Kamala Harris became the first female and second minority Vice President on January 20, 2021. Harris is the daughter of immigrants, her mother from India and her father from Jamaica. In California, she held the positions of Deputy District Attorney, District Attorney, Attorney General, and Senator before she was elected to the Vice Presidency. Though Harris originally ran for the Democratic nomination herself, she dropped out of the Democratic primary. Many attribute this to the polling that expected her to garner less than 1% of the national vote.
Kamala Harris quickly became a household name after President Joe Biden named her as his pick for Vice President, but throughout all the coverage I heard very little about her track record and accomplishments. Conservatives wrote off Harris’s nomination as nothing more than a bid for minority and female voters. On the progressive side, few spoke about Harris’s track record except for former Representative Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) who denounced Harris’s record as the District Attorney of San Francisco during the second Democratic Debate. I am writing this article to examine some of the half-truths and falsehoods I have heard around campus that could largely stem from the little coverage Harris’s past received from either side of the aisle during her run for the presidency and subsequent nomination as Vice President.
First, I will start with Harris’s accomplishments and other actions that I believe to be commendable.
During her tenure as the Attorney General of California, Harris created the Back on Track program which aimed to keep the first-time, non-violent drug-trafficking defendants out of jail. This program for 18-24-year olds lasted for 12-18 months. Participants develop a personalized plan establishing their goals for the future, which often include education, parenting, and finding work. The program requires 220 hours of community service, employment, and full-time enrollment in school. The Back on Track program was largely successful. It was the first of its kind in the nation and has been used as a model for other statewide efforts since.
VWhile Harris served as California Attorney General, the state became the first state to mandate body cameras for all state troopers. In prior years, Harris had opposed the mandate. Some attribute this bill’s failure to her condemnation of it. But when the time came around, she did not take a stance on AB-66, the bill which eventually became the law mandating body-cameras.
During her tenure, California also became the first state requiring implicit bias training for police officers. This bias training was an effort to overcome barriers to neutral policing and rebuild trust between law enforcement and communities. Critics argue that implicit bias training has been proven to be ineffective and that it was a waste of taxpayer money. If this training changed one officer’s attitude or approach to minority communities, it was worth it.
Harris supported a California law that required local police departments to report and publish statistics relating to injuries caused by or during police interactions. California’s policing system had the highest rate of fatalities per police interaction in the country that year. Any well-intended effort to make policing more transparent is a good one.
Lastly, as State Attorney General, Harris argued important cases that impacted the residents of California. Her first big win came in the form of a $25 billion settlement with five major banks. California sued these major banks for improper foreclosure practices. At this time in California, 10 million had lost their homes largely stemming from predatory lending and the wider economy collapsing. Roughly $18.4 billion in mortgage relief was provided to California homeowners as a result of Harris’s actions.
The second case that then-Attorney General Harris settled was against Corinthian Colleges. The settlement was for nearly $1.2 billion for predatory and unlawful practices including misrepresenting job placement rates and school programs. These practices targeted low-income students and left tens of thousands of alumni without jobs and crushed by student debt. This settlement was given to the former students in the form of loan relief.
Though Harris accomplished many things throughout her political career, there were also actions that one can objectively deem to have hurt her constituents.
In 2011, Harris fought a California Supreme Court ruling demanding that the prison population be reduced by 33,000 inmates over the following two years due to overpopulation resulting in starvation, inhumane treatment, and on occasion, death. A later case in the Federal Circuit Courts required that these 33,000 inmates be nonviolent, first, or second-strike offenders. Harris fought this in court.
Harris took a hard stance against truancy while serving as the San Francisco District Attorney. She advocated for a law that allowed the city to charge parents of students who skip school with criminal misdemeanors, or up to a $2,000 fine. This was, of course, incredibly controversial in San Francisco. She doubled down on her support of this law and its enforcement during a speech at the Commonwealth Club where she stated, “I decided I was going to start prosecuting parents for truancy. Well, this was a little controversial in San Francisco.” The troubling part for many was the laugh she had with the crowd afterward about targeting parents of truant students.
In 2010, Harris knowingly withheld information about a police laboratory technician that was accused and later found guilty of intentionally sabotaging work and stealing drugs. She was obligated by law to inform the defense counsel in this case, a case that this laboratory technician had provided evidence for, that this technician was a criminal. Harris, instead of admitting her wrongdoing, argued that the judge, whose husband was a defense attorney who had spoken outwardly about the significance of disclosing evidence, had a conflict of interest and could, therefore, not fairly rule on Harris’s transgression. Harris lost and more than 600 cases handled by this technician, many of which were actual prosecutions of real criminals, were dismissed.
Finally, and most notably, Harris has a hypocritical past with marijuana. In 2010, then-San Francisco DA Harris spoke out against Proposition 19, a law that would legalize marijuana statewide. From the start of her career and until 2018, Harris stood by this position and was, in fact, so steadfast in her position that marijuana should be illegal that she prosecuted roughly 1,900 people for marijuana possession. Every single one of these offenders was nonviolent and not charged with tracking offenses. The vast majority of those prosecuted were low-income, minorities, 1,560 of whom ended up in state prisons.
Harris’s position on this issue switched in 2018 when she co-sponsored Senator Cory Booker’s bill “The Marijuana Justice Act.” She said, “Marijuana laws in this country have not been applied equally, and as a result we have criminalized marijuana use in a way that has led to the disproportionate incarceration of young men of color. It’s time to change that… Legalizing marijuana is the smart thing to do and the right thing to do in order to advance justice and equality for every American.” This quote obviously draws a stark contrast to not only her public position but her actions as a prosecutor.
The issue I take with her actions isn’t a policy issue but rather a moral one. She claims to be a voice for those disproportionately punished by drug laws in sponsoring Senator Booker’s bill, yet she served as a crucial gear in the machine that she now believes oppresses those same citizens.
In February of 2019 Harris went on to the Breakfast Club radio show for an interview where she admitted to smoking marijuana in college. All the while laughing. Tangentially, Harris claims to have listened to Tupac and Snoop Dogg while smoking back in her college days (1986) yet neither artist had started releasing music until 1991 and 1992 respectively.
As with every politician, there are two sides. It is important to understand this. No politician is going to have a perfect past, though many disregard this universal fact with politicians that they idolize.