What You Should Know About Kamala Harris

August 16, 2020 by  
Filed under Featured Articles

Born and bussed to school in Berkeley, tested by San Francisco’s cut-throat municipal politics and propelled onto the national stage as the state’s top law enforcement officer and then its first female senator of color, Harris’ approach to politics and policymaking were honed here.

Although most Americans are now focusing on Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden’s ticket pick — her political pedigree, her record on criminal justice, her reputation as (depending on your point of view) a pragmatic or an over-cautious political figure — we’ve seen it here in California for decades. 

Here are eight ways that California shaped Kamala Harris and that Harris has shaped California.

Harris spent her teenage years in Montreal, moving there with her sister and mother when Gopalan accepted a university research position there. She earned a political science and economics degree at Howard University in Washington D.C. but returned to California to get her law degree in 1989 at the University of California, Hastings in San Francisco.

She’s called California home ever since.

Fresh out of law school, she joined the Alameda County district attorney’s office in 1990, serving there eight years before crossing the bay to San Francisco. In 2003, she unexpectedly won election as San Francisco District Attorney, where she served two terms before her narrow election as state Attorney General in 2010. She was elected to the U.S. Senate in 2016.

Despite in many ways reflecting the lessons described in her book Smart on Crime, which argued that non-violent criminals can be redirected into less punitive systems without jeopardizing public health, Harris, the state’s top law enforcement officer, was silent on the policy. 

That earned a rebuke from the Los Angeles Times Editorial Board, which wrote in its endorsement of her 2016 Senate candidacy that Harris “has been too cautious and unwilling to stake out a position on controversial issues, even when her voice would have been valuable to the debate.” 

What some critics call prevarication or flip-floppery, her supporters call pragmatism. Those are just two ways of describing the same quality, said Corey Cook, a political science professor at St. Mary’s College and a longtime observer of San Francisco politics.

“She’s not an ideologue,” he said, meaning rather than stake out the boldest, ideologically-coherent agenda, she tends to focus on individual fixes to specific problems. Hence the “3am agenda” of her presidential campaign, a collection of policy changes designed to address the problems that keep the average voter up at night.

“The idea that she would have consistent positions on issues informed by ideology isn’t who she is,” said Cook. Harris may appear to pick her battles, he said, because for her “the only lasting solutions are going to be the ones that are able to sustain a majority coalition of support.”

In an emailed statement last year, a spokesperson for Harris’ presidential campaign said that she “has spent her career fighting for reforms in the criminal justice system and pushing the envelope to keep everyone safer by bringing fairness and accountability.”

“Whether introducing an anti-recidivism program as San Francisco DA that has become a national model, implementing Open Justice, a first-of-its-kind criminal justice open data initiative, proposing a plan to the governor to implement independent investigations, or becoming the first state agency to require her agents to wear body cameras, Kamala has demonstrated a clear commitment to a transparent and progressive criminal justice system,” the statement said.

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