How Kamala Harris seized the moment on race and police reformJune 7, 2020
Days before Kamala Harris launched her presidential campaign, a prominent law professor tore apart her record in a New York Times op-ed arguing that the California senator was not, as she defined herself, a “progressive prosecutor.”
The scathing critique by Lara Bazelon was followed by months of criticism of Harris’ career as a district attorney and state attorney general, thwarting her efforts to win over reform-minded liberals.
But with Harris emerging as a top contender for vice president, Bazelon isn't particularly worried. She now views Harris' law enforcement record as a "net neutral" for the senator.
“I don’t think there’s the interest or the oxygen to re-litigate it,” Bazelon said in an interview. “She’s positioned herself in the last couple of years as someone who really is on the right side of these issues and that carries weight.”
The shift didn't occur by accident: Harris spent the campaign and months since working to burnish her image on criminal justice issues and contending that her decades in the field, which were viewed as a liability, instead provides her with unmatched perspective into how to achieve systemic change. Since the uprising over the killing of George Floyd, she’s taken to cable news programs and the Senate floor to argue for police reform and reconciliation.
Harris' increasing comfort with leading on justice issues — and success at persuading progressive advocates that her efforts are sincere — might well have happened whether or not she was in the running to become Joe Biden's running mate. And it's possible that her law enforcement record will reemerge as a problem once the spotlight on Biden's VP list intensifies.
But the timing of Harris' headway among criminal justice reformers has worked in her favor: She's widely considered to be a top contender for the vice-presidential appointment, if not the frontrunner.
“I have been a frequent critic of her because of some of her past work … but she was brilliant,” Shaun King, the activist and former prominent Bernie Sanders supporter, told POLITICO after watching her recently on MSNBC. “It wasn’t canned, either. It was real. Her thoughts on the George Floyd case, how it should be handled, what the (Justice Department) could do, etc., was ... one of the best of any elected officials.
“It made me much more comfortable with her as a potential VP pick," King added.
Harris, along with her aides and family, kept in regular contact with leading activists and policymakers during her campaign and after she exited the race. The listening sessions helped to quell distrust and uncertainty around her stances: While some still question how forcefully she would press for progressive criminal justice reforms if political winds shifted against her, the comprehensive vetting Harris faced in the primary — as well as Biden’s comparatively conservative record on crime and punishment — has softened the opposition of skeptics.
Harris has tried to channel the raw pain of the country: “Her wounds are exposed,” she said last week of the figurative sores of racial division that spread each time an African American is killed by a police officer. She was among the first senators to attend the protests, showing up with her husband and without mentioning it ahead of time to the news media, or her own aides. And in the crush of cable news appearances, she’s laid out an agenda that includes pushing for independent investigations into police misconduct, a national standard for when officers can use force, and Justice Department “pattern or practice“ probes into police departments.
A draft of sweeping legislation by Harris and Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) would ban chokeholds, limit “qualified immunity” for police officers, create a national misconduct registry and end uses of no-knock warrants in drug cases.
Harris faced intense scrutiny during the campaign not only over specific aspects of her record, but her motivations for becoming a prosecutor. Allies saw a double standard — with some pointing to Sen. Amy Klobuchar, whose career desires and record as a prosecutor didn’t receive much public vetting until fairly late in the campaign.
Harris, whose parents were active in the civil rights movement, was constantly asked to justify how she could choose to be part of a system she knew was discriminatory. Harris likened it to "going up the rough side of the mountain." And, in the waning days of her campaign, she confided to a group of black women leaders that the pointed memes — "Kamala is a Cop" — "breaks my heart."
"Today people talk about progressive prosecutors and the evolution of criminal justice reform and I think people have to remember that the senator was one of very few people of color leading prosecutor’s offices and very, very, very few women of color leading prosecutor’s offices when she first assumed office," said Kim Foxx, the Cook County (Ill.) state’s attorney and part of a new generation of progressive elected attorneys. "Things we take for granted now are things she was trying to pioneer back then."
Portraying herself as a longtime reformer, Harris cited her early re-entry program that provided job training and counseling to former offenders — before “re-entry” became common in the field. Later, as attorney general, she collected and published data on police shootings and in-custody deaths, and was early to mandate officer-worn body cameras.
But from the first days of the campaign, she was besieged by questions about how she reconciles the past with her claims of being a “progressive" prosecutor. That term in recent years has come to describe local and state attorneys who are breaking with precedent to reject cash bail, decline to pursue certain drug charges and heavily scrutinize police officer conduct.
As attorney general, Harris opposed legalizing marijuana and stayed out of controversial statewide ballot initiatives aimed at lowering nonviolent offenses from felonies to misdemeanors and giving certain nonviolent felons a chance at early parole. She did not back state legislation requiring independent investigations of officer-involved killings or a bill to mandate police officers wear body cameras. And as district attorney years before, she supported raising cash bail.
DeRay Mckesson, the activist, podcaster and co-founder of the police reform group Campaign Zero, met with Harris during her presidential run. In public, he said, Harris was unable to explain her past criminal justice positions in the way she was able to articulate in person. He pointed to her long-standing refusal until last spring to support independent investigations into police shootings and cases of alleged brutality by law enforcement officials.
Early in her career, Harris refused to seek the death penalty for a member of a gang who shot and killed a San Francisco police officer, prompting calls for the case to be taken from her. She reasoned that getting rid of prosecutorial discretion would threaten DAs like herself.
“We went in the room prepared and engaged and she was engaged and prepared and she pushed, and we pushed, and she was able to explain everything in a way that made sense even if you didn’t agree with it fully,” Mckesson said.
“She’s clearly an expert on criminal justice,” he added. “The question is does she have big ideas to be able to undo some of the things we all know are creating harm in communities?”
Harris' transformation began in earnest when she left law enforcement in 2016. She conceded at points in the campaign that she wishes she'd done more to advance change and she credited activism around the Black Lives Matter movement with expanding what reforms came to be viewed as possible. Before releasing her campaign criminal justice plan last fall, which became the foundation for her attitudes today, she spent months in frequent contact with reformers and policymakers.
Jamira Burley, an activist and social impact strategist, said the senator has approached her progression with an unspoken understanding: “It’s clear she cares about black people and cares about their lives.”
“All of us have evolved, right? We didn’t wake up woke,” Burley said. “This is a moment where we’re really reevaluating what we consider to be not only justice, but also safety. And those might look very different for different communities.”
Harris’ criminal justice blueprint called for terminating federal mandatory minimum sentences and encouraging states to do the same; ending the death penalty and solitary confinement; and phasing out cash bail and for-profit prisons. It sought to end sentencing disparities between crack and powder cocaine offenses and legalize marijuana at the federal level.
“I observed someone who took a lot of rightful incoming, but spent time listening and hearing from folks about the progressive movement for reform,” said Color of Change President Rashad Robinson. “People are in a place right now where they recognize the failures of the incremental steps for reform that have been put on the table over the years. People are making very big and serious demands that get to the problem. And we need elected officials that will meet us there.”
Asked whether Harris is one of those officials, Robinson suggested she was on her way.
“I know she is willing to be in that conversation,” he said last week, before abruptly excusing himself to take a call from the senator's office.