Meet the woman who’s guiding Hillary Clinton’s stance on police reforms

June 3, 2015, 6:45 PM UTC
Courtesy of Ford Foundation

With many of the power players from Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential run are sitting this one out, the big question is: Who’s in?

What follows is the latest installment of a Fortune series looking at the the most influential women on Clinton’s 2016 team. When this series wraps, we’ll turn our attention to the most powerful women on the GOP side of the race.

Maya Harris, 48, senior policy adviser

Maya Harris hails from a family of female overachievers. Her late mother, Shyamala Harris, immigrated from India in the 1950s to obtain her PhD in endocrinology from U.C. Berkeley, and went on to make breakthrough discoveries in breast cancer research. Her big sister, Kamala Harris, is California’s attorney general, and is now running for U.S. Senate. At age 29, Maya herself became one of the nation’s youngest-ever law school deans when she took the reins of the Lincoln Law School of San Jose, a night school that prepares students for the California bar.

Then—as if choosing a spouse specially equipped to keep up with all this hard-charging ambition—Harris married fellow Stanford Law student (and her best friend) Tony West. West would go on to become the third-highest ranking official in the Obama Justice Department. Their friendship blossomed when Harris’ 4-year-old daughter Meena engaged West in games of hide-and-seek while her then-single mom was registering for classes. Following family tradition, Meena is now a Harvard law grad.

“It’s all justice all the time,” Harris laughs when asked about family dinner talk.

Harris’ mother, who mostly raised her girls alone (Harris’ Jamaican-born father was a Stanford economist), was swept up in the civil rights movement in and around Berkeley, so Harris grew up imbued with a healthy dose of activism. But the girls’ trailblazing mother also modeled a life of mentorship—always supporting her graduate students while also demanding high standards. “She was tough on them,” Harris recalls. “Until her dying day she never lost sight of this notion that if you’ve been able to walk through doors, you don’t just leave the doors open. You bring others along.”

The sisters spent their early childhood in Berkeley before moving to Montreal, where their mother was a researcher at the Jewish General Hospital—and Harris learned French. They returned to the Bay Area six years later, where Harris attended U.C. Berkeley. Both she and Kamala inherited their mother’s intense drive—Harris as a civil rights attorney; Kamala a prosecutor—and her passion for cooking everything from soul food to Italian cuisine.

Today, with inner cities exploding over police tactics, Harris’ appointment as one of three senior Clinton policy advisers is timely: The one-time private attorney has spent much of her professional life working on criminal justice issues, particularly policing. Her influence was evident in Clinton’s April 29 speech denouncing the tough-on-crime policies of her husband in the 1990s and the “era of mass incarceration” it produced. That’s an argument Harris has made over the years while working at the ACLU, the Oakland-based group PolicyLink, and, most recently, liberal Center for American Progress in Washington.

Harris talks about the “collateral consequences of conviction” on families and communities, not just individuals, and tells me that the best police reforms are those that “engage the community as partners and problem-solvers, not just people to be policed.” Clinton’s speech gave fodder to critics who accuse the candidate of being too soft on crime and too hard on police officers assigned to work the front lines of dangerous neighborhoods.

But, interestingly, Clinton’s calls for sentencing and prison reforms are echoed by some powerful Republicans, including presidential candidate and Senator Rand Paul. Koch Industries CEO Charles Koch, a well-known funder of Republican candidates, also recently argued that “overcriminalization” has led to “conflict between our citizens and law enforcement.” “I’m heartened that we’ve arrived at a bipartisan moment where people on the left and on the right are coming together,” says Harris.

Immigration is another issue that falls under Harris’ campaign purview, and another spot where Clinton has rejected her husband’s policies and moved to the left—further left than even President Barack Obama. In a May 6 speech that Harris helped to craft, Clinton warned that if Congress doesn’t pass immigration reform—and she is elected president—she would issue executive orders beyond those issued by President Obama to provide legal protection to undocumented workers living here. Look to see Harris’ influence again on June 13, when Clinton delivers official “launch” speech on Manhattan’s Roosevelt Island.

For more about Clinton’s 2016 team, check out:

Meet the ex-Googler who is making Hillary Clinton more tech-savvy

This is the woman who speaks for Hillary Clinton

Meet the woman behind Hillary Clinton’s Twitter account

Meet Clinton’s staff basketball star–and consummate Senate insider

This is the wonk shaping Hillary Clinton’s plans for the country


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