With presidential nomination season upon us, a slew of progressive dissenters and neoliberal billionaires have begun throwing their hats into the ring to take the Oval Office. On January 28 in Oakland, California, the land of anti-Trump, Democratic firebrand and Senator Kamala Harris announced her campaign for the presidency. Leading on a message of speaking truth to power, fixing a broken criminal justice system, and being a voice for the voiceless and the vulnerable, Harris’s debut to the campaign trail was a home run.
However, her past as a prosecutor may come to haunt her.
Kamala Harris has long positioned herself as an ally to the downtrodden and underserved communities of California as someone who can reform the criminal justice system from within. In 2004, she became district attorney of San Francisco, effectively making history by becoming the first woman and person of color to hold the position. During her time her time in office, she founded the program Back on Track — an attempt to reintegrate first-time non-violent drug offenders into society.
The idea was that if the defendant pleaded guilty, they could join the year and a half program of individualized support including job training and extensive community service with the requirement of steady employment or enrollment by the end of the process. Once they fulfilled all the tenants, they’d be able to reduce their felony charge to a misdemeanor. And it worked — the program had a reoffence rate of 10 percent compared to the 50 percent rate of similar programs in California.
Other achievements include serving as Attorney General of California from 2011 to 2017, where Harris co-sponsored a bill outlawing the ‘gay panic’ defense, a legal tactic used to reduce a charge of murder to manslaughter by arguing that a violent act against an LGBT individual was triggered by the revelation of a victim’s actual or perceived gender, gender identity, gender expression, or sexual orientation. In 2012, she reached a $25 billion settlement with Wall Street titans Wells Fargo that would assist in the financial relief of thousands of Californians pummeled by the foreclosure crisis.
These achievements should’ve cemented her position as the people’s prosecutor, right?
As much as her progressive strides defined her time as a prosecutor, so did her tough on crime policies and impasse attitude toward big money misconduct. As district attorney in 2011, she made it a crime for students to be chronically late for school. If a parents’ child is found to be chronically late — i.e., missing 10 percent of school days without a valid excuse — they could be fined up to $2000 and even face a year in jail. The goal was to prevent chronically truant children from dropping out of school and leading lives of crime, however, the move disproportionately affects communities who have less familial and community support to stay in school, additionally separating families who don’t have the money to pay off the fine.
Despite bringing justice to Wells Fargo, she gave former OneWest CEO and current Trump Secretary of Treasury Steve Mnuchin a pass after a memo alleged that the bank broke foreclosure laws and unfairly preyed on vulnerable homeowners. In 2015, she sided with her state to halt a gender reassignment surgery for a transgender inmate.
Sen. Harris, despite her ‘progressive prosecutor’ branding, will have to face up to her past in supporting policies that bring jail time to low-income families and empowering the worst parts of the criminal justice system she sought to reform. These issues will likely stir controversy and protest from the farther left wing of the Democratic party and serve as fodder for conservative pundits to highlight inter-party turmoil.
As we move further into the nitty gritty of the election cycle and other players enter the field, it’ll be Harris’s separation or defense of her past that will ultimately make it or break it for her as a candidate who can take the Democratic nomination and defeat Trump.