Tony West ’92 discovered Theodore White’s The Making of the President books when he was about 10 years old and quickly developed a passion for American history. His mother knew that West had read about a university called Harvard, where his favorite author and several of his heroes, including President Roosevelt and President Kennedy, had gone. That year, he brought home a none too stellar report card—full of Cs. His mother’s response to the poor grades made an impression on the young West.
“She kept asking me, ‘How do you spell Harvard?’ And I would start—H A R—and she’d cut me off and say ‘No’ and then ask again. This went on for a bit until I asked her, ‘Okay—how do you spell Harvard?’ And she said, ‘You spell Harvard A-A-A-A-A-A.’ ” He laughs recalling the scene but says it was a transformative moment. From then on, West excelled at school, at sports, at debate team, and at student government—he was elected president of his senior class and won several awards for running and debate. And he did indeed go to Harvard, and then to Stanford Law School, knowing well the effort required to spell—and attend—these top-tier universities.
Along with encouraging West academically, his parents were role models for community and government service—inspiring him to get involved. His mother is a schoolteacher and music instructor. His father, a retired IBM executive, served on the local school board, the San Jose Planning Commission, and in the Democratic Party. When tallying the number of political campaigns West has volunteered for, he starts with Jimmy Carter’s presidential bid in 1976—he was just 11 when his dad, the regional campaign manager, took him along canvassing door-to-door and to the campaign headquarters in San Jose to lick envelopes and get mailings out. His parents’ example and the lessons from all the history books he read laid the groundwork for West’s future.
“When I read about people who changed the world in which they lived, I found it fascinating that individuals could have such a big, broad impact on our world and the way in which we live. This is an important lesson from history: that anybody, given the right set of circumstances and the right motivation, can actually make a significant positive impact. This idea stuck with me and sort of got me started on the path I’m on today,” he says. “My parents were tremendous role models who reinforced this idea.”
Today, West is tackling his second presidential appointment—working for President Barack Obama in a dream position as assistant attorney general in the Department of Justice, Civil Division.
Maya Harris ’92 recalls childhood family dinners where her parents’ involvement in the civil rights movement as graduate students at the University of California at Berkeley was often the topic of lively conversation.
“Their activism and what they were striving to achieve was what we talked about at the dinner table,” says Harris. “I knew at a very early age that I was going to one day have a career that would allow me to work for social justice and focus on improving the quality of people’s lives.”
Her mother was a particularly strong influence on Harris. Born in India, she came to the United States in the late 1950s, earned a PhD in endocrinology and became a breast cancer researcher.
“My mom was an extraordinary force of nature. She was accomplished in her field, yet always the activist helping others, whether women who were disproportionately impacted by breast cancer or students trying to get financial aid. Her example and her core values made a very deep impression on me, and my sister,” she says.
Inspired by childhood memories of running around her mother’s lab, Harris started out in the sciences during her undergraduate studies at UC Berkeley. But, she says, “at some point it became clear to me that the law is such an awesome tool and influence in shaping the social playing field.”
Law school was a means to an end for both West and Harris. Neither had early ambitions of becoming lawyers, though both knew that the qualification would be invaluable to them in achieving their ultimate goals. As it turns out, they thrived rather than buckled under the rigors of the curriculum and have had incredible legal careers.
“That I went to Stanford Law made all the difference because of the type of school it is, because of the people. And I had the incredible good fortune to be part of an amazing class who make up my closest friends even to this day. It was such an enriching, positive experience for me,” says West. “Of course the best thing that came out of law school was that I met my wife.”
While at the law school, West was elected president of Stanford Law Review, becoming the third African-American to take on the position; Vaughn Williams ’69 and Shauna Jackson ’91 preceded him. (This was when West first heard the name Barack Obama—who had the year before become the first African-American president of Harvard Law Review.) West calls his position at law review great preparation for government service.
“Stanford Law Review was one of the most relevant experiences I had at law school, one that I actually draw on now. It involved managing really smart law students and trying to motivate them to do things but not because they were getting paid. It’s very similar to government work where the pay is much less than in private practice, so there has to be something else that you must appeal to in order to motivate people,” says West.
Harris and West quickly became close friends at Stanford Law, though it was Harris’ daughter Meena (BA ’06), then a playful 4-year old, who introduced them after she engaged West in a game of hide-and-seek around The Falcon in Arthur E. Cooley Courtyard on the first day of classes. But West and Harris didn’t date until a few years after graduation.
“We waited for the most inconvenient time to actually get together—he was in D.C. and I was in the Bay Area,” laughs Harris. “It’s a family joke that Meena knew we should be together long before we did.”
After law school, Harris clerked for Judge James Ware ’72 in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California and then joined Jackson Tufts Cole & Black LLP as a litigator while also teaching law classes at Lincoln Law School of San Jose and UC Hastings College of the Law. She enjoyed teaching and planning legal curriculum and so accepted the dean position at Lincoln, at age 29 becoming one of the youngest law school deans ever. She later became a senior associate at PolicyLink and then joined the ACLU of Northern California—capping her tenure there with the appointment as executive director in 2006.
West, who was active in Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign, accepted his first appointment to the Department of Justice in 1993 as special assistant and then as an assistant U.S. attorney for the Northern District of California. In 1999, he was appointed California’s special assistant attorney general, where he focused on high-tech crime. He made two runs for elected office: one in 1998 for the San Jose City Council, the other in 2000 for the California Assembly. He lost both (the assembly one by just a few hundred votes) and left government service in 2001 to join Morrison & Foerster as a litigation partner.
West heard Obama speak at the 2004 Democratic National Convention and was immediately impressed—and inspired. When Obama decided to challenge Hillary Clinton for the Democratic Party’s nomination, West broke ranks with many of his friends and former colleagues from the Clinton administration as an early Obama supporter, co-chairing the California Fundraising Committee with fellow Stanford Law alumnus John V. Roos ’80 (BA ’77).
“I always believed the president could win. One of the things Obama told me early on was that he wasn’t interested in running a symbolic campaign. He was running to win,” recalls West. “Our first event was in January 2007 in John’s living room—and our candidate didn’t show. We had him on speakerphone and everyone was happy. We raised more than $300,000 that night.”
“I was in Iowa with Tony knocking on doors in the freezing cold, slipping and sliding on the ice, trying to persuade people to come out and caucus for Obama,” says Harris, who left the campaigning to West and their daughter Meena after she was appointed executive director of the ACLU of Northern California. “It’s a fiercely nonpartisan organization and I was cognizant of my public leadership role. I deliberately decided not to take an active, visible role in the campaign. It was also a very demanding position, so I had my hands full with what we were trying to accomplish at the ACLU.”
Meena, now a law student, was active in the Palo Alto Obama campaign office.
“She’s part of the Obama generation,” says Harris. “It was such a delight and so inspiring to see her get turned on by this campaign like so many other 20-somethings around the country.”
On the morning Obama announced his presidential bid, West was working out at a hotel gym in Springfield, Ill. He and the candidate were the only two in the room—both watching CNN teasers for the live coverage of the announcement. “I turned to Obama and said, ‘If you win this thing, it’s going to be the biggest thing since FDR became president.’ He just said ‘Yeah, it is kind of big.’ I never sensed he spent much time dwelling on the historic nature of his campaign—there was too much work to do and it would have gotten in the way.”
Back at the DOJ, West has a big job managing some 1,400 staff members and lawyers, litigating on issues such as Guantanamo Bay and national security. And he’s reveling in this latest opportunity to serve a president he believes in.
“President Obama represents what so many in our generation have felt for a long time. We came of political age in the post-Watergate period when most of what we knew about politics was negative and cynical. Obama articulated what could be affirming about the opportunity to govern, and people responded,” says West.
Harris has moved from the national to the global stage in her advocacy work as vice president of the Ford Foundation’s Democracy, Rights and Justice Program. She travels the world, to Africa, Asia, Latin America and throughout the United States, to discuss projects with field staff and grant recipients who are working on a range of issues from civil rights and human rights for women, to racial minorities and people living with HIV, to voter rights and democratic participation. “It’s a leading foundation in supporting the work of courageous advocates for social justice around the globe. It’s an incredible opportunity to pursue so many of the issues that I’ve dedicated my life to, and on a larger global scale.”
As with everything she’s done, Harris is passionate about her current job.
“You have to believe in the possibility. You have to be relentless and passionate and deeply committed because in this work, in this type of journey, the road to social justice is incredibly difficult and at times the challenges seemingly insurmountable—yet all the while inspiring,” she says.
Currently living in two cities—she in New York, he in D.C.—the two make their marriage work with the aid of the telephone, Amtrak, and weekend dates.
“New York is our home base, so I commute back and forth on the weekend. Given our crazy work schedules, Friday date nights are our oasis,” says West.