Irony Alert: Kamala Harris Profited from an Affair with Willie Brown, Yet She Wages War on Sex Work

2010 photo of Kamala Harris laughing while standing behind a podium at a rally in San Francisco
Kamala Harris at a civil-rights rally outside San Francisco City Hall in 2010.(Patricia Montes Gregory via Flickr)
Democratic presidential hopeful Kamala Harris's affair with ex-San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown gave her career a boost back in the day. So what has she got against sex work?

It’s the hypocrisy, stupid. That’s what pundits from The Nation to the Washington Post fail to grasp about the onetime romance between former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown and California Senator and Democratic presidential hopeful Kamala Harris.

Harris’s apologists would have people believe that discussion of the relationship, which occurred two decades ago when Brown held the powerful post of Speaker of the California Assembly and Harris was a lowly deputy district attorney in California’s Alameda County, is sexist, racist, or both. Viewed in light of Harris’s ongoing war on sex workers, however, her advantageous liaison with Brown indicates that she has no problem applying different rules to herself than she does to others.

Harris’s announcement that she will seek the Democratic Party’s nomination for the presidency has sparked interest in her career climb from line prosecutor to San Francisco district attorney to California attorney general to U.S. senator from the Golden State. Brown played a role in that ascent, as the irrepressible 84-year-old recently took pains to remind the world in a column he wrote for the San Francisco Chronicle entitled, “Sure, I dated Kamala Harris. So What?”

Claiming that he’d been “peppered” with calls from the national media about the affair, Brown wrote that he “may have influenced [Harris’s] career” by appointing her to two plum positions on state commissions, and that he “certainly helped her first race for district attorney in San Francisco.” But  he helped many high-profile California politicians rise to prominence, he argued. And besides, Harris was the only one who threatened to indict him if he “so much as jaywalked” while she was DA.

As Peter Byrne detailed in a 2003 profile of Harris for SF Weekly, Harris was a 29-year-old nobody in 1994 when she met the powerful, flashy Brown, who was 60 and separated from his wife. The May-December fling “was the talk of the town during the year before Brown’s successful 1995 bid to become [San Francisco’s] mayor,” Byrne wrote. But she dumped Brown before he took office.

Along with entrée to California’s elite social and political circles, Brown gave Harris a brand-new BMW and seats on the Unemployment Insurance Appeals Board and, later, the California Medical Assistance Commission. Byrne reported that the two gigs paid her a total of “more than $400,000 over five years.” The latter appointment involved “attending two meetings a month for a $99,000 annual salary.”

“I have absolutely nothing against the fact that she used her sexuality to get by in the world. What I do have a problem with is that having gained that power, she used it to attack other women for doing the same thing.”
–sex worker and indefatigable blogger Maggie McNeill

Brown also was of assistance to Harris as she ran for DA for the first time in 2003,  donating $500 to her campaign and enlisting a fundraising guru to shill for a pro-Harris independent expenditure committee. Brown was ending his eight-year reign as mayor at the time and was under investigation by the FBI for pay-to-play allegations. (Brown was never indicted.) He was notorious for cronyism and political patronage, from which Harris profited.

Harris admitted to Byrne that she’d benefited from Brown’s influence but expressed annoyance that it had become an issue in the DA race, calling it “an albatross around my neck.” Despite the ostensible handicap, Harris engineered a come-from-behind win on election day.

As liberal scribblers pooh-pooh the rehashing of the Brown-Harris dalliance, conservative commentators lambaste the would-be POTUS as a two-faced supporter of the #MeToo movement.

Both are off base.

The relationship was consensual and Harris has never expressed the slightest misgiving about it, so the #MeToo criticism is out. But while the affair wasn’t transactional in the technical sense of the term, both sides got something. An older man earned the company of a much younger woman, and an ambitious prosecutor got a leg up on her political career.

That is why Harris’s contempt for sex workers lies at the heart of her hypocrisy.

As a prosecutor, Harris has been a fierce opponent of efforts to decriminalize prostitution. While DA, she campaigned against a citywide proposition to that effect in San Francisco, arguing that the measure would “give a pass to predators of young women” — a red herring, in that the ballot question would have affected consensual commercial sex among adults, not sex trafficking. (The ballot measure was unsuccessful, though it did garner more than 40 percent of the vote.)

More recently, while attorney general, Harris vigorously fought an attempt to overthrow California’s 19th-century anti-prostitution law. The Erotic Service Provider Legal, Education and Research Project, a nonprofit group that fights for sex workers’ rights, filed a challenge to the statute in federal court, and Harris successfully petitioned to have the case dismissed arguing that California has “a legitimate interest simply in deterring the commodification of sex.”

As the Daily Beast and other outlets have observed, sex workers revile Harris, not only for her opposition to decriminalization, but also for her advocacy on behalf of the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA), which effectively outlawed online adult ads in the United States with a stroke of President Donald Trump’s pen in April of 2018.

Congress’ passage of FOSTA, coupled with the federal government’s takedown of the online listings giant Backpage.com, have had a devastating effect on sex workers — endangering their lives, robbing them of their ability to screen clients, and pushing them into riskier encounters. The Associated Press reported that the new law has led to a rise in street-level prostitution in several U.S. cities and made it more difficult for law enforcement to identify and locate victims of sex trafficking.

Even as Harris was campaigning for the U.S. Senate in 2016, she was going after Backpage from her post as California attorney general, rounding up three of the website’s current and former principals, parading them into a courtroom cell, and indicting them on numerous counts of money laundering and pimping. Harris took action even though she knew her office lacked the authority under federal law to pursue such a prosecution. When a state court judge threw out the pimping charges, Harris, who by then was on her way to Washington, filed them again.

(Full disclosure: Two of the defendants in California’s Backpage case, veteran newspapermen Michael Lacey and Jim Larkin, co-founded Front Page Confidential in 2017 to report on issues related to free speech and the First Amendment issues. Lacey and Larkin, who had sold their interests in the company in 2015, now face federal charges related to the operation of the company they once owned.)

Maggie McNeill, a self-described unretired call girl who writes the incisive Honest Courtesan blog, sees the hypocrisy in Harris’s antipathy to sex workers.

“I have absolutely nothing against the fact that she used her sexuality to get by in the world,” McNeill told Front Page Confidential during a recent phone conversation. “What I do have a problem with, is that having gained that power, she used it to attack other women for doing the same thing.”

McNeill, whose documentary The War on Whores will have its premiere in Seattle next month, noted the recent viral video of Harris laughing as the then-DA explained her policy of prosecuting the parents of truant schoolchildren. McNeill observed that Harris had prosecutorial discretion while DA, and could have directed her prosecutors to focus on violent and white-collar crimes. Instead, says McNeill, Harris “did the opposite [and went after] poor people and sex workers.”

Dubbing Harris “the handmaiden of the patriarchy,” McNeill characterized the ambitious politician’s actions as a manifestation of what she calls “The McNeill Rule”:

“The more a man crusades against a particular sexual act, the more likely he is to be a practitioner.”

For Further Reading:
“Kamala Harris’s Record as a Prosecutor Exposes the Dirty Truths Behind Her Newfound ‘Progressive’ Persona”

About Stephen Lemons

Stephen Lemons is an award-winning investigative journalist with more than 20 years of experience covering everything from government corruption to white-supremacist gangs. In addition to Front Page Confidential, his work has appeared in Phoenix New Times, the Los Angeles Times, Salon.com, and the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Report magazine.

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