Ex-Kamala Harris staffers have bad memories of a toxic culture in her past offices and are texting each other about it (2024)

The news spread fast around the alumni network of Vice President Kamala Harris' ex-staffers in California and Washington after a string of unflattering stories were published late last month about management problems in her White House office.

"Well, this didn't take long," read a text received by a former Harris staffer after Politico published a story about dysfunction in the vice president's office.

"WOW," the former staffer responded. "That is quite a story. Thank you for flagging."

One former Harris aide said the story was quickly shared among ex-staffers, and responses included "lots of eyeball emojis."


The Politico story, published in June, detailed a VP's office "rife with dissent," and it was treated as a bombshell in DC political circles and on social media, but it didn't surprise staffers who worked for Harris before she became vice president of the United States. Some of them have been predicting it was a matter of time until stories of staff dysfunction started spilling out.

Ex-Kamala Harris staffers have bad memories of a toxic culture in her past offices and are texting each other about it (1)

Insider interviewed 12 former Harris staffers about the atmosphere in Harris' offices when she was district attorney in San Francisco from 2004 until 2011, California's attorney general for six years after that, and a US senator from 2017 until her inauguration as President Joe Biden's No. 2 in January. Most of those staffers spoke on condition of anonymity to protect professional relationships, adding that Harris' job trajectory means it's well within reason she could become the most powerful person on the planet.

Some of them said they were thrilled to have worked for a woman they — and many in the public — see as a brilliant politician and cultural icon. Harris broke barriers as the first woman, the first Black person, and the first Asian to serve as the US vice president.

But others described Harris as unpredictable and at times demeaning to her staff over the years. She often hung up on her aides, berated them when she didn't think they were prepared enough for briefings, and had a reputation for churning through interns and lower-level staff, people told Insider.


Harris' turnover in the Senate was on the high end during her four years in the US Capitol's upper chamber. She ranked No. 9 of 114 senators for highest turnover from 2017 to 2020, the congressional database LegiStorm showed.

Barbara O'Connor, a longtime communications professor at California State University, Sacramento, told Insider that at least 20 interns who worked in Harris' attorney general and Senate offices came to O'Connor crying and seeking advice, saying they "felt they weren't valued" in Harris' office. O'Connor helped transfer about five interns out of Harris' office at the time, she said.

Many former Harris staffers have been privately grumbling for years to reporters and among one another about their time working for her. Several said the latest media reports about staff dysfunction inside the vice president's wing of the White House were giving them flashbacks to what some have called low points in their careers, including some who have worked for other high-profile politicians.

It's a nightmare scenario for some former Harris staffers who watched nervously as their former boss ascended the national political stage. Many of them remain loyal Democrats and fans of Biden, but they didn't want to see a boss with whom they'd had a bad experience become the Democratic Party's standard bearer. Biden, at 78, was already the oldest person to assume the US presidency. He'll be a few weeks shy of his 82nd birthday on Election Day 2024, and there's already speculation six months into his term over whether he'll run for reelection.


It's intensified the spotlight on Harris and her ability to step into the presidency or run a successful campaign of her own in 2024 or 2028. Some former staffers who witnessed personnel challenges in her office said they hoped things would change when she was in the White House. But to some, the news reports sounded inevitable and familiar.

Reports spread 'like wildfire'

The Politico story "went around like wildfire," a former Harris staffer said. "So many people recognized themselves in it, or recognized treatment they had seen or treatment they had heard about and dismissed."

That former staffer forwarded the Politico story to their therapist with a note reviewed by Insider that read: "Rarely in life are we publicly vindicated." The staffer told Insider they sought therapy to "resolve trauma from the on-the-job abuse" when they found out Harris was going to be Biden's vice-presidential nominee.

Some of Harris' former staffers — including several who spoke with Insider for this story — said they adored their former boss and felt exhausted, not validated, by the stories about Harris' managerial style. Yes, she's demanding, they said, but no more so than other high-powered politicians who make it into the White House. They asserted that a white man in her position wouldn't get anywhere near the same kind of scrutiny as Harris.


"I do not appreciate the narrative," said Jeff Tsai, a lawyer and a former top aide to Harris in the California attorney general's office. "All of the paces she put us through were the same paces she put herself through."

Another former Harris staffer who worked for her in the AG's office called the coverage "totally inevitable." That person added: "We could have foreseen this scrutiny. It seems to me to be more gendered, the idea that strong women are bitches and she's just another one."

Everyone who worked for Harris in the AG's office "loved her," that person said. Everyone who worked there was also "so stressed out that they were making themselves sick. Is that toxic? I don't know."

One person who worked for Harris said it was one of the best experiences of her life. "I learned so much and I also saw the person and not just the politician," she said. "I love her, I really do."


Harris' office declined to address specific questions about concerns raised by former staffers, but sent a statement from Harris spokeswoman Sabrina Singh.

"The Vice President and her office are focused on the Biden-Harris Administration's agenda to build an economy from the middle out and the bottom up, not the top down," Singh said. "To making sure racial equity is at the core of everything the Administration does, to combatting the existential threat of climate change, and to continue protecting the American people from the Covid-19 pandemic."

Several other stories in national outlets have zoomed into Harris' staff in recent weeks, including a CNBC story about Harris' chief of staff limiting access to the vice president and an Axios storythis month quoting administration officials who called Harris' office a "sh*tshow."

"I try not to speak to or engage on anonymous reports or anonymous sources," White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters during a press conference this month in response to those stories.


"I will say that the vice president is an incredibly important partner to the president," Psaki added. "She has a challenging job, a hard job. And she has a great, supportive team of people around her. But other than that I'm not going to have any more comments on those reports."

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Other top Biden officials were quick to defend Harris after the stories. White House chief of staff Ron Klain said that Biden's "trust and confidence in her is obvious when you see them in the Oval Office together," Axios reported. And Biden senior adviser Cedric Richmond told the outlet that the stories stemmed from a "whisper campaign designed to sabotage her."

Ex-Kamala Harris staffers have bad memories of a toxic culture in her past offices and are texting each other about it (3)

'A sense of paranoia'

Former Harris staffers pointed to what they said were familiar themes in the coverage of the vice president's office, including burnout among junior staffers and blame for problems getting directed toward a senior staffer, rather than Harris herself.

One former Harris aide described the culture in the attorney general's office as "toxic" and "reactionary." There was "a sense of paranoia in that office that you never knew when she was going to snap at you."


Several staffers told Insider that Harris was known to call into her office and hang up on her staff if she didn't get answers she wanted from them.

One former staffer recalled a time when Harris got frustrated on the phone after a staffer she was looking for couldn't be located quickly. "I don't understand what's taking so long," Harris snapped before hanging up, the former staffer said. "And I'm just sitting there just shell-shocked."

Harris hung up on staffers "all the time," another former aide said. "If she called in to talk, and then changed her mind, she would just hang up the phone on you."

Staff briefings have long been a source of contention in Harris' offices, her former aides told Insider.


She typically wanted to be briefed on issues three days in advance, but would sometimes move up the time of the briefings without notice and berate aides who weren't ready, former staffers said.

"She would move that time slot up so you would be within the 72-hour window without the materials," a former aide said. Harris would pull out the incomplete materials and say, "You and I both know that these need to be in three days before we do this briefing."

Harris would either agree to do the briefing anyway, the staffer said, and "then you're briefing somebody who's angry or thinks you've failed" — or she would refuse to do the briefing altogether, and after the fact there would be "a lot of verbal abuse about why she wasn't prepared."

Harris wants to be over-prepared for everything, her former staff said, which they attribute to her time as a prosecutor and her apparent strong dislike for improvising.


"She does not like to fly by the seat of her pants — ever," one former Harris staffer added. The "level of preparation that she brings to her job is, I believe, a large part of why she's been so successful."

On her own presidential campaign, Harris had several events daily, and an overworked staff pumping out paper as fast as they could, a former Harris staffer said. "Oftentimes the way she digests information is by editing or demanding edits to briefing documents. I think it's how she internalizes facts, but also it's frustrating if you're having to redo something for relatively trivial reasons."

Her presidential campaign staff had to travel with a battery-powered printer to redo note cards and briefing documents in far-flung locations, like a farm in the middle of Iowa, that person said.

Former Harris staffers said they were well acquainted with her preferred writing tool: Pilot Precise V7 Roller Ball pens.


"You had to always have one on your desk in case she ever asked for a pen," a former aide said. If you didn't, "you'd have to go get her one. She'd be, like, 'Not this one.'" The pens are "seared into everyone's brain."

'Poor Tina'

The Politico story described how much of the internal frustration within Harris' office is directed at her chief of staff, Tina Flournoy, a veteran Democratic operative who started working for Harris after the 2020 election.

"Poor Tina," one former Harris staffer texted another in response to the story. "I know lol that everyone is pointing to her when it's obvi KDH," replied another former Harris aide, referring to Harris by her initials.

Ex-Kamala Harris staffers have bad memories of a toxic culture in her past offices and are texting each other about it (4)

Some former Harris aides said this wasn't the first time a chief of staff or other senior aide has taken heat for problems in her office, rather than Harris herself bearing the blame.


Staffers who worked for Harris when she was attorney general are still perplexed by a 2011 settlement reached between the California DOJ and a top aide whom Harris brought in when she was first elected attorney general. Terri Carbaugh, who was chief deputy attorney general, mysteriously left Harris' staff with a $34,900 settlement check and a nondisclosure agreement, Insider first reported in July 2020.

That amount was just short of the $35,000 limit that would've had to have been approved by the Department of Finance, said a former California Justice Department official who worked there at the time of the Carbaugh settlement.

Carbaugh declined Insider's requests for comment about that settlement. Harris spokeswoman Singh, who is now her White House spokeswoman, declined to comment on the details of the dispute last July, but said Harris supported releasing Carbaugh from the NDA if Carbaugh wanted that.

Read more: EXCLUSIVE: A decade-old settlement shows a top aide to Kamala Harris mysteriously left her California AG's office with a $35,000 taxpayer-funded settlement check


It wasn't the only example of sudden staff turnover in recent years as Harris ascended in California and into the national spotlight. In 2015, she replaced her Senate campaign manager Rory Steele after her spending came under scrutiny.

In December 2018, a top aide in Harris' Senate office — who had also worked in her AG's office — resigned after the Sacramento Bee inquired about $400,000 that the California Department of Justice paid to settle a sexual-harassment and retaliation suit after he was accused of inappropriate behavior by his former executive assistant.

The New York Times ran a story about the implosion of Harris' presidential campaign in August 2020, including a harsh resignation letter from the campaign's Iowa operations director and citing more than 50 current and former campaign staff members and allies who described the dysfunctional team.

News reports at the time suggested that many staffers blamed then Harris campaign manager Juan Rodriguez, but former Harris aides told Insider they believe the lack of leadership stemmed from Harris.


"To be honest, once you've had your campaign implode in this fashion very publicly, 50 staffers talking to the New York Times, that should be a very clear signal that the organization you run needs very serious change," a former staffer who worked for Harris in the AG's office told Insider.

Fast forward to today and the fact that there's been staff turnover in Harris' office "followed by these lurid accounts in the press" just five months into the Biden administration "is very concerning," that person said.

"It's important to both the nation and the Biden administration that this doesn't happen again."

Ex-Kamala Harris staffers have bad memories of a toxic culture in her past offices and are texting each other about it (2024)
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