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Kamala Harris's Secret Weapon

Kamala Harris's Secret Weapon


California's new attorney general, Kamala Harris, has quickly become a Golden State gay idol. Not only is she smart and stylish, Harris is staunchly opposed to Proposition 8; her refusal to defend the anti-marriage equality measure in court may doom it to history's dustbin.

Perhaps it's no surprise that there's a skillful gay man behind this accomplished woman -- Timothy Silard was Harris's policy adviser for many years when she served as San Francisco's district attorney. Now Silard is the president of Rosenberg Foundation, one of California's oldest charitable organizations -- and he's also on Harris's transition team, working on the new attorney general's civil rights goals and heading up her efforts at stopping criminals from becoming repeat offenders.

Silard left the DA's office in 2008 to take over the Rosenberg Foundation, a philanthropic organization founded in 1935 by Max Rosenberg, a wealthy, unmarried fruit-and-nut distributor. In its early days the foundation advocated against civil rights injustices, including the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. In its entire history the Rosenberg Foundation has given away 2,800 grants totaling nearly $80 million to regional, statewide, and national groups. Now, as the foundation celebrates its 75th year -- the organization celebrated the anniversary Thursday at a gala in San Francisco, with members of the ACLU, NAACP, and Harris in attendance -- Silard is directing the organization toward the civil rights fights of the 21st century.

"In social justice work, people have tended to be working in their separate constituencies, and that's been true for LGBT work," Silard says. "We're thinking about how to really dig in around the areas of common interest within minority groups to form a real coalition where we're going to have each other's backs."

This fall Rosenberg made a grant to both Equality California -- the state's gay rights organization -- and Mobilize the Immigrant Vote, which works to get out low-propensity voters. The money was used to coordinate the efforts of the two groups, specifically getting out voters who support candidates who are both pro-gay and immigrant-supportive. Whether it was related or not, California bucked the national trend this fall by electing liberal (and Democratic) candidates for senator, governor, and attorney general.

"If you put together communities of color, LGBT communities, white progressives, and folks from labor, you've got incredible power," Silard says. "We're beginning to see that in California. It was a big part in the state looking very different from the rest of the country in November. You certainly saw the election of a lot of younger people of color, Kamala included."

Silard says his foundation will work to elect more minorities to office like the 46-year-old mixed-race Harris, who narrowly defeated 63-year-old Steve Cooley, a Prop. 8 supporter.

Silard will now help Harris work on one of California's biggest issues -- overcrowded prisons. Harris supports education and rehabilitation rather than simply sending repeat offenders back to jail, seeing this as a better investment. This approach should especially be utilized when it comes to California's female inmates, Silard believes.

"We have more women behind bars in California then anywhere in the world," Silard says. "In California about 70% of women in state prisons have never had a serious, violent, or sexual offense -- these are drug offenders, low-level property offenders -- this is coming at an enormous cost for the state."

While guiding Harris's antirecidivism efforts, Silard has also signed on as part of her civil rights transition team. When the two worked together at the DA's office in San Francisco, they established a unit to deal with same-sex domestic violence and held a national conference on combating the "gay panic" and "trans panic" defenses used by some attorneys.

Aside from making sure Prop. 8 doesn't rear its head again -- it's currently in a federal appeals court -- Silard wants to work with local police departments to make sure gay people in rural parts of California are protected from antigay bias and violence.

"[In rural parts of the state] you probably care deeply about gay marriage, but, frankly, you're probably facing very real and urgent issues around your physical safety, let alone your basic employment and housing rights," Silard says. "We'll be making sure these wonderful standards of LGBT protections we've developed in San Francisco and Los Angeles are utilized all over the state."

Click here to find out more about Silard and the Rosenberg Foundation.
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