On Social Issues, Hilary Clinton Turns to Maya Harris

Clinton adviser Maya Harris

Clinton adviser Maya Harris

Washington: Hillary Clinton, the Democratic Party frontrunner, has learnt a crucial lesson from her last attempt to become President – that her gender is her key to success. She is emphasizing the fact of electing the first woman President as much as she eschewed her gender in 2008.

Honing this line of thinking for the candidate is Maya Harris, an Indian American and one of three senior policy advisers named by Clinton, two of whom are women. Clinton’s man Friday too is a woman called Huma Abedin, also of Indian heritage.

The dominance of women advisers speaks to the big mistake perpetuated by her key male helpers the last time around. They determined that any emphasis on Clinton’s gender would turn off men even though polls showed that voters found the prospect of electing the first woman president exciting and attractive.

Fast forward to 2015 and a more confident display of gender in the campaign, thanks partly to Harris and her research on women voters as a law professor. Her experience includes heading the Ford Foundation’s division on democracy and justice and leading the American Civil Liberties Union in California. By the time she was 29, she was one of the youngest deans of a law school.

A family of formidable women

Harris comes from a family of formidable women. Her mother, Shyamala Harris left Chennai in the 1950s for the U.S. for higher studies. She completed her Ph.D. in endocrinology at Berkeley and became a pioneer in breast cancer research. Shyamala married Donald Harris, a Jamaican American and a Stanford University professor of economics.

The couple was active in the civil rights movement but divorced with the mother bringing up their two daughters, Maya and Kamala. Growing up in an atmosphere of activism, both girls chose law as their profession to effect change. Kamala Harris blazed a trail becoming the first woman attorney general of California. She is now running for the US Senate.

While Kamala was active in President Barack Obama’s campaign in 2008, Maya has been recruited by Clinton to advise on women’s issues because of a key research paper she wrote titled “Women of Color: A Growing Force in the American Electorate.”

The paper takes politicians and their strategists to task for not looking at women of color as a separate voting bloc but only as a part of a “broader effort aimed at women, youth or a specific racial or ethnic group.” A candidate who wants to win must have this group’s interests on the agenda.

The women’s vote will be decisive in this and future elections because they are the largest voting bloc. And within that the women of color are the fastest growing segment, representing “74 percent of the growth in eligible voters since 2000.” And they vote in larger numbers than men, especially Asian American, and African American women.

Wide coalition

The challenge is to give them a reason to go out and vote. While Obama was able to get a wide coalition of blacks, women, young voters and Hispanics, the jury is out on Clinton whether she can build a similar one. Or if she can get the definitive women vote. If every woman votes for her, Clinton is home free. And Harris is expected to devise policy initiatives to attract minority women to come out in huge numbers come election day.

Another area where Harris’ influence is already evident is the broad spectrum of criminal justice issues, including sentencing and policing. She has argued for police reforms and engaging communities in the process. She has spoken against the punitive criminal justice system, which has led to the U.S. having the highest rate of incarceration in the world at 707 per 100,000 of the population.

While the country has 5 percent of the world’s population, it has 25 percent of its prisoners or roughly 2.2 million people in jail, most of them poor, under-educated and from minority communities. A study in 2011 found that 40 percent of all inmates were African Americans even though blacks make up only 13.2 percent of the population.

Harris has talked about the wider implications of this phenomenon on families and communities. In some areas, a majority of the men are in jail, leaving a big hole in the social fabric. As families descend into poverty, the younger generation begins to have serious behavioral issues often resulting in crimes, perpetuating the cycle.

A social consensus is emerging on the need to rethink the punitive policies adopted in the 1990s – many under Bill Clinton – which included mandatory minimum sentences and higher overall sentences for drug crimes. Most of the changes were made for scoring political points and not based on scientific research.

But if Hillary Clinton as a woman candidate is seen as “soft on crime,” the Republicans will find her an easy target. The task for Harris is to show a decisive shift in thinking on social issues with convincing arguments without folding under predictable counter attacks.

Another key area for Harris to tackle is immigration reform, a volatile issue given the hardline taken by Republican candidates against illegal immigrants. Clinton is firmly moving left on the issue – she said in speech in May that if elected president she would provide legal protection to undocumented workers that go beyond what the Obama Administration has done.

If Clinton firmly captures the women and Hispanic vote, she could break the glass ceiling on the world’s most powerful job.