Who is Kamala Harris?

Kamala Harris delivers remarks during the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Civil Rights Act. (Wikimedia Commons.)

Kamala Harris delivers remarks during the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Civil Rights Act. (Wikimedia Commons.)

When Senator Kamala Harris announced her bid for the presidency last month, she was met with a wave of press coverage – both positive and negative. Harris, a strong, inspiring speaker and one of the most fervent and incisive voices during the Brett Kavanaugh hearings, now holds the national spotlight. Although the presidential race has only just begun, the junior senator from California strikes many as an electable candidate due to her powerful stage presence, personability and leftist politics. With that in mind, some of her critics fail to recognize Harris as a true leftist, but instead view her as a moderate politician who favors pragmatism over progress.

Although Harris has been rated the most progressive United States senator since her election in 2016, many on the left find her pre-senatorial record troubling. As district attorney of San Francisco and attorney general of California, not all of her decisions aligned with the progressive values that in large part encompass her rhetoric today.

Harris labels herself as a ‘progressive prosecutor,’ but law professor and former director of the Loyola Law School Project for the Innocent in Los Angeles Lara Bazelon sees Harris in a different light. In a piece for the New York Times, Bazelon wrote that as district attorney and attorney general, Harris consistently “opposed” progressives who advised her “to embrace criminal justice reform.” Bazelon also wrote that Harris “fought tooth and nail to uphold wrongful convictions” acquired through “official misconduct,” including “evidence tampering, false testimony and the suppression of crucial information by prosecutors.”

Bazelon noted that Harris appealed Orange County federal judge Cormac Carney’s ruling “that the death penalty was unconstitutional in 2014,” and, in 2015, “opposed a bill requiring her office to investigate shootings involving officers.” Her reasoning for appealing judge Carney’s ruling was confusing; although Harris personally opposes the death penalty, she stated in a press release that she appealed “the court's decision because it is not supported by the law, and it undermines important protections that our courts provide to defendants.”

The judge, using the Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause of the Eighth Amendment as the basis for the decision, wrote that “the dysfunctional administration of California’s death penalty system has resulted, and will continue to result, in an inordinate and unpredictable period of delay preceding their actual execution. As for the random few for whom execution does become a reality, they will have languished for so long on death row that their execution will serve no retributive or deterrent purpose and will be arbitrary.”

It remains unclear why Harris pressed forward with the appeal, or if the decision is unequivocally unsupported by the law. The section in the Eighth Amendment regarding cruel and unusual punishment is open to interpretation according to legal scholars.

Harris’s record concerning wrongful conviction cases also raises suspicion. In several cases as district attorney and attorney general, Harris or prosecutors from her office prosecuted defendants on technicalities and ignored “potentially exculpatory evidence.

Interestingly, in 2004 she controversially opposed the death penalty in the slaying of a San Francisco police officer. The decision makes her 2014 appeal all the more perplexing. She also instituted implicit bias training for officers as attorney general “and was awarded for her work in correcting a backlog in the testing of rape kits.”

From all of this one certainty appears -- Harris is clearly a difficult candidate to pin down ideologically.  

Harris might be best characterized as a ‘careful’ politician, as Loyola Law School professor Laurie Levenson describes her in a New York Times article. Levenson, a member of an independent panel “that investigated one of the cases of prosecutorial misconduct” which occurred while Harris was attorney general, said that “she had her sights set on what her future might be… she had law enforcement to deal with… the public… the minority community. I think she was trying to be very careful not to alienate.”

Some of Harris’s comments regarding criminal justice reform are problematic, and reflect that inclination not to ‘alienate’ law enforcement. In 2013 at a talk during the Chicago Ideas Week, Harris displayed skepticism concerning “the idea that we should ‘build more schools, less jails.” She said, “There’s a fundamental problem with that approach. I agree with that conceptually, but you have not addressed the reason why I have three padlocks on my door.”

Such rhetoric constitutes classic fear-mongering. To say that there is a ‘fundamental’ problem with what essentially equates to a call to end the school-to-prison-pipeline is disappointing for many voters on the left. As Briahna Joy Gray writes, “Progressives see prison as a stop-gap measure: a bandage that merely contains, but does not relieve an issue, one that perpetuates further cruelties in the process.”

A talking point Harris consistently brings up in her memoir as well as in public appearances is the phrase ‘false choices,’ a phrase that can come off as a way for Harris to avoid taking a stand on key issues like criminal justice reform. For example, in 2013 Harris said that “It’s a false choice to suggest that communities don’t want law enforcement. Most communities do.” That isn’t the kind of rhetoric progressive voters want to hear. Most communities may very well want law enforcement on a fundamental level, but in a country that already spends a staggering $100 billion a year on policing, they’ve already got it.

Harris seemed to at least implicitly voice support for a criminal justice and incarceration system that many on the left want to dismantle and reinvent. Real change would revolve around an overhaul of the criminal justice system, and an investment in education and community development attentive to the societal fault lines that create criminals. A universal basic income might help too.

Harris has advocated for and enacted significant criminal justice reforms, but some of her language and decision making has drawn understandable suspicion.

There are those who defend Harris’s record, including, of course, Harris herself. In a CNN town hall, when queried about how her record reflects a ‘tough-on-crime’ mentality by a student from Drake University, Harris became defensive, and frankly, dismissive. She doubled down, and proclaimed, “I’ve been consistent my whole career.” Harris acknowledged that the criminal justice system is deeply flawed, but also reminded the student that she created initiatives like Open Justice, which “for the first time” made “transparent… the public statistics around deaths in custody, arrest rates by race” and “one of the first” initiatives in the country focused on “re-entering former offenders by getting them jobs and training and counseling.” That is all important work, but Harris didn’t provide the response the student was probably looking for. In her fiery defense of her record, Harris lacked accountability.

Of course Harris’s time as district attorney and California attorney general was not a total bust; that would be a ridiculous and offbase conclusion to draw. But in an age in which politicians are arguably scrutinized more than ever for accountability and transparency -- and rightly so -- Harris’s response fell short. Cynics might characterize the response as self-righteous, based on its combination of rhetorical gravity and evasion.

Important for a candidate like Senator Harris is how she responds to valid criticism. If Harris can reckon with her past, skeptical voters may respond positively.

Although Harris isn’t the ideal candidate, it is worth keeping in mind that that doesn’t make her unique. None of the Democrats running for the 2020 presidency are perfect, and Harris may end up being the left’s best chance to defeat Donald Trump.

If voters elect the junior senator from California she will likely enact positive change in areas like healthcare, labor and employment, the criminal justice system and the environment. But she may also implement policies that fall in line with the neoliberal agendas that many on the left believe the Clinton and Obama administrations perpetuated.

Although Harris sells herself as a progressive these days, her history of catering to both sides of the aisle makes it difficult to predict what she would actually do once in office. As a senator Harris shifted to the left and consistently supported progressive policies; nevertheless, voters want accountability and honesty from their politicians, which Harris has yet to provide in a substantive form with regard to her record. How can anyone be convinced that Harris is a true leftist if she won’t even acknowledge a history of decision making that often edged towards conservatism?

If Harris, only the third African American woman to run for the presidency and a daughter of immigrants, were to become president, it would certainly mark a meaningful and historic moment for a country built by African American slaves and plagued by racism, xenophobia and misogyny.