Jacobin: The Two Faces of Kamala Harris

Lonnie Tague / Wikimedia Commons

It's early, but Ms. Harris seems to be running as a blank slate, someone to project your hopes and wishes onto...

Jacobin, August 2017

"Kamala Harris has matched every one of her progressive achievements with conservative ones."

The first seven months of the Trump administration has seen an ever-changing coterie of high-profile Democrats probing the possibility of launching a 2020 run to take back the White House, from Joe Biden and Corey Booker, to Kirsten Gillibrand and Deval Patrick, and maybe even Hillary Clinton for a third time. The latest name to join this carousel of political ambition is recently elected California Senator Kamala Harris. Her rise to the top of the 2020 shortlist has been long in the making, with Democratic bigwigs recognizing her potential star power as early as 2008, when she campaigned for Obama.

Harris’s rise has produced a fiery debate among liberals and the Left. Leftists and progressives have come out in strong opposition to Harris’s candidacy, with some declaring #NeverKamala and some high-profile Bernie Sanders supporters, such as National Nurses United executive director RoseAnn DeMoro, making clear their lack of enthusiasm for her candidacy. For some prominent liberals, this pushback is simply the product of virulent racism and sexism among an imagined (and non-existent) all-white, all-male, Sanders-supporting base.

While most Harris-supporting liberals wouldn’t go this far, there is deep suspicion among some Democrats that opposition to Harris is motivated by similarly less-than-noble motives — namely, that it’s part of a project of poisoning the well for any potential challengers of a Bernie Sanders or Sanders-like candidacy in 2020.

In truth, there is much about Harris’s long record as a public prosecutor in California — the vast bulk of her career — that is up for legitimate criticism by any prospective 2020 Democratic voters.

Throughout her career, Harris has been called the “female Obama.” In reference to her race, this is lazy and arguably even racist. But the comparison is apt with reference to her politics. Harris has emulated the Obama approach, delivering a combination of some notable progressive victories and pleasant rhetoric and a steadfast avoidance of structural change — paired, in some cases, with far-from-progressive policies.

Where Credit is Due

First, the good. Harris’s career has been laudatory at times.

The first test of Harris’s principles came in 2004, after she was elected as San Francisco’s district attorney (DA) while promising never to impose capital punishment. Less than six months into her tenure, Harris defied a united chorus of voices — from the city’s police chief and police rank and file, to Democratic senator Dianne Feinstein — calling for the death penalty for a twenty-one-year-old who killed an undercover police officer.

During the officer’s funeral, two thousand officers gave Feinstein a standing ovation after a speech in which she criticized Harris, who was also at the funeral. The state’s attorney general and former senator Barbara Boxer (whose seat Harris has now taken) looked for ways to circumvent Harris’s decision, but ultimately failed. Thanks in large part to Harris’s steadfastness, the killer was spared the death penalty.

In other words, at the very start of her career, Harris defied her own party, her city’s police department, and endured public humiliation to defy reactionary demands.

Later, in 2009, Harris’s Republican rival for attorney general attempted to use her anti-capital punishment stance against her and turn the race, in his words, into “a referendum on the death penalty.” Harris didn’t budge.

Harris has been a frequent critic of the criminal justice system, an encouraging sign. She outlined her philosophy in her 2009 book Smart on Crime: A Career Prosecutor’s Plan to Make Us Safe, the title of which has become a common refrain for Harris. Her “smart” approach, according to the book, involves focusing on “short-circuiting the criminal careers of offenders much earlier,” “getting offenders out of the system permanently,” ensuring “lower rates of recidivism,” and “investing in comprehensive efforts to reduce the ranks of young offenders entering the criminal justice system.” One of her suggestions was to teach nonviolent inmates and some juvenile offenders skills for employment.

To that end, Harris supported reforming California’s three-strikes law, refrained from seeking life sentences for criminals who committed nonviolent “third strikes,” and in 2004 instituted the Back on Track program, which put first-time offenders between ages eighteen and twenty-four into eighteen-month-long city college apprentice programs, which contributed to the city’s recidivism rates dropping from 54 percent to 10 percent in six years. She would later order parole officers not to enforce residency restrictions against sex offenders.

Over her time as DA and, later, as California attorney general, she took a number of progressive stances. She opposed the anti-gay Proposition 8, helped defend Obamacare in court, supported an undocumented immigrant’s bid for a law license, sponsored legislation that increased transparency around websites’ data collection, opposed California’s despicable “shoot the gays” ballot initiative, and filed a brief in the Supreme Court encouraging it to allow public universities to consider race in admissions. Under her direction, the state’s justice department adopted body cameras, California police were made to undergo implicit racial bias training, and her office received an award for accelerating the testing of rape kits.

Harris also had a respectable record of standing up to corporate malfeasance. She filed a friend-of-the-court brief signed by thirty-one other state attorneys general in 2011 in a Supreme Court case looking to end the practice of drug companies paying competitors to keep generic versions of their drugs off the market. In 2012, she set up a privacy enforcement protection unit in the attorney general’s office, which at one point fined a company for surreptitiously installing spyware on its customers’ computers. ...
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