The first seven months of the Trump administration has seen an ever-changing coterie of high-profile Democrats probing the possibility of launching a 2020 run to take back the White House, from Joe Biden and Corey Booker, to Kirsten Gillibrand and Deval Patrick, and maybe even Hillary Clinton for a third time. The latest name to join this carousel of political ambition is recently elected California Senator Kamala Harris. Her rise to the top of the 2020 shortlist has been long in the making, with Democratic bigwigs recognizing her potential star power as early as 2008, when she campaigned for Obama.
Harris’s rise has produced a fiery debate among liberals and the Left. Leftists and progressives have come out in strong opposition to Harris’s candidacy, with some declaring #NeverKamala and some high-profile Bernie Sanders supporters, such as National Nurses United executive director RoseAnn DeMoro, making clear their lack of enthusiasm for her candidacy. For some prominent liberals, this pushback is simply the product of virulent racism and sexism among an imagined (and non-existent) all-white, all-male, Sanders-supporting base.
While most Harris-supporting liberals wouldn’t go this far, there is deep suspicion among some Democrats that opposition to Harris is motivated by similarly less-than-noble motives — namely, that it’s part of a project of poisoning the well for any potential challengers of a Bernie Sanders or Sanders-like candidacy in 2020.
In truth, there is much about Harris’s long record as a public prosecutor in California — the vast bulk of her career — that is up for legitimate criticism by any prospective 2020 Democratic voters.
Throughout her career, Harris has been called the “female Obama.” In reference to her race, this is lazy and arguably even racist. But the comparison is apt with reference to her politics. Harris has emulated the Obama approach, delivering a combination of some notable progressive victories and pleasant rhetoric and a steadfast avoidance of structural change — paired, in some cases, with far-from-progressive policies.
Where Credit is Due
First, the good. Harris’s career has been laudatory at times.
The first test of Harris’s principles came in 2004, after she was elected as San Francisco’s district attorney (DA) while promising never to impose capital punishment. Less than six months into her tenure, Harris defied a united chorus of voices — from the city’s police chief and police rank and file, to Democratic senator Dianne Feinstein — calling for the death penalty for a twenty-one-year-old who killed an undercover police officer.
During the officer’s funeral, two thousand officers gave Feinstein a standing ovation after a speech in which she criticized Harris, who was also at the funeral. The state’s attorney general and former senator Barbara Boxer (whose seat Harris has now taken) looked for ways to circumvent Harris’s decision, but ultimately failed. Thanks in large part to Harris’s steadfastness, the killer was spared the death penalty.
In other words, at the very start of her career, Harris defied her own party, her city’s police department, and endured public humiliation to defy reactionary demands.
Later, in 2009, Harris’s Republican rival for attorney general attempted to use her anti-capital punishment stance against her and turn the race, in his words, into “a referendum on the death penalty.” Harris didn’t budge.
Harris has been a frequent critic of the criminal justice system, an encouraging sign. She outlined her philosophy in her 2009 book Smart on Crime: A Career Prosecutor’s Plan to Make Us Safe, the title of which has become a common refrain for Harris. Her “smart” approach, according to the book, involves focusing on “short-circuiting the criminal careers of offenders much earlier,” “getting offenders out of the system permanently,” ensuring “lower rates of recidivism,” and “investing in comprehensive efforts to reduce the ranks of young offenders entering the criminal justice system.” One of her suggestions was to teach nonviolent inmates and some juvenile offenders skills for employment.
To that end, Harris supported reforming California’s three-strikes law, refrained from seeking life sentences for criminals who committed nonviolent “third strikes,” and in 2004 instituted the Back on Track program, which put first-time offenders between ages eighteen and twenty-four into eighteen-month-long city college apprentice programs, which contributed to the city’s recidivism rates dropping from 54 percent to 10 percent in six years. She would later order parole officers not to enforce residency restrictions against sex offenders.
Over her time as DA and, later, as California attorney general, she took a number of progressive stances. She opposed the anti-gay Proposition 8, helped defend Obamacare in court, supported an undocumented immigrant’s bid for a law license, sponsored legislation that increased transparency around websites’ data collection, opposed California’s despicable “shoot the gays” ballot initiative, and filed a brief in the Supreme Court encouraging it to allow public universities to consider race in admissions. Under her direction, the state’s justice department adopted body cameras, California police were made to undergo implicit racial bias training, and her office received an award for accelerating the testing of rape kits.
Harris also had a respectable record of standing up to corporate malfeasance. She filed a friend-of-the-court brief signed by thirty-one other state attorneys general in 2011 in a Supreme Court case looking to end the practice of drug companies paying competitors to keep generic versions of their drugs off the market. In 2012, she set up a privacy enforcement protection unit in the attorney general’s office, which at one point fined a company for surreptitiously installing spyware on its customers’ computers.
In 2011, she brought the largest fraud settlement in decades against a company that had spent fifteen years overcharging the state’s insurance program for the poor and disabled. She reached a $6.5 million settlement with two former Countrywide executives over predatory lending and called for a Homeowners’ Bill of Rights, which led foreclosures to plummet in the state and Daily Kos to declare her “a bankster’s worst nightmare.”
Harris also has a strong history of going after polluters. As district attorney, she created San Francisco’s first Environmental Justice Unit and went after cases involving illegal dumping and air pollution. As attorney general, she went after companies including BP, Chevron, Comcast, Cosco Busan, ExxonMobil, and South California Gas Company, with Cosco Busan agreeing to the largest settlement of its kind for its 2007 spill in the San Francisco Bay.
With Trump in office, Harris has become even more outspoken. She’s come out in support of single-payer health care and free college tuition for families earning less than $140,000 a year. She’s a frequent critic of Trump’s policies. In her short time in the Senate, she’s put forward bills to end the pay gap for black women and clarify the rights of people detained at US ports of entry, and cosponsored bills to raise the federal minimum wage, close tax loopholes for Big Oil, ban agricultural use of dangerous pesticides, and stop new oil and gas leases as well as the renewal of old ones in the Arctic Ocean.
Going by all this, Harris’s record seems impressive. But it and, indeed, her commitment to her stated principles, is less pristine upon closer inspection.
“Smart on Crime”
Much as Obama pursued policies starkly opposed to his own rhetoric, Harris’s record is defined by policies that undercut her proclaimed vision.
The death penalty is a prime example. Harris deserves credit for refusing to execute a man while under tremendous pressure to do so. But despite her vaunted personal opposition, she never challenged the death penalty during her time as attorney general — and in fact did the very opposite, actively working to keep it in existence.
When a federal judge ruled California’s enforcement of the death penalty unconstitutional, Harris appealed what she called a “flawed” decision. She would continue to defend the death penalty as the case wound through the federal courts.
One might counter that it’s the job of the attorney general to defend state law, regardless of her views. Yet in stark contrast, Harris refused to defend the anti-gay Proposition 8 in court, calling it “a proposition that was found by a judge to be unconstitutional.”
You can see this pattern in Harris’s approach to criminal justice. Today, Harris talks a good game. She attacked her rival for Boxer’s senate seat for helping “fuel America’s mass incarceration crisis by voting to send more kids to prison, build more prisons and ratchet up mandatory minimums for nonviolent crimes.” She penned an op-ed about the tragedy of female incarceration, pointing out the abuse women receive in prisons, as well as prison’s economic costs to their dependents. She often says that the question of whether one should be “soft” or “tough” on crime is a false choice, and that one should instead be “smart” on crime.
Yet Harris’s “smart on crime” approach seems remarkably similar to a “tough on crime” one.
“Getting Smart on Crime does not mean reducing sentences or punishments for crimes,” she explains in her book. As her website outlines, “Kamala believes that we must maintain a relentless focus on reducing violence and aggressively prosecuting violent criminals.” Fittingly, when she became San Francisco DA, the felony conviction rate rose from 52 percent to 67 percent in three years.
In practice, Harris defended California’s uniquely cruel three-strikes law, the only one in the country which imposed life sentences for a third “strike” that was any minor felony. She urged voters to reject Proposition 66, a ballot initiative that would have reformed the harsh law by making only serious or violent felonies trigger life sentences.
Harris promised that if voters rejected the initiative, she would put forward her own, different reform. But Harris’s proposal was a tepid half-measure: it simply eliminated some third strikes. Harris would later support a different ballot measure that was identical to Proposition 66, but continued to allow anyone previously convicted of murder, rape, or child molestation to receive life sentences for relatively minor third strikes (though it did also allow those with non-serious third strikes to petition for re-sentencing).
Harris’s bullishness on three strikes was unusual. When she ran for attorney general, her Republican opponent actually ran to her left on the issue. In fact, four years earlier, as the Los Angeles County district attorney, he had proposed a reform of the law. Harris had not supported it.
Sure, Harris had a reputation for being one of the few prosecutors who held off on seeking life sentences for nonviolent third strikes. But this meant little when leaving the law in place meant future, more aggressive prosecutors were free to keep imposing unjust sentences.
Fortunately, eventual reforms to the law meant this never happened, though it was no thanks to Harris. In 2012 and 2014, California voters passed two ballot initiatives that gave judges more discretion in sentencing and retroactively scaled back punishment for certain low-level crimes. Harris didn’t take a public position on either, claiming that taking a side would come into conflict with her duty to write the ballot text. A fellow Democrat who had preceded her as attorney general called the excuse “baloney.”
Harris’s commitment to harsh punitive measures wasn’t limited to the three-strikes law. For all her recent concern about the incarceration of women and its economic effects, as district attorney, she successfully championed a statewide version of an anti-truancy law she had put in place in San Francisco that threatened parents of chronically truant children with as much as a $2,000 fine and a year in jail. By October 2012, two mothers had been imprisoned under the law.
“We are putting parents on notice,” she said in her inaugural speech as attorney general. “If you fail in your responsibility to your kids, we are going to work to make sure you face the full force and consequences of the law.”
Harris’s championing of the measures was an outgrowth of what she described as a passion for the issue of truancy that she had held since becoming San Francisco’s district attorney. But for its part, the Los Angeles Daily News — in an editorial that endorsed her, no less — argued that “it was hard not to conclude that Harris chose truancy as an election-season focus because it’s an issue without much political risk.”
At the time, Harris was pushing for statewide data collection on truancy, which she said would inform future anti-truancy policies and was something she had first introduced in San Francisco. Yet when the Daily News asked her what this data collection in the city had shown, “she seemed not to know or have thought about it,” the paper wrote.
Harris’s actions in the Daniel Larsen case are particularly concerning.
The Larsen case was a travesty of justice from start to finish. In 1999, when two police officers claimed they saw Larsen, who had earlier in his life been convicted for burglary, pull a six-inch-long knife from his waistband and throw it under a car, he was sentenced to twenty-seven years to life under the three-strikes law supported by Harris.
Forget for a second that the sentence was unduly harsh for the crime in question. Police had wrongly targeted Larsen for a search in the first place, and witnesses reported that it wasn’t Larsen but the man he was with who had thrown the knife. In trial, Larsen’s incompetent lawyer (who would later be disbarred) didn’t investigate a single witness, nor present one in trial.
Eleven years later, a judge reversed the conviction due to the lack of evidence and incompetence of Larson’s attorney’s. Yet two years later, Larsen was still in jail. Why? Because Harris, now a vocal opponent of mass incarceration, appealed the judge’s decision on the basis that Larsen had filed his paperwork too late — a technicality.
Tens of thousands of people petitioned Harris to release Larsen, and numerous civil rights groups similarly called on her to do the right thing. But even when he was eventually released from custody after fourteen years, Harris challenged his release, and five months later Larsen was back in court, fighting to stay out of prison for a crime he didn’t commit.
Harris’s concern about mass incarceration similarly failed to come up when California Governor Jerry Brown reacted to a Supreme Court order to reduce prison overcrowding by announcing a $730 million plan to move inmates to private prisons and vacant county jails. One would expect Harris may have had some words of criticism, especially as California’s senate president had an alternative, better plan that focused on getting inmates mental health and drug treatment. But she was silent. San Jose’s Mercury News criticized her inaction, rightly pointing out that “she wrote a book about” the issue.
She opted not to join in other states’ attempts to take marijuana off the DEA’s list of most dangerous substances. When Obama raided California’s medical marijuana dispensaries, Harris put out an empty statement. When asked about legalizing recreational marijuana in 2012, only a week after the New York Times endorsed national legalization and less than a year before she started warning about the failure of the war on drugs. Harris laughed. As was the case with respect to the three-strikes law, her 2014 Republican opponent ran to her left on the issue.
The limits of Harris’s approach are likewise evident in her actions on police shootings. She did back a bill that required reports on officer-involved shootings to be posted publicly online and mandated bias training and that justice department agents wear body cameras. But as district attorney, she refused to hand over the names of police officers whose testimonies had led to convictions despite the officers’ arrest records and histories of misconduct. As attorney general, she also opposed instituting police body cameras statewide and stood against a bill requiring her office to investigate fatal police shootings.
Members of California’s Legislative Black Caucus (who are fellow Democrats) criticized her over the latter, as did Melina Abdullah, a Black Lives Matter activist and professor of pan-African studies, who commented: “This is not the time for timidity. … Martin Luther King said if you tell black people to wait, that means never.”
These are just a few of a large group of civil rights advocates and activists who criticized her on the matter, including San Francisco public defender Jeff Adachi and Phelicia Jones, an organizer with the Justice for Mario Woods Coalition and a former Harris supporter, who wondered “how many more people need to die” before Harris stepped in, and accused her of “turn[ing] your back on the people who got you to where you are.” Although Harris’s defenders have singled out a small number of her critics who are white, complaining that it’s “the same three people” criticizing of her, it’s not hard to find a range of people who criticize her record, many of whom are people of color.
In fact, despite being well-placed to reshape California’s criminal justice system, Harris has something of a reputation in the state as a marginal figure on the issue. As the Orange County Register put it, she was viewed by some as a “too-cautious and often calculating politician” who has avoided hot-button issues.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson, president of the Los Angeles Urban Policy Roundtable, told the Sacramento Bee that Harris could’ve been “a more vigorous advocate for full criminal justice reform” and that she was “unwilling to be big and bold.” “Harris’s role has not been pivotal” in reshaping the criminal justice system, the paper wrote. “The pyramid shook, but often it wasn’t her doing the shaking.”
Harris tried to dismiss a suit brought by California inmates over the state’s use of solitary confinement, with her office insisting “there is no ‘solitary confinement’ in California prisons” (despite this, the case ultimately turned into a landmark settlement that struck a blow against the practice). She tried to block a transgender inmate’s request for gender reassignment surgery. When a prosecuting attorney inserted a falsified confession into the transcript of a defendant’s confession, committing what an appeals court called “outrageous government misconduct,” Harris appealed the case, arguing that it wasn’t “outrageous” because it didn’t involve physical brutality.
One of the more egregious blots on Harris’s record is her hostility to sex workers’ rights.
Harris fought a suit brought by a sex workers’ rights organization to legalize prostitution in California. But much worse was her hounding of Backpage, an online classified website frequently used by sex workers, which Harris brought criminal charges against suspiciously close to her senate election, accusing it of being “the world’s top online brothel.” The relentless pressure eventually forced the website to shut down its adult advertising section.
Backpage was by no means an admirable organization — it was frequently used for child sex trafficking in addition to ordinary sex work (although Lois Lee, who headed a shelter for sex trafficking victims, called its shutdown “a sad day” because it had been a “critical investigative tool” for law enforcement to recover missing children and prosecute pimps). But it was also a cheap, easy, and safe way for sex workers to find clients without having to go on the streets or work with pimps. Its closure threw sex workers into uncertainty and peril.
“Kamala Harris pressured that place to shut down, but she did not create any programs that are gonna help California mothers take better care of their families with better economic access to safe housing, education, health care,” one sex worker complained. “Sex workers choose to do this work so we can pay for those things.”
Harris has at least shown the capacity to move in the right direction on some issues. She recently penned a New York Times op-ed with Rand Paul explaining how bail “disproportionately harms people from low-income communities and communities of color,” calling for its reform or replacement (her and Paul put forward a bill to do so). But as late as June 2016 she was defending the constitutionality of bail in court. By December of that year, she was arguing the opposite.
Given Harris’s stance on crime, it’s perhaps unsurprising that she was not always the most ardent civil liberties defender.
It’s true that Harris ordered California parole officers not to enforce blanket residency restrictions on sex offenders. This order ended the unjust application of a law that in many cases made it impossible for someone convicted of a sex offense to live anywhere, and increased the homeless sex offender population by twenty-four times in three years. (In addition to the barbarity of making anyone homeless, sex offenders’ risk of reoffending rises dramatically with homelessness, arguably, and ironically, making the public less safe.)
But she had only done so after the state Supreme Court ruled the restrictions to be unconstitutional, and only after she had appealed the same decision by a lower court. Harris supported Jessica’s Law, the ballot measure that instituted these rules, back in 2006. Similar to her stance on the three-strikes law, her 2010 Republican opponent ran to her left on this issue.
Around the same time, Harris sponsored legislation that would have banned sex offenders from using social media sites like Facebook. The bill received much criticism, not only due to concerns for privacy and civil liberties, but also because it was ineffective — most sex crimes against children are committed by people they know, and most adults who solicited sex from kids online weren’t registered sex offenders. But as many pointed out, Harris was sponsoring the bill the same year she was running to be attorney general.
Harris was also a big booster of familial DNA searches, a controversial technique whereby investigators compare a DNA sample to other samples in a DNA database to find possible relatives, then use additional genetic testing and analysis to confirm the match, all in order to solve crimes. Due to privacy concerns, the technique hasn’t been adopted in Canada, and was outlawed in both Maryland and DC. Among the concerns are the not-infrequent cases of human error in DNA evidence, the fact that familial testing would disproportionately impact communities of color, the potential revelation of family secrets, and the already existing instances of mistakes being made with the technique.
California was the first state to adopt the technique in 2009 under Jerry Brown, but Harris eagerly kept it going. In 2011, she announced new funding to double the amount of familial searches, telling the LA Times “California is on the cutting edge of this in many ways,” and that “I think we are going to be a model for the country. I really do.”
In fact, California’s use of familial DNA testing is particularly invasive, as the state allows the collection and preservation of DNA samples from anyone who is arrested, even if they’re not charged with a crime. The ACLU originally sued to block California’s DNA collection when an Oakland woman had been arrested during a San Francisco protest against the Iraq War and forced to give a DNA sample despite not being charged with any crime.
Harris was likewise a firm proponent of civil asset forfeiture, sponsoring a bill to allow prosecutors to seize profits before charges were even filed. Years before that, she opposed AB 639, a bill that aimed to reform asset forfeiture. The bill easily cleared the state assembly, but was soon scuttled by a united wall of opposition from law enforcement, with whom Harris was united.
There was also the case of the Sikh man who was barred from working as a prison guard because of his religiously mandated beard. Harris argued that his beard prevented him from being properly fitted with a gas mask, thus disqualifying him from the job, despite California’s corrections and rehabilitation department’s regulations allowing guards to have beards for certain medical reasons.
A number of civil rights and legal organizations — including the ACLU of Northern California, the Asian American Bar Association, and the Council on American Islamic Relations — wrote Harris a letter pointing out this inconsistency. She argued that the medical exemption only applied to guards who passed the mask fitting before the policy took effect, although the man’s attorney said this was untrue.
Any future Democratic president is going to inherit the now nearly sixteen-year-old “war on terror,” which has already hollowed out many civil liberties protections for the sake of security and has the potential to do much more. Harris’s record on the matter as a prosecutor thus deserves careful consideration.
Settling for Less
Arguably the most significant accomplishment on Harris’s record is her treatment of banks that were involved in widespread foreclosure fraud.
It is clear this will be one of the key selling points to any future Harris 2020 run, so it deserves special attention. She touted her 2011 mortgage settlement deal in her 2012 DNC speech, and at the 2016 California Democrats Convention, she was introduced as someone who was “very tough on the banks when they try to foreclose on working families.”
Harris’s actions on the issue in many ways serve as a microcosm of her broader political agenda. The foreclosure deal, while an impressive and landmark settlement, was also a half-measure that delivered far less to the public than it seems at first glance, ultimately failing to properly take the banks to task for their criminality.
Obviously, credit where credit is due: in September 2011, Harris pulled California out of nationwide mortgage settlement talks with the five biggest mortgage servicers, a gutsy move that won her praise from homeowner groups and involved defying Obama, her close ally. Harris did this after meeting personally with the banks’ representatives, who were offering California what she called “crumbs on the table” and reportedly asking to be let off the hook from legal action over any misconduct they had committed. Harris thought she could get Californians a better deal. She told the banks, “I am going to investigate everything.”
At the same time, Harris’s decision to pull out has to be understood in the context of the widespread activism that pressured her to do so.
At the time, Harris was under pressure from union leaders, other politicians, and housing rights activists. As one member of the progressive coalition of groups put it, “It wasn’t like she was some hard-charging AG that wanted to take on the banks” — rather, “it took a lot of work to get her where we needed her to be.” Harris withdrew the day after these groups sent her a letter, signed on by Lt. Governor Gavin Newsom, a potential future rival, calling the deal “deeply flawed” and “outrageous.”
The deal Harris got for California was ultimately much better. It provided $18.4 billion in debt relief and $2 billion in other financial assistance, as well as incentives for relief to center on the hardest hit counties. This is particularly impressive when one considers the banks had originally only offered California, the state hardest hit by the housing crisis and fraud, $2-4 billion.
Nonetheless, the settlement was woefully inadequate. For one, while the $20 billion total sounds good, it was a fraction of what the banks would have had to pay to compensate for all of their malfeasance. For instance, investors had won $8.5 billion in a settlement with Bank of America over mortgage securities backed by faulty loans.
Secondly, the banks themselves paid very little — only around $5 billion, with most of the settlement involving the banks modifying loans owned by others, such as pension funds, who had nothing to do with the misconduct that necessitated the deal. In terms of direct financial relief, underwater homeowners — weighed down by average debt of close to $65,000 each — received around $1,500 to $2,000 each. One called it “a slap in the face for a lot of us.”
Moreover, more than half of the $9.2 billion in principal loan forgiveness in the state went to second mortgages, and many of those were already delinquent. While it did benefit homeowners, it also meant, as one economist told the LA Times, that in practice the banks “were writing off loans that were essentially dead.” A year later, only one-fifth of the aid went to first-mortgage principal forgiveness. And even at the end of this, just 84,102 California families had any mortgage debt forgiven — far short of the 250,000 originally predicted.
On top of this, under the deal, loans owned by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac didn’t qualify for the debt relief. Given they were the country’s biggest mortgage holders, this meant even fewer homeowners stood to benefit from the deal.
Harris explained that while the deal was imperfect, she was forced to make do as the clock was ticking. “Every day there are homeowners in California who will either receive relief so they can stay in their home, or will be in the foreclosure process and potentially lose their home,” she said. “And that always weighed heavily on my mind.” Rob McKenna, one of the lead negotiators on the settlement said that “at some point you have to decide that it’s more important to get relief to consumers sooner than to get more through the court.” Similarly, journalist David Dayen believed Harris had “played a bad hand relatively well,” and that prosecuting would have taken more time and a bigger coalition of prosecutors than she had at the time.
Still, there were numerous critics. Writing in the LA Times, Michael Hiltzik savaged the deal and what he called the “rosy self-congratulation” that followed it, particularly the new foreclosure standards it imposed, which he called a “big whoop.” “The provisions mostly require mortgage lenders and servicers to comply with what I would have thought was already the law, which prohibits, you know, criminal fraud,” he wrote.
“This settlement is yet another raw demonstration of who wields power in America,” wrote Susan Webber. “It adds insult to injury to see some try to depict it as a win for long suffering, still abused homeowners.” “There’s virtually no benefit to borrowers, and yet you give the banks credit for short sales and getting second liens wiped out — something they were going to have to do anyway,” complained Bruce Marks, founder of housing counseling group Neighborhood Assistance Corp. of America.
More importantly, ordinary homeowners who had been shafted by the banks remained angry. During Harris’s Senate campaign, her opponent was flanked by members of Occupy Fights Foreclosures, an outgrowth of Occupy LA, as she criticized Harris (however disingenuously) for not prosecuting a single top bank executive. The group had earlier written Harris a letter calling for her to implement a moratorium on foreclosures until she finished investigating fraud. Frustrated homeowners complained of being denied meetings with Harris over the span of years, and protested at the 2015 California Democrats State Convention.
There was no better symbol of Harris’s inability to hold the people behind the foreclosure fraud to account than her Mortgage Fraud Strike Force. Opened to much fanfare in 2011 and employing twenty-five Department of Justice lawyers and investigators with a budget of more than $2 million to go after foreclosure fraud, the strike force managed to prosecute just ten cases in three years, an East Bay Express investigation in 2014 found.
The paper found that not only had the strike force prosecuted less foreclosure fraud cases than many other states, but it had filed fewer lawsuits than attorneys general in smaller states with fewer victims, and even fewer than some county district attorneys. Yet California led the country in terms of such scam operations, with many thousands of complaints since 2010. One housing rights activist who had lost his home in a fraud called the strike force a “public relations effort.”
Harris has repeatedly said she was limited in what she could do. When a man at the 2016 California Democratic Party convention asked her, “How many bankers went to jail?” she said they did the best with what evidence there was. “I too, like most Americans, am frustrated. Clearly crimes occurred and people should go to jail,” she told the LA Times last year. “But we went where the evidence took us.”
This demonstrably wasn’t always the case, however. Earlier this year, the Intercept obtained a 2013 memo to Harris from prosecutors in the attorney general’s office saying they had “uncovered evidence suggestive of widespread misconduct” at OneWest Best, and urging Harris to “conduct a full investigation of a national bank’s misconduct and provide a public accounting of what happened.” Yet Harris never did. (Coincidentally, Harris was the only Democratic Senate candidate in 2016 to get a donation from Steven Mnuchin, OneWest’s former CEO).
One has to wonder whether there are other, similar memos out there, and how many.
“An Opportunity to Shine”
Harris’s many boosters in the media will tell you that none of this matters. Rather than doing their job of scrutinizing the record of a prospective presidential candidate, they argue, they and other journalists should simply keep quiet and “give her an opportunity to shine or not shine,” rather than “undercut her before she even begins.”
This is an obviously ludicrous idea, particularly coming from anyone who considers themselves a journalist. But beyond that, if Harris plans on making a run for president, which she has shown every intention of doing, anyone intending to play a role in selecting the Democratic candidate come 2020 — from middle-of-the-road liberals to leftists — should have a clear-eyed understanding of her record.
It’s undoubtable that there are many things in Harris’ history to be encouraged by, from her pursuit of corporate polluters and her implementation of policies to prevent recidivism in the past, to her more recent steadfast opposition to the Trump administration and her support of progressive legislation in the Senate.
But it helps no one to turn acknowledgement of her positives into a starry-eyed distortion of her record. Every politician — including Bernie Sanders — has some bad to go with the good on their record. But in Harris’ case, the bad has often directly undercut the good.
It should matter to us that Harris, the ardent criminal justice reformer, not only did little to enact this reform during her years as a prosecutor but backed harsh, punitive policies that undermined her own progressive rhetoric on the issue. It should matter that she at times did so needlessly, taking a harsher stance than her right-wing opponents. It should matter that she repeatedly attempted to keep an innocent man locked up in prison and attempted to defend a falsified confession.
And if she continues to sell herself to the public as a take-no-prisoners prosecutor who went after financial misdeeds in defense of the ordinary homeowner, then it should matter that her record on this was more underwhelming than even some county district attorneys.
These are not narrow, niche issues. In fact, many of them — criminal justice reform, drug legalization, foreclosure fraud — are ones that particularly affect communities of color. And despite her rhetoric now, Harris has often been either inactive or on the wrong side of them.
Harris has shown the capacity to be moved leftwards when pressured by activism. This is no small thing. But you can’t pressure Harris — or any other politician, for that matter — without having an understanding of her record beyond the fuzzy PR that Democratic loyalists are currently trying to substitute for actual political discussion. Perhaps Harris will end up the 2020 nominee. Then it’s all the more important we understand her inadequacies.