It Looks as Though Kamala's 'Progressive Prosecutor' Past Is Now a Liability

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Posted: Oct 07, 2020 11:10 PM
It Looks as Though Kamala's 'Progressive Prosecutor' Past Is Now a Liability

Source: AP Photo/Julio Cortez

Vice President Mike Pence on Wednesday slammed Sen. Kamala Harris' (D-CA) record on criminal justice reform, both as a District Attorney in San Francisco and as Attorney General of California. 

"But you talk about personally prosecuting. I'm glad you brought up your record, senator," Pence said.

"Thank you," Harris replied. 

"I need to make this point: when you were DA in San Francisco, when you left office, African Americans were 19 times more likely to be prosecuted for minor drug offenses than whites and Hispanics," the vice president explained. "When you were Attorney General of California, you increased the disproportionate incarceration of blacks in California. You did nothing on criminal justice reform in California."

"You didn't lift a finger to pass the FIRST STEP Act on Capitol Hill," Pence said, as Harris smiled and shook her head. "The reality is your record speaks for itself. President Trump and I have fought for criminal justice reform. We've fought for educational choice and opportunities for African Americans ... and we'll do it for four more years."

This isn't the first time Harris has pushed her "progressive prosecutor" image. She attempts to play both sides of the aisle – both as a pro-law enforcement, pro-law and order attorney general and as someone who sides with rioters. It's the same image she pushed when she was running for the Democratic nomination. Apparently she didn't learn when the New York Times called her out. 

In a dozen years as the top law enforcement official of the city and then the state, Ms. Harris was as much politician as prosecutor, appearing to try to be all things to all constituencies. More practical than ideological, she was defined most by resisting easy definition.

For the most part though, Harris didn't do anything riveting. She sat on the sidelines because she was afraid of making any kind of bold decisions. She knew she wanted to seek higher office. She knew she wanted to go beyond local and state politics. And because she had her eye on the prize, she did just enough to keep various constituencies happy. 

Years before ending mass incarceration became a bipartisan cause, she started programs to steer low-level drug offenders away from prison and into school and jobs. At the same time, she touted her success in increasing conviction rates, and as attorney general remained largely on the sidelines as California scrambled to meet a federal court order to reduce its swollen prison populations. She also repeatedly sided with prosecutors accused of misconduct, challenging judges who ruled against them.

And while she summoned righteous anger toward the bank fraud that helped set off the Great Recession, holding out for more money for California homeowners in the National Mortgage Settlement, she said little when the governor diverted some of it to fill holes in his budget.

“She played it very careful,” said Laurie Levenson, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles who served on an independent panel that investigated one of the cases of prosecutorial misconduct while Ms. Harris was attorney general. “She had her sights set on what her future might be, and she realized every day she was navigating a minefield, because she had law enforcement to deal with, she had the public to deal with, the minority community to deal with. I think she was trying to be very careful not to alienate.”

She has also had to navigate the shifting politics of crime and race — and the expectations they bring with them.

Harris says she wants to run on her record but she's not even consistent on what that record is. Whenever someone tries to pin her down on it she gets defensive and says they're somehow wrong.

Which is it, Kamala? Are you a tough-on-crime prosecutor that locked up a bunch of black people for petty crimes or are you a pro-mob politician? Because you can't be both.