On January 20, 2021, Kamala Devi Harris will become the highest-ranking female government official in American history—a title previously held by Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the House—as well as the first African-American and Asian-American to occupy the office of Vice President.
While her ascent indicates progress in cultural attitudes, whether or not Harris will champion progressive legislation and not merely progressive symbolism is unclear.
Kamala Harris’ Term as Attorney General of California
Kamala Harris’ past political endeavors have prompted criticism, particularly from young Black Americans who perhaps still see her as California’s “Top Cop”, a title Harris coined herself nearly a decade ago when she became Attorney General of California. During her time in office, she sought the death penalty for offenders. Furthermore, she claimed that the unconstitutional overcrowding in California’s prisons was necessary for the state to utilize prison labor. However, these actions alone don’t quite define her complex ideology.
Harris’ political career began in 2004 when she was elected District Attorney of San Francisco. During the campaign season, she vowed never to seek the death penalty. The anti-capital punishment stance was not necessarily popular within the Democratic party, but favored among San Franciscans.
According to Harris, her opposition to the death penalty is a personal view that she’s held her entire life. She stood by that vow, even when Officer Isaac Espinoza was shot and killed while on duty by David Hill, an AK-47-wielding gang member in April 2004.
In prosecuting Hill, Harris did not seek the death penalty. Democrats and police unions throughout California immediately criticized her. Sen. Dianne Feinstein called for the death penalty at Officer Espinoza’s funeral, and former Sen. Barbara Boxer later called on the US Justice Department to prosecute Hill and pursue the death penalty.
Ultimately, Hill was sentenced to life in prison without parole. While Harris did not budge on this issue, the criticism certainly had a profound effect on her political calculus. A deeply ambitious person, it was clear to her that she could not win a statewide election if she remained true to her personal ideology.
Harris’ personal ideology was particularly evident while she was District Attorney. In some respects, Harris was ahead of her time. She started “Back on Track”, a program that has successfully reduced recidivism rates for drug-related offenders. First-time drug offenders are required to plead guilty, and participate in a year-long program that involves community service requirements, education requirements, and employment requirements.
Participants’ records are expunged upon graduating from the program. It is truly a progressive program that offers mental health services, support for parents, and job training. Back on Track is distinct from anything Harris set out to achieve as Attorney General of California.
Kamala Harris: A Political Chameleon?
Harris’ tenure as Attorney General was markedly centrist and right-leaning, perhaps due to the backlash she received from party elites during the David Hill fiasco. In a clear and unmistakable contradiction, Harris allowed her office to pursue the death penalty.
In the case of Kevin Cooper, who was sentenced to death in 1983 after his alleged murder of three people and the attempted murder of one person, Kamala Harris had the opportunity to change the man’s fate.
During the initial trial, Cooper’s lawyer argued that the evidence present at the crime scene had been tampered with, and emphasized that Cooper did not fit any description of the perpetrator. The case was held up in state courts and eventually went to the Ninth Court of Appeals.
While Harris was Attorney General, Cooper’s lawyers asked her office for permission to collect new DNA evidence that could exonerate Cooper and to reexamine the crime scene. Her office refused, despite a Ninth Circuit judge insisting that “The State of California may be about to execute an innocent man.”
Only after she entered the Senate did Harris express regret for her inaction. In a 2018 Facebook post, she wrote “I’ve long been an advocate for measures to improve and make our system more fair and just. As a firm believer in DNA testing, I hope the governor and the state will allow for such testing in the case of Kevin Cooper.”
If there’s anything to understand about Harris it’s that she is an expert chameleon, able to shift and completely repackage herself at a moment’s notice. Upon entering the Senate, she underwent another ideological transformation.
She authored an anti-lynching bill, a federal ban on police chokeholds, and broad police reform bills. Harris was indeed the most left-leaning Senator during her time in office – even further left than Sen. Bernie Sanders.
Time and a shifting Democratic Party allowed Harris to return to her true progressive ideology. In her campaign for President of the United States, Harris— though only for a brief moment in time—endorsed Medicare for All and called for a ban on fracking.
The Future of the Biden-Harris Administration
The ideological distance between the President-Elect and Harris is notable; the manner in which they contradict each other makes it difficult to understand what this new administration will want to accomplish. Will Democrats still push for police reform, even though the Black Lives Matter protests have largely died down? Just how far will they go in cancelling student loans? Will marijuana be legalized, or merely decriminalized? In the coming years, we will find out.