Tuesday, September 22, 2020
Elections Campaign Trail Understanding the politics of Kamala Harris

Understanding the politics of Kamala Harris

The rightwingosphere is going crazy about this 'San Francisco liberal,' but she's really a pretty mainstream Democrat.

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Joe Biden was never going to pick Rep. Barbara Lee as his running mate. He’s not a left-progressive-democratic socialist, and never was. So Sen. Kamala Harris is no surprise; she fits fine with Biden’s politics.

There is, of course lots of Republican chatter that Biden has chosen someone far to his left – even worse, a “San Francisco liberal” – to join him on the ticket. The rightwingosphere will repeat this all fall.

Kamala Harris is not a radical leftist.

Let us note: People identified as “San Francisco liberals” are now in charge of the state of California and the House of Representatives. They are playing a big role on the national stage. Progressive policies that started here are becoming the national standard. So that doesn’t work as an attack line.

Plus: Kamala Harris is not a radical leftist. She’s not Bernie Sanders or AOC. She’s always been a fairly mainstream Democrat.

Harris spend much of her career as a prosecutor, someone whose job is to put people in prison. Before she ran for district attorney, she was a deputy DA in Alameda County then in San Francisco. When she first ran for DA, she told me that she thought progressives needed to work on the prosecution side, that fighting crime was a progressive issue, and that she wanted to change the criminal justice system “from the inside.”

I give her tremendous credit for refusing to seek the death penalty after a San Francisco cop was murdered. That infuriated the police union, but she stuck to her position: She has always opposed the death penalty.

(In reality, she like her predecessor, Terence Hallinan, knew that there’s virtually no chance any San Francisco jury would render a death verdict. A sizable majority of local voters oppose capital punishment.)

A little more difficult when she ran for state attorney general: The death penalty is still popular with a lot of voters, including Democrats, in parts of the state. But again, she didn’t try to back off from her position. (As AG, she continued to oppose death penalty appeals, which is part of the job.)

Niki Solis, a longtime public defender who often clashed with Harris, says she was by far the most progressive prosecutor in California:

Marijuana sales cases were routinely reduced to misdemeanors. And marijuana possession cases were not even on the court’s docket. They were simply not charged. Unless there was a large grow case, or a unique circumstance, this was the reform-minded approach then-DA Harris’ office took. The accusations about marijuana prosecutions being harsh during her tenure are absurd. The reality was quite the opposite.

Although we as public defenders may have disagreed with Harris at times or wanted more from her office, there is no one who can say that there was a more progressive district attorney in California than Kamala Harris. She implemented and expanded programs that are now the staple of many DA offices up and down the state. Just last month in California, Santa Clara County DA Jeff Rosen said he would no longer seek the death penalty. This comes 16 years after Harris took the same stance in San Francisco.

My friend the author David Talbot puts it this way:

I have to say that I breathed a sigh of relief — the choice could’ve been worse (like Susan Rice).

I have to ask my fuming left-wing friends — whom did you expect Biden to pick? Barbara Lee? After all, he’s JOE BIDEN, remember? He’s as rigid a fixture of the Democratic establishment as they come. Progressives could’ve been even more dejected today.

But everyone on the right who talks about Harris being too “liberal,” let’s remember: She long opposed legalizing cannabis. She opposed legalizing sex work. She sought to criminalize parents whose kids were missing too much school.

Her positions changed, evolved, over time, as the center of gravity in the Democratic Party and the nation evolved, over time.

From the NY Times:

In her 2009 book, “Smart on Crime,” she wrote that “if we take a show of hands of those who would like to see more police officers on the street, mine would shoot up,” adding that “virtually all law-abiding citizens feel safer when they see officers walking a beat.”

Earlier this summer, in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, she told The New York Times that “it is status-quo thinking to believe that putting more police on the streets creates more safety. That’s wrong. It’s just wrong.”

The Times quotes David Campos, former Police Commission member and supervisor:

We never thought we had an ally in the district attorney,” said David Campos, who was a supervisor and police commissioner while Ms. Harris was district attorney and is now chairman of the San Francisco Democratic Party. “You have someone saying all the right things now, but when she had the opportunity to do something about police accountability, she was either not visible, or when she was, she was on the wrong side.” (Mr. Campos backed Mr. Sanders’s presidential bid.)

Peter Beinart in The Atlantic says that Harris just did what she had to do to survive as a woman of color in politics (especially in the world of criminal justice.)

Campos today congratulated Harris and said that, while they at times disagreed, the most important thing was to defeat Trump in November.

I got to ask Harris one question when she appeared at the state Democratic Convention after announcing her run for the presidency. I wanted to know if she agreed with Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s wealth tax. “I think she’s onto something,” Harris told me. I pressed her: Should we raise taxes on the rich? “Absolutely,” she said.

I wanted to ask if she thought marginal income taxes should return to the pre-Reagan levels, but she was out the door before I could get that one in.

Still: Unlike Biden, she actually said, at one point, for the record, that she supported the idea of a wealth tax. The center of gravity in the Democratic Party was and is changing, and I was happy to see Harris moving with it.

It’s profoundly important that a woman of color is going to be on the ticket and very likely in the White House. (She is the first woman of color on a major party ticket, but not the first to run – that would be Shirley Chisolm in 1972.) It’s also important that the person who is the favorite to the be next president of the United States thinks that someone who comes from San Francisco, with all the of values that come with that, can help a national ticket.

As Sup. Matt Haney says, “SF is powerful and impactful not because of our elected officials. Our elected officials are powerful and impactful because of SF, its diversity, history, innovation, relentless commitment to changing our society for the better and never settling.”

Maybe that’s a sign of hope.

Tim Redmond
Tim Redmond has been a political and investigative reporter in San Francisco for more than 30 years. He spent much of that time as executive editor of the Bay Guardian. He is the founder of 48hills.

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