Calls from the White House come in with the number blocked. People who are used to getting them know to pick up. And invitations to sit in the first lady’s box for the State of the Union address don’t come around very often. People who get them know to say yes.
Kamala Harris received one of those invitations at the end of January 2012. She was in Washington, D.C., for meetings at the Justice Department about a multibillion-dollar settlement among states, the federal government, and American banks over the predatory mortgages that had helped sink the economy. The banks wanted to pay as little as possible, and then be released from any future claims. President Barack Obama’s administration wanted to get results—and move on. Harris, who was one year into her job as California’s attorney general, had broken with most of the rest of the state attorneys general, hoping to get more money for California.
Harris declined the invitation. She wasn’t done negotiating. She didn’t want to give the wrong impression.
When Harris and I spoke about the mortgage settlement a few days before Joe Biden named her as his running mate, she wasn’t happy that I had heard the story about the State of the Union. She’s always wary of being seen as at odds with Obama. But the year Harris spent negotiating the mortgage settlement—fighting with the banks, the administration, and even her fellow attorneys generals—was transformative for her. During the mortgage fight of 2011 and early 2012, she was in a big new job, figuring out how to leverage her power. The experience was also, she told me, weirdly relevant to the position she’s in now, with a COVID-induced foreclosure-and-eviction crisis looming. This moment is “actually similar in many ways,” Harris told me.