Monday Morning Thoughts: Critics Are Right, Kamala Harris Not a Reformer


Ironically, a few moments ago the news came out – that Kamala Harris, California Senator and the second black woman to serve in the US Senate, will run for President in 2020.  The NY Times said this morning that her announcement “was bathed in symbolism” as she chose to enter on MLK Day.

Senator Harris, who was just elected in 2016, has naturally captured the fancy of many progressives with her outspoken attacks on President Trump and forceful interrogations of Trump administration officials and nominees – most famously during a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing with former Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

However, as I have related a number of times, while it would be inappropriate for me to take a position on a specific candidate, I will say this: in 2009, while I was editor of the California Progress Report, I interviewed all of the Democratic candidates for Attorney General, which included Kamala Harris.

I met her at a Starbucks in San Francisco and the interview only lasted about 10 minutes – whereas for most of the other candidates with the exact same questions, it lasted 20 to 30 minutes.

Interestingly, in my pre-court watch days, I was not nearly as versed on issues of criminal justice reform, but even at that time, I was struck by how conventionally and reflexively prosecutorial she was.

My view of her time at the Attorney General’s Office is one of a lost opportunity.  She did not come out in favor of bail reform at a time when it was gathering momentum, nor was she willing to prosecute corrupt prosecutors across the state.

It is notable that under her watch she did very little with regard to the growing scandal in the Orange County District Attorney’s Office surrounding jail house informants.  In fact, on the contrary, her office continued to defend the OCDA by fighting a judge’s order to recuse the office from prosecuting the case of Scott Dekraii.  She went even further and continued to push for the death penalty in that case, despite massive evidence of prosecutorial misconduct.

So, while she was a forceful advocate on the relatively safe issue of a Sanctuary State – and pushing back against the Trump administration on immigration policies, being a strong proponent of marriage equality, and recently a supporter of Medicare for All and legalization of recreational cannabis – on the issues that mattered most, she was comparatively weak.

Indeed, Lara Bazelon, former director of the Loyola Law School Project for the Innocent in Los Angeles last week, wrote a scathing critique in the NY Times, proclaiming, “Kamala Harris Was Not a Progressive Prosecutor.”

Ms. Bazelon notes, “With the growing recognition that prosecutors hold the keys to a fairer criminal justice system, the term ‘progressive prosecutor’ has almost become trendy. This is how Senator Kamala Harris of California, a likely presidential candidate and a former prosecutor, describes herself.”

She argues: “But she’s not.”

Ms. Bazelon points out some of the same things I have – except in the area of wrongful conviction noting that “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, she writes, “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.”

She goes on to attack Harris’ record as San Francisco DA from 2004 to 2011, noting, “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.”

Ms. Bazelon, like me, goes after Ms. Harris for appealing an Orange County federal judge ruling that found the death penalty unconstitutional, arguing bizarrely, that the decision “undermines important protections that our courts provide to defendants.”

Ms. Harris also did not take a position on Prop. 47 which, as most know, reduced low-level felonies to misdemeanors.

And while she now favors legalization of cannabis, Ms. Bazelon notes, “She laughed that year when a reporter asked if she would support the legalization of marijuana for recreational use. Ms. Harris finally reversed course in 2018, long after public opinion had shifted on the topic.”

On police shootings, she “opposed a bill requiring her office to investigate shootings involving officers” in 2015 and “refused to support statewide standards regulating the use of body-worn cameras by police officers.”

Finally, Ms. Bazelon attacks Kamala Harris on the issue of wrongful convictions, citing the case of 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.”

Like many cases, the judge learned “that the prosecutor had unlawfully held back potentially exculpatory evidence, including medical reports indicating that the stepdaughter had been repeatedly untruthful with law enforcement.”

However, when the case reached the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in San Francisco, Ms. Harris’ prosecutors defended the conviction.

The appellate judge ultimately upheld the conviction on a technicality and “Mr. Gage is still in prison serving a 70-year sentence.”

Ms. Bazelon also cited the case of Daniel Larson, in prison on a 28 to life sentence “even though his trial lawyer was incompetent and there was compelling evidence of his innocence,” and she defended “Johnny Baca’s conviction for murder even though judges found a prosecutor presented false testimony at the trial.” And for Kevin Cooper she fought allowing DNA testing to prove his innocence.

Ms. Bazelon writes: “All this is a shame because the state’s top prosecutor has the power and the imperative to seek justice. In cases of tainted convictions, that means conceding error and overturning them. Rather than fulfilling that obligation, Ms. Harris turned legal technicalities into weapons so she could cement injustices.”

Ms. Bazelon concludes:

“But if Kamala Harris wants people who care about dismantling mass incarceration and correcting miscarriages of justice to vote for her, she needs to radically break with her past.

“A good first step would be to apologize to the wrongfully convicted people she has fought to keep in prison and to do what she can to make sure they get justice. She should start with George Gage.”

Lara Bazelon makes a fair point at the end.  And it is important to remember that the world changes very quickly.  We have learned a lot about wrongful convictions and prosecutorial misconduct in the last decade.

We saw a host of politicians, who opposed marriage equality in another era, eventually come around.  People have shifted and evolved on medical cannabis and recreational cannabis.  Sometimes, the converted become stronger advocates for a cause.  But Kamala Harris will have to demonstrate real conviction behind these changes rather than just perceived political expediency.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

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About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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9 thoughts on “Monday Morning Thoughts: Critics Are Right, Kamala Harris Not a Reformer”

  1. Eric Gelber

    It’s one thing to say that “Kamala Harris was not a progressive prosecutor” and another to make the broader statement that she is “not a reformer.” As a U.S. Senator, on a much broader range of national issues, she has among the most progressive of track records. Her record as a prosecutor may be disappointing to progressives and certainly is relevant. But she is no longer in that role and we need to evaluate her candidacy based on the entirety of her record on issues of national concern.

    1. Craig Ross

      Is she not the sum total of her record?  The end of the article makes it clear she has a path forward, but that would require her to own her past. She seems very political to me – she’s moved left because she believes the tide is flowing that way.

  2. Don Shor

    Gillibrand, Gabbard, and Harris all have past positions they’re going to have to defend or try to explain away. Each has made an effort to move hard to the left, perhaps to compensate. Maybe they’re all getting in early to try to define themselves before others define them. I doubt any of them will make it through the primaries, at least not for the top spot on the ticket.

    1. Matt Williams

      David Brooks made a similar point to Don’s on Friday’s PBS Newshour (see LINK).  Here’s the transcript.

      Judy Woodruff:
      Well, David, it looks as if a number of Democrats who are interested in being president themselves are not waiting to find out whether there’s going to be impeachment proceedings or not. They’re out on the campaign trail.

      They have either formed an exploratory committee or they have said, I’m running.

      We can name a few of them, Elizabeth Warren last week. And then you had the former Mayor of San Antonio, Mr. Castro.   You have you have this week both Tulsi Gabbard, the congresswoman from Hawaii, and Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, just to name a few.

      Is there a message coming through from any one or all of them?

      David Brooks:
      Yes, there’s a message from all of them, which is, I’m sorry, which is, they’re all apologizing for something.

      Bernie Sanders is apologizing because this campaign had alleged sexual harassment, Kirsten Gillibrand because she is sorry because she used to support gun rights. Others are sorry because they have had positions on gay marriage.

      And so what’s happened is, the Democratic Party has moved left. And so all the candidates are catching up and apologizing for their past views.

      And so this suggests that not all candidates stay in the same place based on their own personal convictions all the time.

  3. Matt Williams

    David Greenwald said . . . on the issues that mattered most, she was comparatively weak.

    David, for a Presidential Candidate, what are the issues that matter most?  Which of those Presidential issues are the ones where Harris is weak?

    1. David Greenwald Post author

      She mentioned taking responsibility twice, in neither case was she referring to what she’s being criticized for either in the NYT column or by me.

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