Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA), a longtime prosecutor prior to joining Congress in 2016, has made history in every elected office she’s held. She’s the first black woman and the first Asian American woman to serve as a California senator, as the state’s attorney general, and as San Francisco’s district attorney. And in 2020, she would be the first black woman and the first Asian American woman to be a major party nominee if Democrats choose her as their presidential candidate.
Harris’s candidacy — and identity — is one that speaks to the energy and growing diversity of the Democratic party: She’s a progressive woman of color who’s made advocacy for DREAMers, the fight for equal pay, and abortion rights core planks of her policy proposals. And she’s built an avid following among voters impressed with her pointed questioning of Trump nominees and officials like Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh and Attorney General William Barr from her perch on the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Despite the strength of her candidacy, however, Harris has faced some pushback over her record as a prosecutor, with critics taking issue with past positions she’s held on subjects including truancy and wrongful convictions.
In response to this criticism, Harris has said she became a prosecutor to change the criminal justice system from within and noted that she’s implemented significant reforms in her past roles — including expanding a program as California’s attorney general called “Back on Track” that enabled low-level offenders to receive training and education.
“I have the unique experience of having been a leader in local government, state government, and federal government,” she’s said regarding her credentials. “The American public wants a fighter … and I’m prepared to do that.”
Buzz about Harris’s potential presidential run had been building ever since she was elected to the Senate roughly three years ago: Her legal chops, lengthy public service record, and commitment to progressive policy positions like Medicare-for-all have bolstered her case. But addressing how her prosecutorial experience fits into this larger progressive narrative is an ongoing question she has been forced to wrestle with — and likely will continue to be.
Harris’s candidacy is groundbreaking
Born in Oakland to Indian and Jamaican immigrants, Harris is a groundbreaking candidate by all measures.
As her star has risen, she’s also made it a point to advise and promote other candidates of color, including women and first-time candidates, New York magazine reports. “My mother used to tell me, ‘Kamala, you may be the first to do many things. Make sure you are not the last,’” she’s said. During the 2018 elections, Harris offered counsel and endorsements to several successful Democrats, including Jahana Hayes, London Breed, and Lucy McBath.
While she’s served in the Senate, Harris has also been at the forefront of efforts to address racial discrimination, slamming now-Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh for using racist dog whistles in a past op-ed and opposing other judicial nominees like Thomas Farr because of his past ties to voter suppression efforts. Harris has repeatedly emphasized that such fights are not only important but exceedingly personal.
“Almost two decades after the Supreme Court’s landmark ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, I was part of only the second class to integrate the Berkeley, California public schools,” Harris said as part of a statement during Kavanaugh’s confirmation. “If that Court had not issued that unanimous opinion led by Chief Justice Earl Warren in that case argued by Thurgood Marshall, I likely would not have become a lawyer, or a prosecutor, or been elected district attorney or the attorney general of California.”
Harris has also established herself as a chief defender of immigrant rights, especially as the Trump administration has attempted a wholesale overhaul of many of them. She has introduced multiple bills targeting the treatment of migrant children and families by border patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Harris’s history on criminal justice has prompted questions about her progressive bona fides
Much of the scrutiny on Harris has centered on the time she spent as a prosecutor in California, with many progressives wondering how certain “smart on crime” stances align with her current policy positions.
It’s a record that’s filled with apparent contradictions, which speaks to a balancing act she’s had to strike over the years, writes Vox’s German Lopez:
She pushed for programs that helped people find jobs instead of putting them in prison, but also fought to keep people in prison in certain cases that included evidence of wrongful conviction. She refused to pursue the death penalty against a man who killed a police officer (and personally opposes the penalty), but also defended California’s death penalty system in court. She implemented training programs to address police officers’ racial biases but also resisted calls to get her office to investigate individual police shootings.
Her supporters acknowledge her shortcomings but also say she’s fought for key reforms like establishing one of the first databases on police shootings in the country.
“Kamala Harris has spent her career fighting for reforms in the criminal justice system and pushing the envelope to keep everyone safer by bringing fairness and accountability,” Lily Adams, a spokesperson for Harris, said.
Harris’s website supports this claim by citing her work as California attorney general, noting that she was integral to defending the Affordable Care Act, advancing marriage equality, and obtaining a $20 billion settlement that helped state residents who were hurt by foreclosures during the financial crisis.
This final achievement could be treacherous territory in a party renewing its attention to economic populism, however: A piece by Phil Wilton in the Los Angeles Times had a more critical reading of her response to the mortgage lenders, noting that it fell short of some of Harris’s earlier promises including sending the bankers responsible to jail. And a piece in Jacobin, a publication that characterizes itself as a “leading voice of the American left,” took Harris to task for how her settlement ultimately left some with underwater mortgages and little actual financial relief.
In answering these critics, Harris has said that the $20 billion she ultimately secured was widely heralded as a win at the time — and that it was a huge increase from the $2 billion to $4 billion figure the banks originally wanted to settle for.
“There were homeowners that were, at that moment and each day, holding on by the fingernails trying to keep their homes,” she said at the time, noting that this urgency drove her approach to negotiations.
While Harris has established one of the most liberal voting records as a senator, she’ll likely continue to face critiques about her prosecutorial record as her campaign continues.
Kamala Harris’s policy proposals, briefly explained
Harris has rolled out a wide-ranging slate of policy plans, and some of the common threads across them are a focus on fair wages and economic support for middle-class and low-income Americans.
Among the proposals she’s laid out, Harris has called for closing the pay gap between teachers and other professions with comparable training, closing the gender wage gap and penalizing companies that don’t do so, and closing the pay gap between public defenders and prosecutors.
Two of her other proposals would seek to provide workers with additional financial support. The LIFT the Middle Class Act would give middle-class households a monthly cash payment amounting to as much as $3,000 per year for single people and $6,000 per year for married couples. And a Harris bill focused on job training would give unemployed and underemployed workers up to $8,000 for training programs.
Immigration is also a policy area that Harris has been deeply engaged with during her time in the Senate. She has earned praise from a crucial contingent of immigration advocates, many of whom have heralded her willingness to stake out her unflinchingly aggressive opposition to the White House.
Harris was the first senator to say that she wouldn’t vote for a spending package if Congress didn’t include protections for DREAMers (undocumented immigrants who came to the US as children), and before that, she spent time as attorney general confronting the child migrant crisis. She was also the first to call for Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen to resign in the wake of the Trump administration’s implementation of family separation policies.
As a candidate, Harris has put forward a proposal that creatively uses executive action to help create a path to citizenship for DREAMers.
Among the candidates who have been consistently polling in the top five of the 2020 field, Harris had one of the strongest launches, though her poll numbers have stalled a bit since. Given her charismatic persona, depth of experience, and expansive portfolio of policies, however, she remains one of the major contenders to watch.