How San Francisco’s wealthiest families launched Kamala Harris

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.

Because three years after the Getty wedding, in mid-2002, Harris called Mark Buell. She knew him because Harris was friends with his stepdaughter, Summer Tompkins Walker, the daughter of Susie Tompkins Buell, the major Democratic donor. Harris told him she wanted to run for district attorney. At first, Buell was skeptical, he said recently when we got together for dinner at an old Union Square haunt called Sam’s; he considered Harris “a socialite with a law degree,” he explained over salmon and sauvignon blanc. The more Harris talked, though, the more impressed he became. By the end of their conversation, Buell offered to be her finance chair. His first piece of advice: To knock off an incumbent in what would be a nasty, three-candidate fight, Harris was going to need to raise an early, eye-popping amount of money. Buell saw her friends, people he knew, too, as an asset to deploy. “So we put together a finance committee that primarily was young socialite ladies,” he told me. The group included Vanessa Getty, by then one of Harris’ closest pals, and Susan Swig—head-turning surnames in the city’s choicest circles. Buell’s directive: “I said, ‘No one has ever raised more than $150,000 for a D.A.’s race, totally. I want this group to raise $100,000 by the first reporting period.”