LatestOp-EdPoliticsWhy Progressives Need to Move Past Kamala Harris’ Record As A Prosecutor

The former district attorney made questionable choices, but she’s receptive to the party’s leftward shift

The week before the first-ever virtual Democratic National Convention kicked off, Joe Biden confirmed Senator Kamala Harris as his running mate.  The news seemed to energize his campaign and his legion of Democratic supporters – he raised nearly $50 million in the first 48 hours after the announcement. Not surprisingly, the energy on the left was countered by a plethora of unfocused attacks on Harris from the right, ranging from purposeful mispronunciations of her name to birtherism.  But somewhere in the middle of these two extremes lies a group of progressive voters who aren’t sure what to make of the Biden-Harris ticket.

They’ve spent the summer protesting against police brutality and demanding action from both local and national lawmakers, including calls to defund police departments.  Now, they’re faced with a vice presidential nominee who may have helped perpetuate the very injustices they’re fighting against.

Before Harris became the second Black woman elected to the Senate in 2016, she served as district attorney of San Francisco and attorney general of California.  During her tenure as a prosecutor, she made choices that weren’t exactly progressive.  In 2015, she refused to endorse a bill that would have appointed a special prosecutor to investigate deadly police shootings.  She also refused to investigate a series of deadly police shootings in Los Angeles and San Francisco.  And though she did require California Department of Justice agents to wear body cameras, she didn’t mandate them statewide.

Additionally, during her presidential run in 2019, she failed to fend off fellow candidate Tulsi Gabbard’s attacks on her record.  Among the critiques, Gabbard accused Harris of defending California’s death penalty from a statewide legal challenge, keeping an innocent man on death row, and failing to change the state’s money bail system.

Others worry that she was too tough on marijuana convictions, which disproportionately affect Black offenders.  As district attorney, Harris oversaw more than 1,900 marijuana cases and convicted violators at a higher rate than her predecessor.  Though this statistic isn’t cut and dry – records show that only a few dozen of those convicted ended up in state prison.  

Still, it can be tough for progressives to support a Biden-Harris ticket when Harris’ record stands in stark contrast to many of their beliefs, namely support of marijuana legalization (along with restorative justice for those with marijuana convictions), pushes for more aggressive investigations into police killings, and the redirecting of police department funds into community programs.  They want systemic change, yet they’ve been handed a somewhat moderate ticket.  It seems more like a defense of the old guard, a slow stride toward change rather than a sprint, a brick-by-brick approach instead of a total dismantling.

But progressives shouldn’t count Kamala out.

Throughout the Democratic presidential primary, she had trouble articulating and sticking with solid positions on key issues like healthcare.  It was difficult to determine if she supported Medicare for All or a version of it with a private option.  However, where this was a weakness in the primary, it now suggests that she’s open to adopting and supporting the direction of the president and the party.  She isn’t fiercely ideological and could be swayed to move left when it comes to certain policies.  She may have previously been tough on crime as a prosecutor, but she could change her tune to keep step with public opinion and the party’s leftward shift.

Additionally, Harris has been one of the Senate’s most vocal leaders about criminal justice reform, especially in the wake of George Floyd’s death.

And progressives must keep their eyes on the bigger prize.  If Biden and Harris don’t make it to the White House, it means another four years of Trumpism, during which policies will be reversed and damage will be done that will take decades to repair.  

Politics is all about compromising, not just for the politicians but also the voters.  We rarely get the perfect candidate, and we have to make the best choice from the available options.  This year’s choices, at least on the blue side of the aisle, are far less polarizing than in 2016.  Biden may not be the youthful beacon of radical change that many were hoping for, but he’s well-liked, has high favorability ratings, and has a real shot at winning come November.  If the Biden-Harris ticket succeeds, progressives will have an opportunity to push the new administration to the left.  But if they decide to sit out the election because Harris isn’t their ideal VP pick, they may not be heard at all.  Option 1 seems a lot more ideal.

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