It’s been two weeks since Senator Kamala Harris (D-CA) jumped into the race for president of the United States. If she were to win, she will make history twice: as the first woman president, and as the first Black woman president.
Harris, who is a former district attorney in Oakland and California State Attorney General, is running on the platform slogan of “For the People.” However, since her official declaration to run was announced, a slew of articles have come out attempting to paint her in a negative light. Specifically, they’ve claimed that she is not a woman of the people, but rather, a cog for a system that has disproportionately oppressed Black people.
First, there is the editorial in the New York Times entitled “Kamala Harris Was Not A ‘Progressive Prosecutor,'” in which Lara Bazelon, the former director of the Loyola Law School Project for the Innocent in Los Angeles, accused Harris of being “on the wrong side of history.” Bazelon charged Harris with regressive prosecution, including fighting tooth and nail to keep wrongfully convicted people in prison, opposing a bill that would have required her office to investigate police-involved shootings, and championing legislation that would prosecute parents of children who were found to be habitually truant.
As Bazelon wrote, “It’s true that politicians must make concessions to get the support of key interest groups. The fierce, collective opposition of law enforcement and local district attorney associations can be hard to overcome at the ballot box. But in her career, Ms. Harris did not barter or trade to get the support of more conservative law-and-order types; she gave it all away.”
Echoing a similar sentiment is Branko Marcetic, who in a Jacobin piece entitled “The Two Faces of Kamala Harris,” had this to say:
It’s undoubtable that there are many things in Harris’ history to be encouraged by, from her pursuit of corporate polluters and her implementation of policies to prevent recidivism in the past, to her more recent steadfast opposition to the Trump administration and her support of progressive legislation in the Senate. But it helps no one to turn acknowledgement of her positives into a starry-eyed distortion of her record. Every politician – including Bernie Sanders – has some bad to go with the good on their record. But in Harris’ case, the bad has often directly undercut the good.
The criticism against a potential Harris presidency is particularly harsh, if not damning, but is it fair?
It’s really hard to tell.
In her recently published memoir, The Truths We Hold: an American Journey, Harris shares with readers her two-decade-long career as a “progressive prosecutor.” The daughter of an Indian mother and Jamaican father, who were both very active in the civil rights movement in her native California, Harris said she decided to be a prosecutor – a position most would regard as counterintuitive to any position as a progressive – so that she could help not only victims of crime but be on the front lines of criminal justice reform. As she writes, to be both a progressive and a prosecutor implies there is room to be a hard on crime while recognizing the system needs a little work.
And in the first chapter, Harris gives an example of how these two things can work together. During her final year of law school, she interned at the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office. Harris writes about the time she worked on a drug case in which an “innocent” mother had been arrested for simply being “at the wrong place at the wrong time.”
According to Harris, it was the weekend, and all of the prosecutors had already gone home for the weekend, which meant this alleged bystander would likely not see a judge until the beginning of the following week. Feeling a sense of curiosity and pity for the mother, Harris said she took it upon herself to champion the jailed woman’s case. Specifically, she rushed to the County Clerk’s office and pleaded for them have her case heard that day. As a result, the mother was released.
As she writes, “it was a defining moment in my life. It was the crystallization of how, even on the margins of the criminal justice system the stakes were extraordinarily high and intensely human. It was the realization that even with the limited authority of an intern, people who cared could do justice. It was revelatory. A moment that proved how much it mattered to have compassionate people working as prosecutors.”
Harris would continue her version of progressive prosecution by creating the Back on Track program, a nationally recognized and model diversion program that assigns job training to non-violent felons instead of jail time. She would also deliver a major blow to the banks responsible for the 2008 economic crisis by negotiating the largest fraud settlement in history. The deal provided nearly $25 million in financial assistance and debt relief for California homeowners who were unfairly targeted during the 2008 mortgage crisis. And let’s not forget about her work prosecuting child molesters, pimps and other human sex traffickers.
Outside of her accomplishments, Harris talks in very passionate details about how her role as as a progressive prosecutor could help the country. In particular, she speaks out for common sense immigration rules and against the current policy of separating migrant children from their families. She chastises the current political climate for ignoring automation and the possible effect it will have on the economy. She also continues her outspoken opposition to the Trump Administration. Among those subjects, she dedicates entire chapters to these issues and takes very progressive, left-leaning stances. However, what is missing from her book is the same level of conviction for criminal justice reform, which is a very important topic right now. In most instances, she mentions the topic very scantly and from a viewpoint of status quo prosecutor, rather than as an agent of change.
For instance, in the fourth chapter of her book, she takes full responsibility for her anti-truancy law, which disproportionately affected Black and low-income families, claiming that it was an opportunity to identify families who might need intervention. But she neglects to go into much detail about the outcomes, in particular, if she actually helped any of the parents who were eventually jailed behind the law. Instead, she abandons the topic altogether to eventually spend a considerable amount of page space speaking about her whirlwind romance with her now-husband, Doug.
Also absent in her book is any real explanation as to why she declined to prosecute any bank executives for their part in creating the mortgage and foreclosure crisis (even though she had a chance to do so), her targeting of sex workers through Backpage, and her continued support of three-strike laws in California.
In essence, The Truth We Hold reads more like a bunch of missed opportunities for Harris to not only clear the air about her mixed bag record as a progressive, but to also address critics who believe she is just another career politician willing to say anything to get elected. But with the primary election about a year away, Harris still has time to change skeptical minds. And whether or not she will win the nomination will largely depend on the overall mood and tone of the Democratic Party and its voters.
If voters decide they want a moderate reformist, Harris is not a bad choice. She is smart, no-nonsense and a fighter. But if voters decide they want more of a changemaker, they might go looking elsewhere.
However her campaign is received, one thing is for sure: Harris is eventually going to have to be honest and admit that either she made mistakes or she is not as progressive as she wants us to believe.
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