On paper, Sen. Kamala Harris is a rather enticing Democratic presidential nominee for 2020. Formerly a San Francisco district attorney and California attorney general, she was elected to the U.S. Senate in 2016 and labeled a presidential contender even before stepping on to the Senate floor.
Harris has, in part, staked her potential candidacy in 2020 on her leadership on women’s issues and, in particular, on sexual harassment in the workplace. Harris, along with Sens. Amy Klobuchar, D-MN, and Cory Booker, D-NJ, made headlines with their strong and persistent questioning of now-Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, who was accused of sexually assaulting Dr. Christine Blasey Ford when they both were teenagers.
Furthermore, Harris was front and center with Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-NY, in calling for Sen. Al Franken, D-MN, to resign after he was accused of sexual harassment.
The Sacramento Bee broke the story Wednesday that one of Harris’ longtime aides, Larry Wallace, had been accused of gender harassment and other demeaning behavior by his former executive assistant, Danielle Hartley, who sued the state Department of Justice on Dec. 30, 2016, just before Harris assumed her current office.
Hartley said Wallace repeatedly asked her to crawl under his desk to change the paper in his printer. When she asked to have the printer moved, he declined. He sent Hartley on personal tasks not related to her position, and staffers asked her demeaning questions, such as, “Are you walking the walk of shame?”
Workplace harassment comes in many forms, and one is as demeaning as the other. Harassment is harassment.
Attorney General Xavier Becerra settled out of court for $400,000 in May 2017. In 2016, Wallace was the director of the Division of Law Enforcement under then-Attorney General Harris. He has been with Harris for 14 years, stretching back to her time as San Francisco district attorney. Most recently he worked out of Sacramento on her Senate staff.
Wallace resigned Wednesday. Harris on Thursday said she wasn’t aware of the allegations against him.
There are only a few possible interpretations here, and they are unpleasant. Wallace wasn’t out on the periphery of Harris’ staff; he was a senior aide she knew for 14 years — hardly a stranger. For Harris to flatly deny any knowledge of this settlement seems, shall we say, far-fetched. For the moment, let’s take her at her word.
A second and equally troubling interpretation is that Harris isn’t a terribly good manager, and that her staff was insulating her from information critical to the performance of her duties. This is hardly a propitious beginning to a presidential candidacy.
Harris’ handling of this matter is eerily reminiscent of a 2010 case during her tenure as district attorney, where a judge rebuked her office for hiding problems in the drug analysis section of the San Francisco police crime lab.
Part of being an elected official is not only taking strong political positions and executing them fairly, it’s also being able to manage the people you entrust with responsibility. In this case, Harris has fallen short.
Harris owes the voters more than just a four word denial on the steps of the U.S. Senate. She should fully explain her relationship with Wallace, and, by extension, her staff and why it insulated her from an issue upon which she has taken a leading national role.