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Kamala Harris rises to a top Democratic VP contender despite long concerns about her criminal justice past

California Senator Kamala Harris joined fellow Democrats from the House and Senate in Washington on June 8 to introduce new legislation to end excessive use of force by police and make it easier to identify, track, and prosecute police misconduct.
California Senator Kamala Harris joined fellow Democrats from the House and Senate in Washington on June 8 to introduce new legislation to end excessive use of force by police and make it easier to identify, track, and prosecute police misconduct.Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images/file

WASHINGTON — As protests continued after the killing of George Floyd, community organizers in a recent virtual town hall pressed California Senator Kamala Harris on what should be done about racist cops and whether Congress would be “a wet blanket” on the hopes of young activists clamoring for big change.

In a warm but direct tone, the moderators also hit on perhaps the most significant concern regarding Harris as a top potential running mate for presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden: How can people trust you to change the criminal justice system when, as California’s attorney general for six years, you were part of that system?

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For Harris, the question wasn’t new. She’s faced similar probing in recent years, first as a Senate candidate in 2016, then during her presidential run last year. Both campaigns came after earlier waves of Black Lives Matter demonstrations opened the way for more critical examination of the nation’s laws on crime, justice, and punishment.

Now, after Floyd died while begging for breath as a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for almost nine minutes, Democratic voters are grappling with their own question: With America at a tipping point over police brutality and institutional racism, will voters see Harris’s law enforcement past as an asset or a liability?

In recent weeks, Harris has seemed to hit her stride in making the case that she is a match for this moment as Biden prepares to face off against President Trump.

She marched with protesters in Washington, D.C. On “The View,” she skillfully defined protesters’ calls to “defund police” as a reimagining of how communities see public safety in America: less officers on the streets, greater investments in education, mental health resources, and affordable housing.

And in the virtual town hall, Harris didn’t hesitate on the tough questions about her record. She spoke with conviction of her decision to become a prosecutor after law school to spark change from within the office. Of course, she said, that was before Black Lives Matter existed to put on the pressure.

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“To have those activists on the outside coupled with having some of us on the inside,” she said, “that’s where I believe the beauty is, in the ability to actually force the change to happen against — and believe me — very powerful forces that are against that change happening.”

Before departing, Harris urged viewers to “keep marching.”

Harris’s presidential campaign, full of promise at the start, failed to catch fire and she withdrew from the field in December, before the first primary votes were cast. But voters, political organizers, and activists are giving her a second look now, as social unrest has increased the pressure for Biden to select a Black running mate. Some believe Harris’s experience within the criminal justice system could make her best suited to speak to and tackle the issues that Floyd’s death underscored — even amid calls to dismantle and re-envision the justice system that formed the foundation of her career. Last week, she topped a Monmouth University poll of Democratic primary voters when asked their preference for Biden’s running mate.

“It is a little bit like rejecters’ remorse,” said Jamal Simmons, a longtime Democratic analyst and host of #ThisisFYI, a series of short conversations with experts and elected officials on Instagram. “There was a lot of second guessing when she dropped out [of the presidential race] that perhaps people were too hard on her and didn’t give her enough of a chance to make her case.”

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But younger voters in particular, including women of color who admire Harris for breaking boundaries, still view her past with skepticism. Like other prominent politicians on Biden’s shortlist with law enforcement backgrounds, progressive activists say, they want to hear Harris more publicly and directly address her record and the evolution of her views.

“The liability comes in when folks are unwilling to talk about how they have made mistakes in the past, or unable to own the way they have been complicit in systems that have led to destruction of Black families and their communities,” said Arisha Hatch, vice president of campaigns for Color of Change, a progressive activist organization centered on criminal justice, voting rights, and civic engagement.

Biden, who plans to announce a running mate around Aug. 1, has pledged to choose a woman, and his campaign is deep into the process of interviewing and vetting candidates. There are the practical and typical considerations: Biden has said he is looking for someone who he can trust, shares his worldview, can step into the job “on day one,” and has the experience to take over the presidency if needed.

But this election also has been unfolding unlike any other in history — in the midst of a pandemic, an economic crisis, renewed demands from a multiracial and multi-generational coalition of activists to counter anti-Black racism, and with an incumbent in Trump who has fanned the flames of racial and ethnic division.

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Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren remains among the top choices for voters across diverse backgrounds for Biden’s running mate. But the social inequalities that the pandemic has exposed and exacerbated, along with the police brutality crisis, have upped the pressure from some influential Black organizers who want to see Biden elevate a Black woman to the top of the ticket.

Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar dropped out of consideration Thursday, saying the slot should go to a woman of color. Among the Black prominent politicians under consideration along with Harris are Florida Representative Val Demings, a former police chief, and Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, as well as Ohio Representative Marcia Fudge and former US national security adviser Susan Rice.

But as a one-time presidential candidate, only Harris has undergone extensive national vetting. “Her principal advantage is that she has already faced the American people,” said Paul Maslin, a longtime Democratic pollster in Los Angeles.

Since she ended her presidential bid in December, there has been a growing cohort of voters, particularly older Black women, who say they now regret that, as a woman and specifically a Black woman, Harris was held to a higher standard than Biden on criminal justice and other issues, political analysts and strategists said.

Harris might have enforced punitive crime laws that led to stricter sentences and slower release of Black and Latino inmates as attorney general and San Francisco district attorney before that, but Biden was the main proponent of a landmark 1994 crime bill that established such strict federal sentencing regimes and encouraged other states to do the same in an escalation of the so-called “war on drugs.”

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In more recent years, Biden and Harris have gradually reversed course on some criminal justice issues.

If they do run together, “the key for both of them is that they have a story line of redemption,” said Karthick Ramakrishnan, a professor of public policy at University of California Riverside. “For over a decade now, both Biden and Harris have done things that can be viewed as more progressive or more attentive to the need of Black communities.”

It wouldn’t be the first story of redemption out of Harris’s home state. Former California Governor Jerry Brown helped launch the state’s tough-on-crime era during his first two terms in the 1970s, signing seminal legislation that led to the creation of stricter sentences for prisoners. He would return to the office decades later and attempt to unwind those policies as the state prison population swelled to the second largest in the country — its inmates disproportionately poor, Black, and Latino.

Harris rose through the ranks during that more conservative era in California and national politics, a savvy politician and successful veteran of bruising political battles. She beat her boss in the race for San Francisco district attorney in 2003 after 13 years as a prosecutor in the Bay Area. She became state attorney general in 2011 after one of the most narrow victories in California political history.

The choices she and other Democrats made in those years have been held against them, analysts said. “But one might argue she would never have been a US senator had she never been an effective prosecutor in San Francisco,” Simmons said.

As California attorney general, Harris oversaw a staff of 5,000 people and took on major civil cases, including the negotiation of a $25 billion settlement with mortgage firms over wrongful foreclosures. She undertook some progressive criminal justice actions, including releasing racial data on arrest dates and deaths in custody, helping spur the creation of reentry initiatives for people released from prison, and mandating bias training for police officers.

But during her presidential campaign, progressives were most animated by what activists called her silence or complacency on the problems within the criminal justice system. In a scathing opinion piece, University of San Francisco law professor Lara Bazelon, a prominent advocate for racial and social justice, argued that Harris was no “progressive prosecutor.” Harris came under fire for embracing strict sentencing laws and punitive policies on parents of children who missed school, opposing the legalization of marijuana, and resistance to supporting independent review of shootings involving police.

The concerns remained even as Harris rose to national prominence in the Senate for her prosecutorial interrogation of witnesses during public hearings — highlighted by her questioning of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh — and more progressive stances and legislation on a slate of issues, including health care, voter rights, and women’s rights.

Now some of those activists have come around.

Bazelon recently told Politico there “wasn’t any interest or oxygen” in relitigating Harris’s past. In interviews, progressive activists and organizers who met with Harris described being “very pleasantly surprised” and encouraged even if they didn’t always agree on issues.

Others see her potential to neutralize attacks from Trump on Democrats over law and order. This month, Harris and New Jersey Senator Cory Booker joined other top Democrats in introducing the Justice in Policing Act, which would ban chokeholds and raise national standards on the use of force.

“As a prosecutor, she was not a leader on criminal justice reform, but as a senator she has been a leader in this moment on the crisis in policing,” said Paul Butler, a former federal prosecutor and Georgetown University law professor. In that evolution, he said, he recognized a familiar tension for Black prosecutors between their work and a commitment to racial justice.

But for some voters, the concerns about Harris’s criminal justice record haven’t faded.

“Absolutely not,” said John Jones III, 46, of Oakland, when asked whether he believed Harris had made an effective case that she could push for change. Released from prison on parole in 2012, Jones was homeless, unemployed, and a single father of two before he became an activist in efforts to overhaul California’s crime laws, cut prison funding, and reinvest the money into marginalized communities.

Harris, he recalled, remained neutral on one of their major accomplishments, the passage of a statewide proposition widely opposed by prosecutors that sought to reduce punishment for some low-level offenses. “I need to see some receipts as they say on the streets,” he said of what she had done since to distance herself from “her checkered past.”

In the #BringTheHEAT virtual town hall this month, Harris said she did what she could to change the criminal justice system, years before Black Lives Matter, when fierce obstacles loomed.

“It has been my life’s work to keep working on this, and I am not going to stop,” she said.


Reach Jazmine Ulloa at jazmine.ulloa@globe.com or on Twitter: @jazmineulloa