Kamala Harris, Nancy Pelosi Could Be First and Second in Line for President. How Did Bay Area Politics Manage That?

August 15, 2020by Emily DeRuy, The Mercury News (TNS)
Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) speaks at a news conference at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., September 6, 2017. (Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty Images/TNS)

SAN JOSE, Calif. — One is a seasoned politician, long considered one of the most powerful people in Washington. The other is a rising star, a trailblazer accustomed to breaking barriers. Both have deep Bay Area ties.

And to many in the rest of the country who see the region as a left-leaning outlier, this may be hard to imagine: If the Democrats take the White House and maintain control of the House this fall, arguably the two most politically powerful women in the history of the United States — No. 1 and No. 2 in line for president — would hail from the Bay Area.

Kamala Harris, Democratic presidential hopeful Joe Biden’s pick for his vice presidential running mate, was born in Oakland and raised in Berkeley. And while Nancy Pelosi — the first female Speaker of the House — is originally from Baltimore, she has called San Francisco home for more than half a century.

“It makes sense that some of the first women who have achieved a lot of power in American politics might come from the Bay Area,” said Kimberly Nalder, a Sacramento State University political science professor and expert in gender and politics. “In so many ways, the Bay Area has been at the forefront of movements and social justice and all sorts of progressive goals.”

There is plenty of precedent for women from the Bay Area making history in politics.

San Francisco voters sent Pelosi to Congress in the late 1980s and since 2003, she has led the House Democrats.

California has sent two women to the Senate for decades. Dianne Feinstein was born in San Francisco and became the first woman to serve as mayor of San Francisco before being elected to the Senate in 1992. She would go on to be the first woman to chair the powerful Senate Intelligence Committee. Barbara Boxer, who was replaced by Harris in the Senate after retiring in 2017, won her Senate seat the same year as Feinstein. Harris herself became the second Black woman and first South Asian American to serve in the upper chamber.

From Reps. Anna Eshoo and Jackie Speier to Barbara Lee and Zoe Lofgren, Bay Area voters have long sent women to the House of Representatives. And plenty of women have made their way from the Bay Area into state and local leadership roles, including former San Jose Mayor Janet Gray Hayes, becoming the first female mayor of a major U.S. city in the 1970s.

Here, people who fall outside what might be considered the norm have been able to succeed, Nalder said, so women leaders may have been nurtured in a way that would be less likely in more traditional places.

Still, California has never had a female governor and most of those elected to office continue to be men.

“Two powerful women are from California, but there are many other reasons than simply because they’re from California,” said Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a longtime political analyst. “Timing, luck, the individual — all of that plays a role.”

In some ways, Jeffe added, Pelosi and Harris have gotten to where they are in spite of being from a state that many people think of as far-left and plain wacky. Biden didn’t need to choose Harris to ensure victory in deep blue California, where he is no danger of losing the state to President Donald Trump. But, Jeffe said, when Biden committed to choosing a woman, “that limited the farm team to begin with,” and Harris’ name skyrocketed to the top of the list and stayed there. And, she said, it’s unlikely her selection will mean any special treatment for the Golden State.

Both women, Nalder said, have also had to navigate what’s known as the “double bind.” They’ve had to appear feminine enough for voters to feel comfortable with them but they’ve also had to behave in ways traditionally considered masculine to be seen as leaders.

“Both of them have done a good job of walking the tightrope, which is not easy,” Nalder said.

Regardless, Harris’ joining the ticket means an empty Senate seat for Gov. Gavin Newsom to fill and a new chance to elevate the career of another woman from California. Newsom could appoint someone like current Lt. Gov. Eleni Kounalakis to the seat, or someone like Rep. Karen Bass, who was also in the running for the vice presidential nomination. Or he could choose to appoint a Latinx senator for the first time in the state’s history.

“The cast of characters,” Jeffe said, “is vastly different than it’s ever been.”

———

©2020 The Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.)

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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