Difficult Women All: Why is Kamala Harris a “Bad Boss”?

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Image: Ted Eytan on Flickr

The primatologist Jane Goodall didn’t know she was coining a political maxim when she spoke these oft-quoted words, “It doesn’t take much to be considered a difficult woman:  That’s why there are so many of us.”

The label is being attached these days, hand over fist, to women in public life. Vice President Kamala Harris is our latest “difficult woman”.

Harris was recently hit with an anonymously-sourced Politico piece describing disorganization on her staff, a demanding, power-hungry chief-of-staff, and a curt, removed boss. A parallel hit from Business Insider quoted ex-aides on the “demoralizing” atmosphere in the office of centrist Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Arizona. The articles track with a presidential campaign hit last year by the New York Times which depicted Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., as a boss from hell. 

The Devil Wore Prada has moved to politics. It’s a trend that reaches across America, witness the bad-mouthing of Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan and Sen. Maria Cantwell.  Tales of difficult work environments used to focus on the guys — e.g. Lyndon Johnson insisting senior White House aides confer with him while he was getting an enema – but today’s bad-boss stories seem tailored to those Dwight Eisenhower called of “the female persuasion.”

Kamala Harris was fitted with a target on her back the moment she took the oath of office.  She had a brief run for president characterized by infighting, leaks, and depictions of the candidate’s evil sister as campaign manager. The ex-San Francisco DA had/has a forceful, prosecutorial style. Seeing Harris take on Trump’s Attorney General Jeff Sessions at Senate hearings was like watching a wolverine go after a three-toed sloth. She is not one to elicit sympathy.

Harris is also bashed for strategic and ideological reasons.  The country’s right-wing media have found stolid, decent Joe Biden difficult to demonize.  The latest ABC News/Washington Post poll shows Americans, by a 63-31 percent margin, approve Biden’s handling of America’s COVID-19 pandemic recovery.

Harris has been given heavy lifting in fields where the Biden Administration is less popular. She has faced unrelenting sniper fire from Fox News as overseer of what it calls “Biden’s border crisis.” She is a strategist in countering Republican efforts at voter suppression.  She fits in with the GOP’s attack line – Biden is being commandeered by the left. She is also vulnerable for being of African American and South Asian lineage. The dog whistles of nativism and white supremacy are heard constantly from a Republican Party reshaped by Trump.

In a broader sense, it’s reasonable to ask:  Are women in public life being targeted for character traits for which male politicians win praise?  The guys are “no-nonsense,” but similar women are “mean.” Unflattering character traits have been attached since Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Maryland, in 1986 became the first woman elected to the U.S. Senate not preceded by a spouse. Women have found themselves depicted as insecure, reactive, and prone to fly off the handle.

Dealing with gender stereotypes flummoxed Hillary Clinton in both of her presidential races.  She played on toughness and a hardened shell in 2008, only rarely talking about breaching “the last and biggest glass ceiling” by nominating a woman. The 2016 campaign saw a much more feminine Hillary, only to find her confronting a bully and misogynist in Trump. Tell-all books on both campaigns have made much of her outbursts. While Hillary Clinton’s every cuss word is quoted, Bill Clinton’s fabled temper is given a bye.

Difficult bosses do come in both genders and reside in both parties.  With women, however, there comes a recurring theme that the “Gentle lady” is in over her head.  Sen. Patty Murray had staff difficulties early in her tenure. A D.C. guy was hired as chief of staff and did not mesh with the senator.  (The aide’s downfall was traced to an instruction given his secretary, “Hillary, would you get my proctologist on the line?”) So what! The staff found its footing with senior assistants from this Washington.

The Gentle lady/governor/mayor is the “man in the arena, as Theodore Roosevelt once put it, so their actions get scrutiny. Consider the portfolio of Sen. Cantwell. She is a member of three A-list committees -– Finance, Energy and Natural Resources, and Commerce.  She chairs Commerce and has been ranking Democrat on Energy and Natural Resources.  She has mastered complex issues from derivatives as a cause of the Great Recession, to the need for new polar icebreakers in the Arctic, to Tacoma Smelter cleanup, to dangers posed by aged tank cars in oil trains.

Her standards are admirably high and demanding. One young junior staffer I know had just won promotion as Cantwell’s transportation aide in the spring of 2016. Barely 48 hours later, 16 cars from a Union Pacific oil train derailed in the Columbia River Gorge. Several caught fire. The derailment came just four days before Cantwell was slated to grill U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Fox before the Commerce Committee.

My staffer friend was tasked with finding EVERYTHING about Union Pacific oil trains, such as vapor levels in the cars being used, and then transmitting every bit of information to Cantwell and answering a succession of questions from the senator.  She trained for the hearing like a boxer. Cantwell was dissatisfied with the Transportation Department’s slow pace at requiring safety improvements and suspicious that Fox News was bending to the railroads.

The result:  A successful Fox hunt by Cantwell, who was able to deploy the Union Pacific accident into safety improvements urgently needed.  My friend the transportation aide was exhausted.  He didn’t get credit, for staff rarely win recognition. Once, on a visit to the Wild Sky Wilderness, a guy from Washington Wild tried to butter up Cantwell by praising the work of her environmental aide.  “That’s what I pay him for,” she retorted.

Aides and staff can be let go in a minute.  Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., chewed up and spit out successive chiefs of staff while crafting the California Desert Protection Act and the 1994 assault weapon ban. In politics, anyone, anything no longer useful can get jettisoned.  Even Socks the family cat was sent packing when the Clintons left the White House, unable to get along with Bill’s dog Buddy.

Still, the burden of badmouthing has fallen inordinately on women in high-profile jobs.  Mayor Durkan has been badmouthed for her impatience, although tell-all accounts have taken issue with predecessor Ed Murray for his temper.  Some aides haven’t stood the pressure of working for Cantwell.  Others have thrived and appreciated the boss’ insistence at being on top of subjects. Such is the fact of political life, a very high-pressure environment.

Since Mikulski arrived in 1987, the lineup of “Gentle ladies” in the U.S. Senate has risen to 23.  Harris sits a heartbeat from the presidency.  Multiple cracks have appeared in the glass ceiling, but a double standard on conduct hangs on. Perhaps some comfort can come in that the bad-mouthing, which seems to go with the territory of the powerful and the impatient, has targeted several of the most capable people in American public life.

Unsurprisingly, Harris now joins regular Fox News targets as Elizabeth Warren, Dianne Feinstein, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, MSNBC’s Joy Reid, Reps. Maxine Waters and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez -– difficult (and significant) women all.

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I worked for Seattle Post-Intelligencer from 1973 until it ceased print publication in 2009, and SeattlePI.com from 2009 to 6/30/2020. During that time, I wrote about 9 presidential races, 11 Canadian and British Columbia elections‎, four doomed WPPSS nuclear plants, six Washington wilderness battles, creation of two national Monuments (Hanford Reach and San Juan Islands), a 104 million acre Alaska Lands Act, plus the Columbia Gorge National Scenic Area.

11 COMMENTS

  1. Kamala Harris is a charming, political opportunist in way over her head – who doesn’t think well on her feet.

  2. The women now holding positions of power are the first generation benefitting from affirmative action. They’ve felt privileged from the moment they opened their college acceptance letters, and every time they were rapidly promoted (in their jobs, and by political organizations).

    One disturbing characteristic of this set of government officials is their callous disregard for not just polite discourse but also the rule of law. This city and state are hotbeds for this — they have lots of women in positions of power. All the city officials who didn’t end CHOP immediately were women (“It’s progressive!”). This state’s highest court is controlled by women and they put local government tax and spend policies above laws (“They are progressive!”). Now that lots of women hold positions of power here we see that, in fact, women are from Venus and men are from Mars, and this manifests as women letting their subjective feelings about “what’s right” override what this country is based on: the rule of law.

  3. Another annoying thing that women tend to do is comment online using their first and last names. Feeling obligated to hold yourself publicly accountable for your opinion is just a classic rookie move. (BTW, Mr. Connelly, this was an excellent story. Thanks.)

  4. I find Frank’s rant interesting, especially part about women in power who “didn’t end CHOP immediately” and ignored the rule of law. As I recall, it was a male president, male vice president and male neoconservative intellectuals who threw us into war in Iraq. The war’s rationale proved false, the war proved endless, blood was spilled and the pricetag is something like $2 trillion.
    Our involvement in the war in Afghanistan is coming to an end after almost 20 years, America’s longest war. It was started and pushed by men “from Mars.” We did not subdue that raw, tribal society any more than the Brits and Soviets, whose male leaders were humiliated before ours.

    • I disagree with nothing you posted. Bear in mind it likewise was a male president, male vice president and male democratic party intellectuals who threw us into war in Viet Nam, with its far greater bloodshed, and massive costs both in dollars and in social rending. Both political parties — made up nearly entirely of men — have misused the military.

      What male mayors and male police chiefs do not do is facilitate the abandonment of a police precinct station at a time of social unrest, allow three murders to occur at that location, and only then retake the police precinct station. Men know how quickly social order breaks down. Durkan and Best had no sense of it — they imagined in the fantasy world that is their Seattle government bubble that it was going to be a peaceful, communal cop-free zone. Male mayors don’t abdicate their duty of ensuring cops don’t abandon police stations in the face of protests. That is why it shocked the nation and made Seattle a subject of ridicule.

  5. Hey, we all make mistakes. We’re only human. Life goes on. Does anyone really believe the other gender carries the responsibility for this stuff?

    • Genderism isn’t new — there are Womens’ Studies departments in universities now.

      What is new is women controlling so many levers of political power, and it’s a bigger phenomenon here than elsewhere. It seems that how they respond to novel situations is very different than how a group of male political leaders would respond: talking about it amongst themselves, disregarding legal strictures, and acting in ways intended to guide people into making collaborative decisions. The results of this matriarchal approach are unique.

  6. I dunno. We’ve had sexism forever, even before it got a name. You really think us guys have done a great job? You have daughters? Yes? No? Ever listen to them? We’ve had gender studies for quite a while. Genderism is something different: assigning a predetermined belief to someone because of what’s between his/her legs. Of course we’ve all done crazier things, and so have women. Another thing: listen to Ms. Cain. Don’t be scared to use your full name.

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