'It Just Filled My Heart With So Much Joy': As Kamala Harris Makes History, Her Friends Cry, Celebrate and Reflect

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Kamala Harris is sworn in as vice president by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor on Jan. 20, 2021 on the steps of the U.S. Capitol, as her husband Doug Emhoff and President-elect Joe Biden look on. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

For many Americans, the inauguration of Kamala Harris as the nation’s first female vice president, first Black vice president and first South Asian vice president is enormously meaningful.

But for those who have known Harris for years, including San Francisco Mayor London Breed, it’s even more moving.

"I've been sitting here ugly crying all morning," Breed said on Wednesday, just minutes after Harris was sworn in.

It's about more than just hometown pride, said Breed, a Black woman raised in public housing by her grandmother, who had been a sharecropper in the Deep South.

"My grandmother was fierce," said Breed. "But when the social worker, who was white, would come and visit our house, you could tell she was always uncomfortable. And there was a certain expectation of knowing your place as a Black person."

Watching Harris take the oath, Breed said she thought about all the little kids witnessing history who will never grow up with the feeling she once had: that a Black woman would never belong on that inauguration stage.

"It's hard to describe, but it was overwhelming and it was exciting and it was historic. It just filled my heart with so much joy," she said. "And I just thought that there are going to be a new generation of kids growing up where they know nothing other than this. ... People of color and girls, they now see themselves in this way."

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti — of mixed race himself — first met Harris in 2006, when she was the San Francisco district attorney and he was president of the Los Angeles City Council.

Garcetti said he looks forward to watching Harris' husband, Doug Emhoff, carve out his groundbreaking role as the nation’s first "second gentleman." Harris, Emhoff and their extended, blended family are America, he said.

"I just think she represents not the new America — she represents the present America," he said. "Let's stop pretending like it's something that's a tidal wave coming, of demography. It's actually how we live today. Families that are blended, cultures that are blended."

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Paul Henderson, the director of San Francisco's Department of Police Accountability, goes way back with Harris. He knew her sister, Maya, in high school and first got to know Harris when she was an Alameda County prosecutor and he was just out of law school.

"I was clerking for a judge on the Superior Court out there, and that judge brought us both out to lunch and said, 'Oh, we should get to know each other because there's not a lot of African Americans working in prosecution,' " he said.

Henderson went on to work alongside Harris when they were both prosecutors in San Francisco. He then supported her longshot bid for district attorney in 2003, and worked as her chief of administration after she was elected.

Back then, Henderson said, there weren’t a lot of Black leaders to look up to.

"It was helpful and inspiring for me to know that there is a path and there are people that look like me and there are people that have values similar to mine that are doing this work," he said.

Henderson said Harris' ascension to the White House means Black Americans will have more than just the "singular" example of Barack Obama.

"To the degree you don't see people that look like you, that sound like you, that have experiences like you in positions of leadership, authority and success, I think it's really difficult to be on a path to achieve those same things," he said.

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This moment is especially poignant for longtime Harris allies with kids. Bilen Mesfin Packwood, CEO of Change Consulting, a communications agency, also worked for Harris when she was district attorney.

Mesfin Packwood watched the inauguration with her 2-year-old daughter.

"She will never not know this reality, right? Like, she will never not know a country where something like this is possible or something like this could happen. And I am just elated and having all the feelings and all the emotions on this historic day," she said.

Assemblyman David Chiu, D-San Francisco, who was a prosecutor with Harris in Alameda County 23 years ago, said he's excited both as a father and as an Asian man who helped with her first campaign.

"When she called me to invite me to her first kitchen cabinet meeting, I remember thinking this is going to be an uphill battle," Chiu said. "I was thinking, 'Is San Francisco ready for a female DA of mixed-race background?' "

Today, Chiu said, he's thrilled to be sharing this moment with his son.

"When I think about my 4-year-old son and his very diverse classmates, the idea that they are going to grow up seeing someone on television every day who reflects our community and does it so well and will lead so well, it's thrilling," he said.

Longtime Harris adviser and friend Debbie Mesloh, president of San Francisco's Commission on the Status of Women, said she watched the inauguration thinking about all the work Harris and others put in to get here — and how many times, in earlier campaigns, they weren’t sure if they'd succeed.

"I keep thinking about all the people, you know, over the years who have helped come get her on her way, who were there at the very beginning," Mesloh said. "I mean, so many people in San Francisco, part of really that first race in 2003 that made this all possible."

"So I was thinking of them," she added, "and I was thinking a lot about her mom" who died in 2009.

Veteran San Francisco prosecutor Suzy Loftus worked for Harris in the San Francisco DA's office and later when she became California's first female attorney general. Loftus' three daughters have known and watched Harris their entire lives.

Vivienne, 11, said it was "pretty cool" to watch Harris being sworn in.

"Because, like, I knew her when I was like 6 or 7 years old," she said, adding that it also means a lot that Harris is the first woman to be vice president. "I think that's a really big step and I think that's just so cool."

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