Former “top cop” Kamala Harris is out. For her brief and shining moment as a Democratic candidate for the presidency, she was Senator Harris, snarky, hip and a champion of all things progressive, because she spent her life fighting for reform. Or so she claimed.
“Kamala Harris 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,” Lily Adams, a spokesperson for Harris, told me.
Time after time, when progressives urged her to embrace criminal justice reforms as a district attorney and then the state’s attorney general, Ms. Harris opposed them or stayed silent. Most troubling, Ms. Harris fought tooth and nail to uphold wrongful convictions that had been secured through official misconduct that included evidence tampering, false testimony and the suppression of crucial information by prosecutors.
Unlike people who never heard of Harris until she broke onto the national scene, Lara Bazelon was there on the ground in California, watching Harris as her career went from Frisco DA to state Attorney General. Lara didn’t have the luxury of buying into the “new and improved” progressive version of Harris that sprung full-blown into the limelight as a self-proclaimed progressive senator. Even worse, Lara couldn’t forget that the reinvented Harris, the one who claimed her entire career was built on reforming the system, was a lie. She knew better.
After Harris’ “suspension” of her campaign, there being no money and therefore “no path” forward, it was argued that her real career, the one where she was never progressive until being progressive became the thing to be if one wanted to run for president, was damned not because it was wrong, but because it was a reflection of a time past. What was right for then just isn’t right for now.
I’d argue that they came of age in Clinton era and did everything ‘right’ according to those rules. Now, of course, they look out of step.
First, let’s be clear that Harris didn’t come of age in the Clinton era.
Ms. Harris won her first race in 2003, unseating the incumbent district attorney, with support from law enforcement unions, The San Francisco Chronicle and the political and social elite of San Francisco.
The crack epidemic of the ’80s and ’90s was over. The hysteria over drugs had given way to the post-9/11 hysteria over terrorists. To young people, this may all blend together, but for those of us who lived through both, the conflation doesn’t play. Her conduct as district attorney can’t be attributed to the demands of the people to be tough on crime, but to her own choice of what kind of prosecutor she wanted to be.
Consider her record as San Francisco’s district attorney from 2004 to 2011. Ms. Harris was criticized in 2010 for withholding information about a police laboratory technician who had been accused of “intentionally sabotaging” her work and stealing drugs from the lab. After a memo surfaced showing that Ms. Harris’s deputies knew about the technician’s wrongdoing and recent conviction, but failed to alert defense lawyers, a judge condemned Ms. Harris’s indifference to the systemic violation of the defendants’ constitutional rights.
And while Harris rode the Obama coattails into the attorney general’s chair in California, having grown past her hook with Frisco Mayor Willie Brown, she wasn’t a hopey and changey AG.
Ms. Harris was similarly regressive as the state’s attorney general. When a federal judge in Orange County ruled that the death penalty was unconstitutional in 2014, Ms. Harris appealed. In a public statement, she made the bizarre argument that the decision “undermines important protections that our courts provide to defendants.” (The approximately 740 men and women awaiting execution in California might disagree).
But it wasn’t just that she was regressive at every turn. shamelessly using arguments that only the most adoring badgelicker would believe. It was the haughty, dismissive, laugh.
In 2014, she declined to take a position on Proposition 47, a ballot initiative approved by voters, that reduced certain low-level felonies to misdemeanors. She laughed that year when a reporter asked if she would support the legalization of marijuana for recreational use.
Line by line, Harris wasn’t satisfied doing the business of keeping people safe by prosecuting criminals. And to be clear, there neither is, nor was, anything improper about being a prosecutor and doing the job well. We need prosecutors, good ones, who are firm in their resolve to fulfill the duties of their office, honest and respect the constitutional rights of the accused. But that wasn’t Harris.
In 2015, she opposed a bill requiring her office to investigate shootings involving officers. And she refused to support statewide standards regulating the use of body-worn cameras by police officers.
Protecting cops who wrongfully kill isn’t part of the job.
Worst of all, though, is Ms. Harris’s record in wrongful conviction cases. Consider George Gage, an electrician with no criminal record who was charged in 1999 with sexually abusing his stepdaughter, who reported the allegations years later. The case largely hinged on the stepdaughter’s testimony and Mr. Gage was convicted.
Afterward, the judge discovered that the prosecutor had unlawfully held back potentially exculpatory evidence, including medical reports indicating that the stepdaughter had been repeatedly untruthful with law enforcement. Her mother even described her as “a pathological liar” who “lives her lies.”
Protecting wrongful convictions isn’t part of the job. Yet she did so over and over.
The values of society change, as well they should to reflect relative concerns from time to time, and it would be a mistake not to recognize that the current temperature of the Democratic Party is ice cold to tough on crime and fevered on progressive reforms, no matter how unworkable, fantastical and misguided. Any politician who wants to be elected today has to play to the room, and Harris tried to do so, recreating her history to be anything but the “top cop” she proudly proclaimed herself to be.
But she can take no comfort in the “Clinton era,” or in doing what was “right” at the time. Harris was never “right,” even when tough on crime was what Americans wanted, demanded, from their elected officials. Not only did Harris try to pass off a lie to the useful idiots for whom she was born the day she announced her presidential candidacy, but she never missed an opportunity to be as harsh, as dishonorable, as cruel as possible.
And then there’s that smirk and dismissive laugh. She wasn’t laughing with us. She was laughing at us.