On Friday, Reuters news service's fact-checking unit took on a meme going around on social media that lists five "facts" [scare quotes via Reuters] about Sen. Joe Biden's running mate, Kamala Harris.
I won't go into all of the claims of this particular meme. Instead, I want to focus on one contentious fact about Harris' early career that most journalists want to gloss over or ignore altogether. When Harris was a deputy district attorney in Alameda County in the early 1990s, she had an affair with then California Assembly Speaker Willie Brown.
Brown was 31 years her senior and still technically married at the time, though all media accounts point out that he had been estranged from his wife for nearly a decade.
While most California liberals are obviously not that concerned about the sanctity of marriage, marriage vows, etc., as long as gay couples can marry, there are plenty of more socially conservative Democrats—especially African-Americans—who might frown on such behavior. (That's not to say that those same voters might have an issue with President Donald Trump's three marriages and his own reported extramarital affairs.)
And then there was the fact check.
For those using a screen reader or not loading images, here's the text:
“AFFAIR WITH A MARRIED MAN” – MOSTLY FALSE
Kamala Harris did have a relationship with Willie Brown, who later served as San Francisco’s mayor, in the 1990’s (here) . While Brown was legally married at the time, he had been separated from his wife Blanche Brown since 1981 (here). Statements that claim Harris had “an affair with a married man” are technically true but given Brown had been separated for about a decade, the claims are misleading. [emphasis added]
Now, I'm all for noting the added context of the state of Brown's marriage (which apparently continues to this day). But I'm a little confused by noting that Brown has what many would term an "open marriage," changes a technically true fact into a mostly false claim other than some partisan desire to minimize something that, no matter how progressive and open-minded the fact checkers are, still pricks their conscience in some small way.
I've sent the Reuters fact-checking team an email disputing this "mostly false" label and will update this post if I get any response.
The other reason many news outlets may be wary about reporting on the Brown-Harris relationship nearly 30 years ago is that it involved some of that everyday corruption that rubs voters of both parties the wrong way. This Vox article on the pair's relationship briefly references it, but leaves out important facts.
One of the key points of scrutiny related to their relationship has been the two jobs that Brown appointed Harris to around the time they were dating. One position was on the California Unemployment Insurance Appeals Board and the other was on the Medical Assistance Commission. Harris held both jobs in 1994, the same year she was linked with Brown, according to the Los Angeles Times. The two ultimately ended their relationship the following year.
What important facts are missing here? How much those two jobs paid and how much work they entailed.
According to reporting by the Washington Examiner, Brown first appointed Harris to the California Unemployment Insurance Appeals Board which paid $97,000 annually—$167,000 in today's dollars. Harris resigned after five months and Brown quickly appointed her to the California Medical Assistance Commission. That position paid $70,000 per year. That is the equivalent of $120,700 today.
And how much work is required for this job?
Brown’s decision to appoint Harris raised eyebrows in political circles. “Both boards are reserved for political payback or occasionally for personal rewards for personal service,” said Brett Granlund, a former California Republican state assemblyman who worked closely with the commission while Harris was on the board. “The boards are considered plumb appointments as they require no work, no policy credentials, and are paid the equivalent of a full-time [state] senator for arriving at a one- to two-hour meeting each month.”
Two hours a month. $70,000 a year. Let me grab my calculator here…if you assume every meeting was two hours long…that's $2,916.67 per hour. That's some serious lawyer money. Actually, the per hour pay was probably even higher.
The medical commission met twice a month, and Harris, a United States senator for California since 2017 and now a 2020 Democratic presidential candidate, missed about 20% of the meetings each year, according to commission records obtained by the Washington Examiner.
Nice work if you can get it.
Even though Harris was on the receiving end of the everyday corruption that occurs in high level politics in what is basically a single-party state like California, it's easy to see why Harris supporters would rather focus on the "victimless" affair with a married man who was essentially married in name only.
It's a big ask for Harris to explain why she would accept these no-work patronage jobs that did little more than line the pockets of well-connected politicos at the expense of California taxpayers, so don't expect anyone in the media to pose the question.
Reuters responded to my enquiry. You can judge the strength of their reasoning on your own. Personally, I'm skeptical that similar facts with the person having an "R" next to their name would carry the same weight.
We understand your enquiry.
As presented, the posts on social media make it seem Harris and Brown’s relationship was a secret affair and behind his wife’s back. Because Brown was married but separated for a decade, we felt this was a key distinction and why we went with mostly false.
Reuters Fact Check