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Opinion

PARK: What Kamala Harris’ Prosecutor Past Means for Her 2020 Campaign

“That little girl was me.”

In an unforgettable moment of the first Democratic debate, Kamala Harris attacked frontrunner Joe Biden, criticizing his relationships with segregationists and his opposition to federally mandated busing to bolster school integration in the 1970s. The confrontation launched the California senator into the 2020 big leagues, even pushing top-tier candidates like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren out of their second and third seeds in recent polls.  

The face-off with Biden demonstrated a few things. Firstly, Harris showcased her fearlessness and boldness, which would be an important feature for a candidate looking to defeat a Republican opponent like Donald Trump in the general election. Secondly, she highlighted her identity politics, making her identity as a woman of color a pillar of strength rather than a feature her opponents may use against her. And lastly, she made her campaign strategy very clear: take down the frontrunner and win over Biden’s African American voters in the process.

Harris’ hit on Biden in the debate was a concerted and strategic move. Biden holds his number one rank among Black voters according to polls, and Harris notably lacks in the same electorate. In the latest NBC/WSJ poll, Biden ranks at 46 percent of African-American primary voters. Harris has only 17. Harris falls in second to Biden among moderate and conservative primary voters and voters over 50 years old, which are groups Biden leads by the widest margin. And most importantly, she is the most popular second choice to Democratic voters. 

In the weeks after the debate, Harris has sought to capitalize on the momentum her successful performance fueled. But a topic that was left untouched in the first debate was Harris’ controversial criminal justice history as a prosecutor, district attorney of San Francisco, and Attorney General of California. She considers herself a progressive prosecutor for the 1990s, but a look into Harris’ past shows that her criminal justice record has not aged well among progressive voters in 2019. 

The viral fame following Harris’ post-debate spike in Internet searches brought more acute public scrutiny and examination into her past. Twitter threads have circulated that point to what critics view as an unfavorable record, and some even half-jokingly refer to her as a “cop.” Harris has managed to keep her questionable criminal justice record on the down-low in her campaign so far, but her response to the inevitable incoming critique from her political opponents will determine her trajectory in the race.

A comparison of Harris’ actions  from her time as a prosecutor with her run for president reveal an array of controversies and contradictions. She introduced a strict truancy law in 2011 that threatened California parents with jail time and fines up to $2,000 for their kids who skipped school regularly, her rationale equating absentee children with future criminals. Studies have shown that truancy laws disproportionately impact low-income communities of color that have less internal community support and extenuating medical or personal safety reasons for not showing up to class. 

Arguably, her most successful program as district attorney was the “Back on Track” program that helped first-time drug offenders receive education and job opportunities instead of criminal prosecution. But her most damning initiative was her fight to keep the wrongly convicted in jail even after they were proven innocent. 

During her time as district attorney, Harris raised the overall felony conviction rate from 52 percent to 67 percent in three years, making it the highest in a decade. She increased convictions of drug dealers from 56 percent to 74 percent during the same period. But as Attorney General of California, she opposed a bill that required her office to investigate fatal shootings involving her own police officers. 

In 2010, Harris opposed marijuana legalization as District Attorney of San Francisco. Now, she’s made her advocacy for recreational marijuana a selling point of her 2020 campaign, and even admitted she has smoked weed herself, citing her Jamaican heritage. Her stance on healthcare and ending private insurance in favor of Medicare for All is constantly in flux, and her own position on busing may not actually be all that different from Biden’s.

Harris began her criminal justice career during an era when tough-on-crime politics were favored across the political spectrum, and when Americans ranked crime as one of the most important issues facing the country. Since then, crime rates have dropped across the country and the spotlight has shifted to highlight the racial injustices in the system, fueling social movements like Black Lives Matter. Harris is running for president during an extremely different socio-political era in which three-fourths of Americans support major criminal justice reform. 

Harris navigates a tricky minefield as a black woman of color in a space dominated by white males. As recently as 2014, 95 percent of elected state and local prosecutors were white, and 79 percent were white men. Harris is also biracial, as the daughter of a Jamaican father and Indian mother. She is the first South Asian American and the second Black female U.S. Senator, making her susceptible to racial attacks and birtherism accusations. But Harris’ marginalized identities aren’t enough for supporters to consider her a progressive candidate.

To liberal voters, her “progressive prosecutor” record is a far cry from the values that define modern day progressivism. That’s not to say that Harris’ terms  as a U.S. senator hasn’t seen her align much more closely with the progressives in the Democratic Party. But her support of practically opposite policies from her time working in the justice system to her 2020 run for president brings into question her authenticity and her commitment to adhere to her core values as a politician.

The upcoming debate later this month gives Harris another opportunity to drive home her message emphasizing Biden’s history of resistance to progressive policies. There’s a lot at stake for Harris—if her jabs at Biden resonate with his supporters who occupy the same target demographic, Harris has a huge window of opportunity to potentially sway former Biden supporters and step into his dominating rank in the polls. But if she’s going to continue to attack other candidates for their anti-progressive records, she’ll need to find a way to fit her progressive campaign message into the narrative of her own controversial criminal justice history.