those things.”

Not surprisingly, Harris raised a significant sum — $2.8 million — from attorneys and law firms during her two successful campaigns for California attorney general in 2010 and 2014. She’s raised a similar amount from the legal profession for her Senate campaign coffers.

She’s also raised millions for her attorney general and Senate campaigns from a long roster of entertainment executives and actors: Halle Berry, Leonardo DiCaprio, Steven Spielberg, and Sean Penn, to name just a few. Silicon Valley venture capitalists and others in the finance sector have also been a major source of funds, as have those in the real estate industry and those who are retired.

Harris is hardly the only high-profile Democrat who’s received a check from Trump. Clinton raised thousands from Trump and his family when she was New York senator and then in her 2008 presidential run.

Current New York Senator and 2020 presidential candidate Kirsten Gillibrand has raised nearly $10,000 from Trump, Ivanka and a son, Donald Trump Jr., since 2007. Ivanka Trump has also given more than $10,000 to New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, another 2020 contender, in recent years.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom and Newsom’s predecessor, Jerry Brown, also received thousands from Trump last decade.

Questioned about his donations to Democrats during a Republican primary debate in 2015, Trump explained his bipartisan political giving as just the price of doing business. “I give to to everybody,” he said. “They call, I give. And you know what, when I need something from them two years later, three years later, I call them, they are there for me.”

Sams said that wasn’t the case for Harris. She never held a meeting or offered other special access to Trump when she was California attorney general, he said.

Emily Cadei works out of the McClatchy Washington bureau, where she covers national politics and policy for McClatchy’s California readers. A native of Sacramento, she has spent more than a decade in D.C. reporting on U.S. elections, Congress and foreign affairs for publications including Newsweek, Congressional Quarterly and Roll Call.