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Elihu Mason Harris is a private attorney and represents clients in education, recycling, manufacturing, housing development, and automobile repair. He is also a member of the Trustees at Patten University, National Commission on Uniform State Laws, and Executive Committee of the California State NAACP. He finished his Master's degree in Public Administration from University California Berkeley, and completed Doctorate of Law from University California Davis.
Elihu has served as Executive Director of the National Bar Association, partner in a private law practice, California Assemblyman, Mayor of Oakland, California, Member of the Federal Home Loan Bank Board, Member of the State of California Unemployment Insurance Appeals Board, and Chancellor of Peralta Community College.
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Elihu Harris / Louis Goodman – Podcast Transcript
Louis Goodman: Hello, and welcome to Love Thy Lawyer. Talk to real lawyers about their lives in and out of the practice of law, how they got to be lawyers and what their experience has been. I'm Louis Goodman, the host of the show, and yes, I'm a lawyer. Nobody's perfect.
Louis Goodman: Among his many honors and positions of service to the community, he is the former mayor of Oakland, California. He served for many years in the California State Assembly. He was Chancellor of Peralta Community College. He serves on the Executive Committee of the California Atate NAACP, and what impresses me every time I see it is his name on the California State office building in downtown Oakland, Elihu Harris, welcome to Love Thy Lawyer.
Elihu Harris: [00:01:00] Thank you very much. I'm excited to be with you.
Louis Goodman: Thanks so muchfor being here. It's really an honor. What kind of work are you doing these days. I know that you've had many projects in the past. I know that you're sort of semi-retired and absolutely deserve to be, but I know you have things going too.
What sort of things are you doing right now?
Elihu Harris: Well, I'm practicing law. I'm working on homeless housing issues. And otherwise I'm doing, you know, a number of entrepreneurial issues with clients, but certainly in the area of development. I think it's really exciting and kind of coming out of this pandemic, I think people are looking for sort of the new normal, when it comes to development, a lot of retail malls and we see many of them and near closure.
We're certainly looking at the reality that new businesses are emerging. And so I'm just kind of working with a number of different individuals and groups relative to those new enterprises. And they're kind of trying to stay relevant. I'm also continuing to do public service. You mentioned the NAACP, I'm also on the Uniform Law Commission.
And certainly that's been something I've been [00:02:00] on since I was Chairman of the Judiciary Committee. And, you know, Uniform Law is obviously a very important given the complexities of laws in this country. So I'm very much enjoying my participation in that effort.
Louis Goodman: Where are you from originally?
Elihu Harris: I was born in Los Angeles, but I was raised in Berkeley, California, and stuff like school there.
And then obviously local schools, Cal State East Bay, UC Berkeley, for a Master's Degree and law school at the University of California Davis.
Louis Goodman: Well, let's startin high school. You went, did you go to Berkeley high?
Elihu Harris: I went to Berkeley high.
Louis Goodman: And how was that for you?
Elihu Harris: It was like going to college, cause it was about 3,500, 4,000 students.
It was a school that had a, I believe a very deep, deeper, pretty good curriculum. It's one of the top high schools in the country at the time that I was there. And I think it certainly prepared me for college. It was rigorous like CA the course courses was challenging. And when I got to college, wasn't much different.
Louis Goodman: Where did you go to college initially?
Elihu Harris: I went to Cal State East Bay. I really thought I was going to go to Howard [00:03:00] University, but when it came time to send the money in for housing, my father said he wasn't going to waste the money, sending me back to Washington to party. So I ended up getting out of Cal State about two and a half years.
Louis Goodman: So you partied in Hayward?
Elihu Harris: No, there was no partying in Hayward. Hayward was not the place for party. In fact, I commuted most of the time that I was there. I was in student government. And so I had to be on the campus a lot more than many students, and I was taking any classes cause I just grabbed to graduate as quick as I could.
So it was an industry experience that was really involved. But again, it was a fairly rapid undergraduate career.
Louis Goodman: Was that when you first got into politics or had you been in politics even at Berkeley High?
Elihu Harris: Yeah, sure. I was Student Body President, Class President of more important. When I got to Cal State, I continued to be involved in student government.
And so it was always kind of an involvement issue with me. I was President of my Undergraduate Fraternity, a lot of different things that kind of, because I wanted to be connected and I think politics where the student government or public [00:04:00] service. Uh, it helps you to be connected.
Louis Goodman: When you graduated from Cal State, what did you do next? When do you see Berkeley?
I wanted to get a master's degree. I wasn't quite ready for law school. And I graduated from college pretty early. I was still only about 19 years old, so I decided that I would go to Berkeley for a year. I got a Master's in Public Policy from what is now the Goldman School. And that was my preparation for law school.
Louis Goodman: After you graduated with your Master's from Cal, did you go directly to law school, directly at UC Davis?
Elihu Harris: Did not pass go, do not collect $200.
Louis Goodman: What was Davis like for you?
Elihu Harris: Well, let me tell you, first of all, I want to tell you how I got to Davis, please. There was a time when it was really, uh, an affirmative action that was pretty aggressive.
And I applied to a number of law schools that I was admitted to all of them, which I do not. Uh, expecting to be honest with you. And it was whether the University of Wisconsin, University of Michigan, Harvard, and I pursued and applied to [00:05:00] all those schools, because I didn't know if I was going to get in any of them.
And then when it came down to it, I just really didn't want to go back East. I didn't want to be in the snow and the cold. And then the choices between. UCLA Berkeley and UC Davis. And ultimately you see Davis was a new law school. It Barrett who'd been a professor at Constitutional Law at Bolt was the Dean.
They only had three previous classes, but when I went there and I said, this is an opportunity to kind of break new ground and be a pioneer. If you will. You know, in law school environment, the faculty was relatively young, all those things were appealing.
Louis Goodman: When did you first start thinking about being a lawyer?
Elihu Harris: Well, I, it like many young people, all of the options, you know, a lot of what you think about in terms of careers, what you get on television. I think I'll be a doctor because you are watching Doctors on TV or I'm going to be a lawyer, I saw Perry Mason. I didn't really know any lawyers, so I didn't really even know what lawyers actually did.
I only knew one lawyer by the time I was in my first year of law school. [00:06:00] And that was Lionel Wilson. The only lawyer I knew. And when they asked me the first year of law school for eight. Bar questionnaire, paying two lawyers who can vouch for you. I didn't know, two lawyers, so it was very, very confusing.
And quite frankly, I said, maybe this is not the career for me. If I got to know two lawyers and I don't know to, but at any rate, yes, I, I. Went to law school at Davis. And the idea of being a lawyer was something that I sort of grew into a part of my political interests. And I think they have two options.
One get a PhD, which kind of prepared you to research, which was not something I wanted to focus on or a lot of grief that I thought would prepare me for a lot of different things and give me more options when it came to my long-term career objectives. So law school became a practical choice for me as much as anything else.
When you graduated from Davis, what was your first legal job working for the legislature?
Elihu Harris: I'd also worked as an intern. When I was in graduate school at Berkeley, I ironically worked with Pete Wilson. [00:07:00]
Louis Goodman: When did you decide to go into politics in the sense of actually running for elective office?
Elihu Harris: Well, I wanted to run almost from the time I got out of law school.
I was looking for an opportunity for elected office and the assembly certainly was a good training ground in terms of giving me exposure to public policy. I see. Well, All I got to do is now transfer those skills to puppet office, but it wasn't that simple. You use a lot more money and a lot more organization, a lot more volunteers.
So at any rate, after I worked for John Miller for two years, I took a position in Washington, DC as the Chief of Staff to remember Congress. And I did that for another year and a half.
Louis Goodman: What did you think of Washington DC?
Elihu Harris: It was an interesting experience. I really was thinking about not going, because I thought I had an established career and base in East Bay.
And I talked to my mentor who was the husband of the Congresswoman. And he told me that I didn't understand the opportunity that I was missing. [00:08:00] And he told me, he said, Chief, you don't understand my wife's going to give you the opportunity to leave the minor leagues and go into the major league. And more importantly, she's going to give you a chance to pitch in the world series.
I was on, I was on the next plane.
Louis Goodman: Was he right?
Elihu Harris: Yeah. It was always incredible. I mean, she was, a member of the Appropriations Committee, so, and she has to work on, on that. And she was also a very smart woman. She'd been the first black woman in the California Assembly. One of the first black woman in Congress, first black woman to have a prison woman in Congress to have a baby while she was in Congress.
And what was really important was she was demanding. So I got to learn that as a, as another aspect of my building a career in public policy.
Louis Goodman: You came back from Washington, DC what did you do? Oh, you're not done yet. Okay.
Elihu Harris: I decided I was going to come back to California because I wanted to kind of reestablish my base. And I was back about three weeks [00:09:00] before I got an opportunity to go back to Washington as Executive Director of the National Bar Association. So I ended up going back to Washington and I was there another three years.
Louis Goodman: Wow. And then after that you came back to the East Bay?
Elihu Harris: I got a call from my former boss in the Legislature telling me he'd just been appointed to the Court of Appeals and that if I came back, I would be his candidate to succeed him in the Legislature, Senator returning to Bay.
Louis Goodman: And did you run for that seat?
Elihu Harris: I ran and I won and I won by 572 votes.
Louis Goodman: Wow. That'sa slim margin.
Elihu Harris: I didn't get to my victory party. Everybody was gone.
Louis Goodman: Yeah. But the important thing is you had a victory party.
Elihu Harris: Absolutely. And I always think about the trajectory of my life. Had I not gone to Washington or had I not won at that assembly seat?
Louis Goodman: Tell us a little bit about your career in the California State Assembly.
[00:10:00] Elihu Harris: Well, I guess when I got elected and one of the first things in the Tribune had, I'd raised $140,000. Remember this is 1978. So the Tribune had an above the fold headline. Why would somebody spend $140,000 to get elected to a job that only paid $28,800?
And when I looked at the headline, it was shocking. And I thought to myself, that's a really good question. Why would somebody spend that kind of money to get a job, to pay 28 grand? And what's the answer because I couldn't raise 140,000. The other part of the headline was when they could buy a seat on the New York Stock Exchange for the same money.
Now the answer, cause I couldn't raise $140,000 to buy a seat on the New York Stock Exchange. Right. Right. I could raise $140,000 to run for office.
Louis Goodman: What are you really like? What did you really like about being an elected official?
Elihu Harris: Being able to help set policy, being able to allocate [00:11:00] resources, which the reason that anybody I would hope would want to be involved in public service to be a servant leader, to be able to make change, to be able to work with others in shaping the shape of value systems and priorities and address inequities, all those things were now really important to me, but things that I was able to pursue as a legislature. And because I believe in the first city, it was good that there were people who represented not only different political interests, ethnicities, economic communities, but also people who actually came with different priorities. And so the advocacy aspect of that was also consistent with being a lawyer. I was a public advocate as an elected official, and I thought that was one of the real rewards I hadn't been prepared.
Louis Goodman: How long did you serve in the assembly altogether?
Elihu Harris: I was in the legislature for 12 years.
Louis Goodman: Is there anything that you didn't like about it? Like, for example, the fact that your life gets [00:12:00] increased scrutiny, the fact that some people see you as the enemy, even if it's really only a matter of a policy disagreement
Elihu Harris: I think that's a trade-off, but you actually, I found the legislator very collegial, as you know, they're 120 legislators, 80 in the Assembly, 40 in the Senate.
And you have to get along with people. I remember one of the things when I first got there, they gave me a package of gun control bills and they all died. I'd be just every one of them just got shut down. And I remember talking to an Assemblyman from Richmond named Jack Knocks. Who'd been there a long time.
And I said, Jack, I don't like this place. I thought I was coming to work with people who really were committed to making life better, addressing problems. These people have no courage. They aren’t willing to take a chance. They are only concerned about getting elected. He laughed at me and he said something that I'd never forgot is the Elihu, I understand these people disappoint you, but remember you didn't elect them. You only dance with the people who come to the dance. And that became a very important moment for me, recognizing the [00:13:00] fact that I have to work with the people that are sent there from the various districts in the state.
My job is not to elect them or to argue with them but is to work with them, to find common ground and to build alliances wherever possible.
Louis Goodman: If a young person were coming out of College today, would you recommend a career in law and policy?
Elihu Harris: Yes, but I think you have to be prepared in some ways. I think you have to be financially prepared.
One of the things I think is a real downside, but the legislators in California now, because they have no retirement. So you're not building anything in terms of your family for the time when you're no longer in public service.
Louis Goodman: How did actually serving as a public official differ from your expectations about it?
Well, first of all, again, I had a chance to see it as a staff member, right. The District in the Legislature and also in Washington. So there wasn't a lot of surprises, but it was much more collegial. It was like, it's almost like being in a club because you know, everybody. And there's a [00:14:00] sense of who people are, what their strengths and weaknesses are, what their value systems are, uh, what their common ground.
You may be able to build with an individual or group of individuals. The fact that I understood the process of legislation and getting things done.
Louis Goodman: Was being a mayor different than being a legislator and collegial.
Elihu Harris: And the other thing, one of the Legislators again told me there's a lot of anecdotal things that happen when you're in politics.
And one of the former Legislators told me something. When I told him I was going to run for mayor. And he said, you're making a big mistake. I said, what do you mean I'm making a big mistake. He said happiness is a core efficient of the distance you are from your constituents, the farther away you are the happier you'll be when you're Washington, you're happy than when you're in Sacramento, when you're in your district in your city and you're not going to be when you become mayor. I mean, there's a [00:15:00] level of accountability that. Transcripts anything you experienced in Washington or Congress when you come back from Washington or Sacramento, you're like the Cochran Euro.
You're bringing back treasure from the war. Right. And when I was in Sacramento, I can believe everything on the governor, but I became mayor. People blamed everything on me.
Louis Goodman: Tell me about accomplishment that you made when you were mayor of Oakland?
Elihu Harris: Well, there were a lot of things that I did and quite frankly, the list would solve this, but I said I was going to do when I ran one was community policing, but I became mayor.
There were 175 homicides in the city of Oakland. The year that I left, it was down to about 63 dealing with illegal dumpsites or any of the other kinds of things that are play. Urban environments were able to deal with graffiti. We were able to deal with cleaning up parks and creeks and all those kinds of things with a lot of citizen involvement.
I know that we made Oakland better than when we found it. And that was not just my effort. It was the city council as my staff. It was [00:16:00] city staff working together to deal with problems.
Louis Goodman: What about fundraising? You know, you brought up the subject of fundraising. I know that you've done a lot of fundraising over the years. You've been very good at fundraising over the years. Tell me a little bit about that process.
Elihu Harris: Well, I ran for mayor, a woman who one of my better friends put together a fundraising plan. It's called raising a million dollars. And I didn't know I could raise a million dollars. I had to raise money in Sacramento. I had to raise money in Oakland. There's many in San Francisco. I raise money in Los Angeles. I raise money in Watts because you can't raise that kind of money just in Oakland. So I was able to use, you know, my network, my contacts that I had established during the 12 years that I was in the legislature as well as the time that I served in Washington, as well as my family and my fraternity and friends to put all those pieces together.
And that's how you raise money. You got to go to people who believe in you. [00:17:00] You got to go to people who know you, but you got to go to people who trust you. And I was able to do that and raise the money and get elected.
Louis Goodman: Did you learn anything from the experience of raising money?
Elihu Harris: It's hard and there are people often who have expectations that it's not just an investment, a good public policy, but an investment in getting what they want.
And you gotta be real clear with people both at the time that they give an after they've given that this is not a put pro quo arrangement. I don't want to act like money doesn't matter. Cause it does. But if money is the motivating force for your public policy, then you betrayed the people who elected you.
Louis Goodman: What, if anything, would you change about the way that the political system works?
Elihu Harris: I would do away with sort of limits. I think you get people with expertise, real ability and you lose them and you have more of a transparency that is false. So I really believe that the term limits has been a disaster in [00:18:00] California.
Louis Goodman: You think that the way the political system works is fair?
Elihu Harris: It works as well as the people pay attention. I think ignorance is the worst enemy of democracy. We see it at the national level where you have an ignorant electorate. When you can tell people, for example, nationally, that Alexa was unfair that I lost because of massive fraud.
And there's no facts that people believe it. That's because they aren't doing their own homework. I think is very dangerous in this country because we have such an ignorant electorate.
Louis Goodman: I'm going to shift gears here a little bit and ask you about your family life and how practicing law and being an elected official has affected your family life.
Elihu Harris: Well, I'll tell you this, people look at what you do and your family is connected to what you do. My family is much more private than I am. They don't like being in the newspaper. They don't like being in, in introduced at public events. [00:19:00] So they don't have the same sense of temperament or willingness to be exposed.
And I think one of the things that anyone going to public service needs to be aware of is that there is a cost and that cost is often born by your family. And not just by you.
Louis Goodman: Have you had any travel experience that you've enjoyed?
Elihu Harris: I've been basically everywhere except Australia. And I say that because one of the things that you get in terms of not just your public service, but your exposure.
So I've been to the Middle East, Israel. I've been to Italy and all over Europe, England, France, Germany, so many places I haven't been because in addition to being the mayor, I was also the Chairman of the World Trade Center. And as a result, one of the things that we did was had a Bay Area Trader last principally.
Including the mirrors of San Francisco and San Jose. So going to places where we had trade partners, where the Port of Oakland was doing trade was part of our responsibilities going through our sister [00:20:00] cities in Africa and Jamaica and France and China. I was part of that responsibility to Japan. So I've had a chance to travel extensively.
Louis Goodman: You know, you and I are both people who have had a lot of formal education. And I've had a fair amount of travel experience as well. And it's always struck me that travel experience was really my greatest educational opportunity. I don't know whether you found that.
Absolutely. First of all, you learn that despite political differences and economic differences, basically people are the same. People want things for themselves and their family. They want a decent environment. They want to have a good job and a career. They want to be relevant and people want to have a quality of life.
It's just basically part of the human existence, be a lawyer politician.
Louis Goodman: Is there some other job that you think that you might like to have?
Elihu Harris: Yeah, but it involved being rich. [00:21:00] And I'm going to tell you why, because I would want to be a philanthropist. Because I really want to help people. You know, when I see things where somebody is suffering a lack of housing, the homeless, that's why I work on homeless issues.
When I see people suffering because they have food insecurities, I think we want, can't get a quality education. I want to solve that problem.
Louis Goodman: So let's say you came into some real money in your own personal life. Let's say you came into three or $4 billion. What, if anything different would you do?
Elihu Harris: Well, I gave you some examples. One thing I would do in the City of Oakland, for example, I would put a police universal preschool. I would make sure that every child is earliest possible and introduction to literacy and learning. I certainly would put money into dealing with food insecurities. I would try to look at other ways that we could do policing effectively.
So we've reduced the number of robberies and homicides and other violent crimes in the city. I was certainly working toward [00:22:00] a more preventive health care.
Louis Goodman: So if you had a magic wand. What was one thing you could change in the world, the political world, the legal world, or just the world to general. What one thing would that be, if you could change it.
Elihu Harris: That people really put into practice the golden rule. Treat people like they want to be treated. I mean, we would reduce so much of the problem. So much of the pain in our world, in our community and our neighborhood. If people would treat each other as human beings, treat each other with some level of kindness and consideration. With some sense of reciprocity and expectation that we in fact are going to not just talk the talk, but walk the walk. Whether it's our faith or our resources, or just the way we speak to one another.
I think all of those things are things that I would love to change.
Louis Goodman: Is there anything else that you wanted to talk about or that you think that we should cover.
Elihu Harris: Well yeah, I think that lawyers need to continue to be change [00:23:00] agents. They need to remember why they became lawyers and it was just to make money, then that's fine.
But I don't think that's what I believe to be the true essence of being a lawyer. It is about doing justice. You don't have the kind of thing from the Bible of do justice, love mercy. I think lawyers aren't exemplify that when you talk about your program, Love Thy Lawyer. People don't have a reason to love their lawyer because their lawyers are professional.
They consider it and they really are there to do a service. I think if we could do that, as lawyers could love that lawyer, wouldn't just be a model. It would be a reality.
Louis Goodman: Elihu Harris, thank you so much for joining me today on Love Thy Lawyer. It has been a real honor privilege and an interesting experience talking to you.
Thank you very much. It's an opportunity I've listened to other podcasts. They're enjoyable. I hope this is going to be the difference or the exception in the room. It's a good program. She presented to your audience, so, okay.
Louis Goodman: That's it for today's episode of Love Thy Lawyer. If you enjoyed listening, please share it with a friend and subscribe to the podcast. If you have comments or suggestions, send me an email. I promise I'll respond.
Take a look at our website at lovethylawyer.com, where you can find all of our episodes, transcripts, photographs, and information. Thanks as always to my guests who share their wisdom. And to Joel Katz for music, Brian Matheson for technical support and Tracey Harvey
I'm Louis Goodman.
Elihu Haris: So it wasn't just public works, doing things. It was also the reality that we could get citizens to take some pride and some involvement in their own community.