AN FRANCISCO—In the summer of 1999, in the monied Napa Valley north of here, a bejeweled bride rode sidesaddle on a speckled horse into what the press would label “the Bay Area’s version of an outdoor royal wedding.” The lavish nuptials of Vanessa Jarman and oil heir Billy Getty—replete with red carpet, hundreds of flickering votives, and “a fair amount of wine,” according to one deadpan attendee—featured a 168-person guest list stocked with socialites and scions, philanthropists and other assorted glitterati.
This coterie of the chosen included, as well, a 34-year-old prosecutor who was all of a year and a half into her job in the San Francisco district attorney’s office. And she wasn’t just some celebrity’s all but anonymous plus-one. She was featured in the photo coverage of the hot-ticket affair, smiling wide, decked out in a dark gown with a drink in hand.
“Kamala Harris,” the caption read, “cruised through the reception.”
Well before she was a United States senator, or the attorney general of California, Harris was already in with the in-crowd here. From 1994, when she was introduced splashily in the region’s most popular newspaper column as the paramour of one of the state’s most powerful politicians, to 2003, when she was elected district attorney, the Oakland- and Berkeley-bred Harris charted the beginnings of her ascent in the more fashionable crucible of San Francisco. In Pacific Heights parlors and bastions of status and wealth, in trendy hot spots, and in the juicy, dishy missives of the variety of gossip columns that chronicled the city’s elite, Kamala Harris was a boldface name.
Born and raised in more diverse, far less affluent neighborhoods on the other side of the Bay, Harris was the oldest daughter of immigrant parents, reared in a family that was intellectual but not privileged or rich. As a presidential contender, running against opponents who openly disdain elites and big money, she has emphasized not only her reputation as a take-no-prisoners prosecutor but also the humbleness of her roots—a child of civil rights activism, of busing, “so proud,” as she said at the start of her speech announcing her candidacy, “to be a child of Oakland.”
Her rise, however, was propelled in and by a very different milieu. In this less explored piece of her past, Harris used as a launching pad the tightly knit world of San Francisco high society, navigating early on this rarefied world of influence and opulence, charming and partying with movers and shakers—ably cultivating relationships with VIPs who would become friends and also backers and donors of every one of her political campaigns, tapping into deep pockets and becoming a popular figure in a small world dominated by a handful of powerful families. This stratum of San Francisco remains a profoundly important part of her network—including not just powerful Democratic donors but an ambassador appointed by President Donald Trump who ran in the same circles.
Harris, now 54, often has talked about the importance of having “a seat at the table,” of being an insider instead of an outsider. And she learned that skill in this crowded, incestuous, famously challenging political proving ground, where she worked to score spots at the some of the city’s most sought-after tables. In the mid- to late ’90s and into the aughts, the correspondents who kept tabs on the comings and goings of the area’s A-listers noted where Harris was and what she was doing and who she was with. As she advanced professionally, jumping from Alameda County to posts in the offices of the district and city attorneys across the Bay, she was a trustee, too, of the museum of modern art and active in causes concerning AIDS and the prevention of domestic abuse, and out and about at fashion shows and cocktail parties and galas and get-togethers at the most modish boutiques. She was, in the breezy, buzzy parlance of these kinds of columns, one of the “Pretty Thangs.” She was a “rising star.” She was “rather perfect.” And she mingled with “spiffy and powerful friends” who were her contemporaries as well as their even more influential mothers and fathers. All this was fun, but it wasn’t unserious. It was seeing and being seen with a purpose, society activity with political utility.