Kamala Harris’ record as prosecutor has become a popular line of attack for her rivals in the Democratic primary. Criticism of Harris’ career was hinted at by Biden in the first debate, when, in response to Harris’ famous attack on his position on bussing, he said “if we want to have this campaign litigated on who supports civil rights…I’m happy to do that. I was a public defender. I didn’t become a prosecutor. I came out and I left a good law firm to become a public defender”. Of course, the implication made was that Biden’s career choice had been noble, while Harris had put her own interests above that of the people — a subtle, yet stinging attack for someone who’s campaigned on the slogan, “We the people”.
Yet such is the intensity of scrutiny Harris has come under, that this moment has become rather forgettable in contrast to other attacks on the California senator’s record — most notably that made by Representative Gabbard in July. Gabbard — who showcased an effective application of opposition research in the debate — mentioned how Harris wanted to be a ‘prosecutor President’ and then rattled off a list of problems she had with Harris prosecutorial record, such as, keeping “people in prison beyond their sentences to use them as cheap labour.” Taken at face value, the attack horrified liberals who’d once looked optimistically at the prospect of electing the first black-female President in 2020 and, the implication that these sorts of policies would continue under a Harris presidency constituted a brutally effective attack. While Harris — after the debate — used Gabbard’s controversial comments on dictator President Assad against her, she failed to do so on stage, giving debate watchers little reason to doubt Gabbard’s honesty and sincerity.
Gabbard’s attack — like most political hits — was not wholly accurate
Now, Gabbard’s attack — like most political hits — was not wholly accurate. For instance, she accused Harris of laughing about putting people in jail for marijuana offences, when the reality was that Harris laughed when asked if she’d ever smoked marijuana — no mention of the incarcerated drug users was ever made. Nevertheless, the blistering attack was made by the Gabbard campaign into a series of meant-to-go-viral videos, such as one where a clip of Harris saying, “I am proud of [my] record” is edited over what Gabbard says, so that every time Gabbard lists one of Harris’ supposed-‘offences’, “I am proud of [my] record” plays. The video, titled on Youtube as “Kamala Harris — Why are you Proud?” has gotten well over 100,000 views as of writing.
But the issue for Harris, as much as it is about the spread of inaccuracies about her record, is the lack of attention given to the more progressive elements of her record. This issue isn’t one that has to be a negative for Harris — unlike Biden’s past positions on the Iraq War or, Elizabeth Warren’s Native American ancestry controversy. There are large parts of Harris’ prosecutorial record that would go down well with the majority of Democrats.
There are large parts of Harris’ prosecutorial record that would go down well with the majority of Democrats.
Moreover, Harris needs to refute more strongly the claims made against her, or at least add context to said-claims — without doing so, she makes viewers believe that the attacks against her are legitimate. For instance, while Gabbard bemoaned the senator for putting 1,500 people in jail for marijuana violations, Harris simply said she now supported the legalisation of the drug. Instead, she could have mentioned the fact that the number of marijuana related admissions dropped from 817 in her first year as Attorney General to 137 in her last.
The number of marijuana related admissions dropped from 817 in her first year as Attorney General to 137 in her last.
Meanwhile, attacks on Harris for keeping people in prison longer to use as cheap labour missed key contextual information. The argument to keep prisoners incarcerated for longer to use for labour was made by lawyers in the AG’s department, not by Harris herself, and a Harris spokesperson said that following this, the then-AG, “directed the department’s attorneys not to make that argument again.” (Politifact)
But, this isn’t just about being able to blunt the edges of these attacks, Harris can and should turn her past career into something that helps, not hurts, her campaign. From creating a Hate Crimes Unit regarding LGBT discrimination in schools to increasing the drug dealers conviction rate from 56% to 74% over three years, there are large parts of her record that she can use to win over voters.
Harris can and should turn her past career into something that helps, not hurts, her campaign.
Harris — who’s trying to create a reputation as a ‘progressive prosecutor’ — could promote the results of an investigation she directed, following an oil spill, that led to the indictment of a pipeline company. Moreover, Harris’ ability to win “the lion’s share of a $26 billion multistate settlement with big banks over foreclosure abuses” (SF Gate) in 2012, could help her win support from an array of voters.
The problems that Harris has had so far is not just about attacks on her prosecutorial record, but that most of the successes she has had to date have been based on moments — such as her campaign launch and her bussing attack on Biden — that faded quickly from the headlines and therefore faded from voters memories. Where as, all of the three top contenders can point to a clear unique selling point as to why they should be the nominee — Biden is the ‘safe, moderate choice’, Warren is the ‘pragmatic progressive’ who doesn’t alienate too many people and, Sanders is the socialist firebrand who wants a ‘revolution’ — Harris has struggled to show that there are substantial reasons she may be superior to the other presidential candidates. The road to changing this lies through, not around her prosecutorial record — a record that while not perfect, is far better than her opponents would have you believe.