SAN FRANCISCO—Before a campaign forum that would help to define her nascent political career, Kamala Harris, then a 38-year-old prosecutor, was bracing for questions about an uncomfortable topic: her relationship with the mayor of San Francisco, Willie Brown.
Harris’ consultant, Jim Stearns, had warned his candidate that her opponents would dredge up her ties to Brown, and the moment arrived at a church in the city’s gentrifying Noe Valley neighborhood. The race for San Francisco district attorney was still in its infancy, and Harris, who had never before run for public office, was polling in single digits. But she had an uncommon touch for fundraising and a biography that appealed to women and nonwhite voters. Her opponents took her seriously, but they also saw a weakness that could hobble her political ambitions.