It only took a few days after Senator Kamala Harris officially launched her presidential bid for some to run with misogynistic allegations that the California junior senator "slept her way to the top."
The allegations were fuelled by an open letter her ex boyfriend Willie Brown, the former mayor of San Francisco, wrote about dating Harris in the mid 1990s. When they met, she was a 29-year-old assistant district attorney and he was the 60-year-old speaker of the California State Assembly. Harris ended the relationship short after Brown was inaugurated as mayor in January 1996.
In a letter to the San Francisco Chronicle published on Saturday, Brown implied he helped Harris further her career. "Yes, we dated. It was more than 20 years ago. Yes, I may have influenced her career by appointing her to two state commissions when I was Assembly speaker," Brown wrote. "And I certainly helped with her first race for district attorney in San Francisco. I have also helped the careers of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Gov. Gavin Newsom, Sen. Dianne Feinstein and a host of other politicians."
But Harris has in the past painted a very different picture of the influence Brown, who she at a point considered a mentor, had in her career. While Brown claims he had a hand at electing her during her first district attorney bid, his role was much more limited. The former mayor donated $500 (£380) to the campaign and then had a political consultant raise money for her, even though she had not agreed to the pitch. In fact, Harris was intent in distancing herself from Brown in 2003 and made it clear that as a district attorney she would prosecute him if necessary, as his political career was filled with corruption allegations — which is probably why Brown ended his open letter by bitterly referencing the possibility of being indicted.
"His career is over; I will be alive and kicking for the next 40 years. I do not owe him a thing," she told the San Francisco Chronicle at the time. When asked about being appointed to her part-time roles at the state commissions, she said: "Whether you agree or disagree with the system, I did the work. ... I brought a level of life knowledge and common sense to the jobs. I mean, if you were asked to be on a board that regulated medical care, would you say no?"
It's unlikely voters outside of certain California areas will recognise Brown or care about his relationship with Harris, but that hasn't stopped media outlets from running with salacious headlines that frame the former prosecutor as an opportunist who used sex as a way to launch her political career. A Fox News headline describes the relationship as an "extramarital affair" even though Brown has been separated from his estranged wife Blanche Brown since 1981 — thirteen years before he began dating Harris. Other right-wing outlets described the relationship as a "sex affair" and argued she "slept her way to the top."
It's the same kind of misogynistic thinking that has led critics to accuse several women in President Donald Trump's orbit of having an extramarital relationship with him in exchange for more power, without any evidence. Or that has allowed men like Trump or former President Bill Clinton, notorious philanderers also accused of sexual misconduct, to rise to the highest office of the land without barely any scrutiny of their pasts.
If the allegations of cronyism held water, Harris should be able to explain what happened 25 years ago. But so far it seems like her opponents are more interested in portraying Harris — one of the few women in the Democratic race and a woman of colour — as an opportunistic gold digger. That kind of sexist power move should be left behind by now.
Refinery29 reached out to Sen. Kamala Harris' campaign for comment. We'll update this story if we hear back.