Kamala D. Harris, the highest ranking woman in California government, said she had to overcome the perception that the state was not ready for a female attorney general when she decided to run for the office.
"A lot of people said the state is not ready for that," Harris said at the TheWrap's Power of Leadership Breakfast on Thursday at the Montage Beverly Hills. "People are probably not ready for this woman of color from San Francisco, who is opposed to the death penalty, to be the top cop in the biggest state in the country."
She went on: ”I always felt we could do it, so that is not a concern. It was more about overcoming people’s perceptions."
Harris talked about women as leaders in government, business and politics, in a year when a record number of women were voted into elective office.
“When we talk about women holding elected offices, it isn’t because we are trying to make these milestones of first this and first that,” she said.
"Women have different experiences in life than men. When we hold important positions, we can be at the table where decisions are made that impact the lives of other people. It is absolutely important that that there is a diversity of thought at that table before the decision is made."
In the audience were some of the top women players in Hollywood and politics, including Dawn Hudson, CEO of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences; producer Paula Wagner; "Les Miserables" producer Debra Hayward; Los Angeles City Controller and mayoral candidate Wendy Greuel; actress Sharon Lawrence; Anne Globe, DreamWorks Animation's head of worldwide marketing and consumer products; Stephanie Allain, producer and director of the Los Angeles Film Festival; Deborah Liebling, president of Red Hour Films' television division; Orly Adelson, President of Dick Clark Productions; Nell Scovell, a television writer, producer and director; and Cathy Schulman, Mandalay Pictures president and the president of Women in Film.
Women in Film partnered on the event with TheWrap for the second year in a row.
Harris, the first African-American and South Asian woman to hold the office of attorney general in California, recalled her parents' political activism, which she said shaped her political engagement.
“My parents met when they were actively involved in the civil rights movement,” she said. “My sister and I grew up around a group of adults that spent their time marching and shouting.”
During her public legal career, she said, she has focused on issues like truancy, an unusual crime for a criminal prosecutor.
Addressing truancy in school is not just a means of curbing crime but of cutting the cost of inmates doing time in California as the state battles budgetary crisis, she said.
“You can trace about any big issue to a child,” she said. “If you are worried about the three padlocks on your door so someone doesn’t kill you, make sure that six year old is in school.”
Harris was asked by Sharon Waxman, TheWrap's founder and editor-in-chief, about whether the issues that she has made a priority, from the death penalty to human trafficking, reflected a woman's sensibility.
Harris did not deny it.
"I don't have any sympathy for anyone on death row. I am a career prosecutor,” she said. “As far as I am concerned if you take the life of another person, you should be locked up for the rest of your life.”
But, she added, “The death penalty is a complex issue. I am personally opposed to the death penalty, but I follow the law. I wrote a book called 'Smart on Crime,' which was borne out of my belief that we have been presented with false choice that you are either tough on crime or soft on crime. That's wrong. As the attorney general, I am thinking about the crime problem, not the individual criminal case.”
She continued: “There is no question that based on our experiences we will create certain priorities. When you are talking about trafficking, we are not just talking about girls that cross international borders but the dropout from Kansas who is trafficked into Las Vegas and Hollywood,” she said.
Harris' talk was followed by a panel made up of both top political and entertainment players, including Scovell, Schulman, Greuel, Harris, Globe and Waxman, who discussed everything from the female approach to doing business to the paltry number of female executives who hold top posts in the business — around 7 percent.
"Sometimes we have reached 8 percent," said Schulman, who drew a connection between the challenges of being in public office to the challenges of rising to the top of an entertainment company – even in liberal Hollywood.
Schulman said she'd just returned from the set of a move she produced, and was greeted by a call from the financiers. She did the job, she was told, "as well as any man."