Kamala Harris’s troubled past needs to be addressed


Kamala Harris was far from a “progressive prosecutor.” (Illustration by Caroline Goodhart)

Alex Fisch


On  Jan. 20, Kamala Harris was sworn in as Vice President of the United States, becoming the first woman and person of African American and Southeast Asian descent to do so. Undoubtedly, this is a historic achievement, and one that should be recognized when analyzing her legacy. Harris has branded herself as a deeply progressive Senator, with the non-partisan GovTrack organization rating Harris as the most liberal U.S. Senator. Throughout her career as Senator, she has supported legislation to end cash bail, legalize marijuana and pursue prison reforms. However, her legacy is also filled with decisions that have not been consistent with this progressive branding.  

Specifically, her record as San Francisco District Attorney (DA) and California Attorney General (AG) is under scrutiny. While Harris has fought against such attacks and has refused to show much regret for her record as DA and AG, her newfound position of power as Vice President and role as the deciding vote in the Senate makes it incredibly important to look back at the choices for which she has been criticized. 

Harris was elected District Attorney of San Francisco in 2004 and initially got into hot water with the San Francisco Police Department after refusing to seek the death penalty for a man who had shot an officer, an unpopular stance at the time for police officers and Senators alike. According to former member of the police commission Peter Keane, the backlash Harris received significantly traumatized her. From then on, Harris often stayed silent on the topic of police misconduct in her district. According to Harris’s chief of administration, she would tell her staff not to prosecute arrests that could have been a result of racial profiling. When Harris became the attorney general of California, her failure as the self-described “progressive prosecutor” only continued. While California had one of the highest rates of police shootings in the country as reported by the SF Chronicle, Harris’s office often refused to prosecute police shootings of unarmed people. She even opposed a bill that would have required her office to investigate officers involved in shootings. Additionally, she refused to support a state assembly bill that would have required police body camera records to be available to the public, a law that many say would further strengthen community-police relations.

Harris’s troublesome record goes beyond failing to hold the police accountable. During her tenure as DA, Harris was especially aggressive when it came to marijuana, prosecuting 1,900 people on marijuana charges according to the Mercury News. All of this is in spite of the fact that Harris, as a Senator, claims to support the legalization of marijuana.

 Harris also participated in dangerous court procedural practices. In 2010, she failed to disclose to defendants in multiple cases that a technician in an SFPD crime lab had tampered with several drug samples.

 Harris’ mismanagement even impacted struggling parents and students. In 2011, Harris co-sponsored and enforced a truancy law, which would charge parents with a misdemeanor if their children had missed at least ten percent of school time. This law, of which the burden mostly fell on women of color –– according to NPR –– was cruel and unjust, and did not take into account any particular struggles that parents or students could be dealing with. Even worse, when Harris was questioned about this by Jake Tapper, the Lead Washington Anchor for CNN, she lied about what the law was intended to do. She described the arrests of parents as an “unintended consequence” of the law, in spite of the fact that during her inaugural address as attorney general, she specifically stated her intent to prosecute those parents whose children had violated the truancy law. Instead of attempting to understand the plight of parents who were targeted by this law, Harris instead arrested them. 

The most egregious example of Harris’s mismanagement, however, was her decision not to prosecute then OneWest Bank CEO Steve Mnuchin, who, according to the California Department of Justice, had committed foreclosure violations by forcing people out of their homes with little notice. The California DOJ even recommended that Harris file a civil enforcement action against OneWest Bank, yet she still declined. She had every obligation to prosecute Mnuchin, and let him off scotch free.

One may reasonably wonder why all of this is important, considering almost every politician has a stain on their record. While it is true that Kamala Harris is in many ways no different from any other politician, it seems that the media has completely let her off the hook, replacing what should be warranted criticism with fawning praise. The LA Times recently revealed that they would be working on a project titled “Covering Kamala Harris,” a section dedicated to Harris’s “historic rise to the White House.” Media critics and journalists alike have described this project, rightfully so, as essentially being equivalent to propaganda. One such critic is independent journalist and co-founder of non-profit publication The Intercept Glenn Greenwald. 

Will ‘Covering Kamala Harris,’ a beat dedicated to her historic rise to the White House feature profiles of the people still lingering in prison due to her overzealous and punitive prosecutions as a prosecutor, all as a springboard to national politics & the Vice Presidency,” wrote Greenwald on twitter.

 CNN’s coverage of Harris has been similarly atrocious. They recently published an article titled “Kamala Harris, the powerful duality of her ascent,” essentially giving Harris blind praise without ever looking at any potential criticisms.

This is not to say that everybody has to be constantly critical of her, or that what she accomplished is not a milestone. But when the holder of the second highest office in the nation and the deciding vote in the Senate has a controversial past record that she has failed to account for, it is incredibly important to acknowledge it.