2011 Second Place Writing Winner

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Kamala Harris approaches law enforcement like doctors approach an epidemic.

Trying to prevent crime outbreaks before they start, the California attorney general is partnering with health leaders to open a Center for Youth Wellness to treat children with post-traumatic stress disorder. The idea is to intervene before those same kids commit crimes later down the road.

When describing the program at a Tuesday morning press conference, Harris asked people to imagine a child growing up in a neighborhood where he hears gunfire every night. Picture a six-year-old who probably had a relative killed in a violent crime and is surrounded by adults who have had the same experiences.

“We expect that child to go to school the next day and learn,” Harris said, brushing away a stray strand of her mocha colored hair. “That’s not happening.”

Partnering with Dr. Nadine Burke, medical director of the Bayview Child Health Center, the attorney general hopes early-intervention programs such as this will be able to significantly cut down on future crime rates and health care costs.

“We know that prevention works,” said Abigail Stewart-Kahn, director of new programming for the San Francisco Child Abuse Prevention Center. “Programs like this not only reduce the incidence, but they reduce the cost to society at a ratio of $19 to $1.”

The initiative is one of several plans Harris is carrying over from her time as San Francisco district attorney.

Harris is known to have a soft spot for kids. Unlike the strict, no-children rule that dictates many legal offices, Harris is understanding and accommodating when prosecutors need to bring their kids to work, friend and adviser Debbie Mesloh said. Family comes first for the prosecutor, who keeps a ready supply of candy and chocolate chip cookies in her office.

“To watch her with kids is very cool,” Mesloh said. “Kamala would love for the kids to come into her office and spend the day with her.”

Her face lights up when asked about the program and its effect on children. Though her detractors question why she is focusing research and resources on atypical law enforcement programs such as the clinic, her supporters applaud her innovation.

“She’s not going to show up to work and just do the same old, same old,” Campaign Manager Ace Smith said. “She’s the person who sees the big picture. She’s also someone willing to take risks.”

With California battling one of the worst economies in the nation, Harris hopes to save money and resources by acting preemptively. After all, she said, these are the same kids who aren’t attending school, who are loitering and selling drugs and who, years down the road, end up in the state prisons.

“I guess we’ve decided those are small issues because they are small people,” Harris said. “Instead of realizing that when we focus on children and the issues that impact them, we will save ourselves so much in terms of public research.”

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Personality/Profile Article

Debbie Mesloh still remembers the meeting where Kamala Harris proposed her anti-truancy initiative.

“I’m going to prosecute parents,” announced Harris, the then San Francisco district attorney.

Mesloh, her friend and adviser, watched as the room erupted in a chorus of protests. It was an election year, after all. The plan was political suicide. But Harris held firm. She had the political capital, and she was ready to spend it.

To Harris, a career prosecutor known for innovative techniques, it was a matter of accountability. She pored through murder profiles from 2004 to 2008.The results showed 94 percent of victims under the age of 25 were high school drop-outs. In Harris’ mind, keeping kids in school was a life or death battle.

Initiatives like this place Harris in stark contrast to archetypical law-and-order district attorneys. Supporters praise her creativity and pragmatism. Detractors point to her blunders in office, including having to drop hundreds of drug cases as a result of a crime lab technician skimming cocaine samples.

Each side has some merit, and even Harris admits launching new programs runs the risk of encountering undiscovered fallout. But such is the nature of innovation.

“I think there is a real deterrence for innovation by government,” Harris said. “When you’re up for re-election, nobody will ever knock you for doing things the way they’ve always been done.”

Harris refuses to view the world in false dichotomies. She bristles at the tough-or-soft-on-crime mentality that has long dominated law enforcement rhetoric. For the democratic prosecutor who wears Manolo heels in the courtroom and hangs a sword on her office wall, the world is anything but black and white.


Harris was born in 1964 — the same year President Lyndon B. Johnson passed civil rights legislation enforcing desegregation — and grew up on the streets of social revolution in Berkeley, Calif. Her father, a Jamaican American, taught economics at Stanford University; her mother, an Indian immigrant, was a breast cancer specialist.

Family lore has it that a young Harris, when asked what she wanted, cooed “Fwee-dom.” She learned the value of creativity while in fine arts school. But at home, she earned her spot at the dinner table by speaking up and defending her point. From a young age, she balanced imagination with reasoning.

She went on to attend Howard University and earned her law degree at University of California, Hastings College of the Law.

“She was laid back, easy to laugh and fun,” sorority sister Sherilyn Pruitt recalled. “Then she could also be intense and very, very focused. She definitely has both sides in her.”

In an increasingly divided political climate, prosecutors are known more for their stances on the death penalty than their conviction rates. Harris’ status as a female minority from San Francisco has opponents salivating to label her as a bleeding heart liberal who’s soft on crime.

In some cases, her record does little to disarm them. Early in her term as district attorney, Harris notoriously refused to pursue the death penalty following the murder of police officer Isaac Espinoza. Seven years later, officers still stiffen at the mention of their former district attorney. Some suggest Harris’ mantra of “smart on crime” is an excuse for not exuding a tougher stance in the law enforcement arena.

While the Espinoza case put her on edge with conservatives, her anti-truancy program riled up local liberals with the idea of prosecuting parents.

But Harris was not shaken in her resolve. She maintained that preventative methods would save the state money.

“If we took on one issue as a society, it should be the issue of elementary school truancy because we can actually do something about it,” Harris said.

Public Defender Jeff Adachi said the question became whether sending parents to jail was the most effective way of keeping kids in school.

“It’s definitely outside what DAs would typically involve themselves in,” Adachi said. “Most DAs define their tenure by prosecuting serious crimes.”

Harris’ supporters don’t see the line between prosecution and innovation that others draw in the sand. They point to statistics showing the district attorney’s office more than doubled its trial conviction rate for gun felonies to 90 percent, sent 50-percent more violent offenders to state prison, put more than 220 gang members behind bars and convicted more than 1,200 domestic violence offenders under Harris’ leadership.

“Simultaneously while she was implementing these programs, she also raised the conviction rate to the highest it’s been in years,” Mesloh said.

The 46-year-old former San Francisco district attorney with a stunning smile shocked Sacramento insiders when she defeated Los Angeles District Attorney Steve Cooley in her bid for California attorney general. In one of the most contested races in recent history – it took more than three weeks to count the votes – Harris emerged as a controversial innovator whose alternative approaches are sometimes met with praise and sometimes found wanting.

“The nature of a political campaign is that things are so much easier when they’re boiled down,” campaign spokesman Brian Brokaw said, quickly following it with a caveat. “But she never really fits into any particular mold.”

On Jan. 3, 2011, Harris strode in to a round of cheers and applause from those gathered to witness her inauguration as the state’s 32nd attorney general. Her signature double strand of pearls peaked out from the charcoal-gray pinstripe suit – conservative in nature, but with a classy pleating that added some edge.

Minutes later, she gave her inaugural address as the first female minority elected to the office. In the 130 days that followed, Harris has worked to combat issues ranging from transnational gangs to mortgage frauds and predatory lending. The career prosecutor vows to punish severe and violent crimes while continuing to channel the creative problem solving that got her where she is today.

“It’s also about asking the questions and not accepting status quo,” Harris said. “And doing it in a way that also, frankly, is about having the ability to understand that there is no issue too small or too big if you can fix it.”

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Every weekday for a dozen years, like his father did before him, Jerry Knaus woke up and put on a suit and tie.

The 53-year-old remembers spending every Sunday ironing dress shirts while he watched golf. He dedicated entire afternoons to maintaining the multi-thousand dollar wardrobe required for his job at an oil company.

Knaus, who now works for a large aerospace company, was decked out in L.L. Bean jeans and a fleece pullover to attend the Apple Worldwide Developers Conference in San Francisco this week. Like thousands of others at the tech convention, he hasn’t worn a suit and tie to work in more than a decade. Knaus said the casual dress code hasn’t changed anything about his job. In a society increasingly more focused on simplifying and streamlining the world around us, there’s no room for unnecessary steps.

“There’s no value added in dressing up,” Knaus said. “I just don’t see any advantage. I still do the same work. It doesn’t help me on the phone. A tie doesn’t help me manage people. I just had to dry clean all those suits.”

The days of the power suit are gone, said Hersha Steinbock merchandising instructor at the Academy of Art University. Years ago, a three-piece suit was an indicator of success. Now, billionaires such as Mark Zuckerberg are challenging that standard, wearing flip-flops and hoodies to work.

San Francisco, the land of start-ups and Silicon Valley, is undergoing a fashion democratization.

“In San Francisco, they’re not going to have to mark their status like you would see in other parts of the country,” Steinbock said. “Our cultural innovators are choosing to wear almost a uniform as a way to not distract from the actual products and the message and the culture of the company.”

Mobs of tech developers descended upon the San Francisco Mescone Center, flocking toward the giant Apple symbol on the side of the building like Bruce Wayne to the Bat-Signal. Except while fictional millionaire Wayne showed off his success with extravagant parties and expensive suits, these up-and-coming tech gurus were clad in everything but high-end fashion.

Graphic T-shirts with orange aliens replaced button down shirts. Men abandoned briefcases for JanSport backpacks. Patent leather wingtips were nowhere to be seen. Instead, Chuck Taylors and New Balance sneakers pounded the pavement as the attendees made their way into the building.

Executive directors and vice-presidents for the multi-billion dollar company gave presentations in T-shirts, hands tucked snuggly in their jean pockets.

Steve Jobs took the stage Monday to a chorus of cheers and a standing ovation. The crowd was a flurry of activity as developers whipped out their iPhones to snap pictures of one of the most successful men in the world. As per usual, he appeared in uniform: faded jeans, black turtleneck and white sneakers.

“It’s a way of actually becoming background instead of foreground,” Steinbock said.

“These guys have all the money in the world, and their way of marking their status was to actually use fashion as a reverse status marker.”

The co-founder of Apple certainly could afford designer suits if he wanted. Forbes Magazine ranked him the 34th richest man in America in 2011. Jobs’ net worth sits at $8.3 billion as of March 2011, according to the magazine.

Jobs represents the extreme case, but even for staff members, the lack of ties and sports coats isn’t a result of financial strain or a failing economy. Knaus said he makes three times the salary he did when he was donning suits. Instead, the laid-back wardrobes are a shift toward practicality and comfort, he said. And it’s a change that came with the younger generation.

“In the late 90s, they came in asking, ‘Why do I have to wear a tie?’” Knaus recalled.

When faced with strict dress codes, the young entrepreneurs instead went to start-ups and business with more relaxed atmospheres focused on product over appearance

“The businesses learned that to compete to get this new talent, we have to loosen up a bit,” Knaus said. “Our job is to produce products, not to have a style.”

Those products are recognized worldwide, and even fashion designers are taking note, Steinbock said. Garments from designers such as Balenciaga are mirroring the shapes of iPhones and textures and surfaces of high-tech products.

“If you look at what was on the runway from spring ‘11, the shapes of the clothes and textures of the fabrics are really impacted by the Apple products,” Steinbock said. “Technology has more innovation than fashion does right now.”

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