As Kamala Harris positions for a likely presidential run that could be announced as early as this week, the California senator fielded an early hit on her criminal justice record Thursday in the form of a scathing opinion piece in The New York Times.
Digging into Harris’ long and complex record as district attorney of San Francisco and attorney general of California, University of San Francisco associate law professor Lara Bazelon took central aim at Harris’ contention that she was a “progressive prosecutor,” who sought to right injustice and change the criminal justice system from within.
“Time after time, when progressives urged her to embrace criminal justice reforms as district attorney and then the state’s attorney general, Ms. Harris opposed them or stayed silent,” wrote Bazelon, the former director of Loyola Law School Project for the Innocent. “Most troubling, Ms. Harris fought tooth and nail to uphold wrongful convictions that been secured through official misconduct that included evidence tampering, false testimony and the suppression of crucial information by prosecutors.”
In an interview Thursday, Bazelon said that she was inspired to write the piece after Harris devoted a chapter in her new memoir, “The Truths We Hold,” to the idea that she was a progressive prosecutor.
“For some of us, that was just too much to bear. Because that’s not her record,” Bazelon said. “I think that the decisions she made had an eye toward running for higher office – had an eye toward trying to walk this tightrope of not getting law enforcement and police and prosecutors upset with her.”
Harris aides dismissed the piece as opinion and noted that a number of Bazelon’s examples lacked proper context, or even an acknowledgment that line-level prosecutors made central decisions in a number of the most controversial cases.
“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,” said Lily Adams, Harris’ spokeswoman, said in a statement.
“In 2004, when most prosecutors were using a tough on crime approach, Senator Harris was starting Back on Track in 2004 which diverted young people charged with first time drug offenses into apprenticeship and training programs instead of decades long prison sentences. When she was Attorney General, she brought accountability to the system with the first statewide training on implicit bias and procedural justice in the country, body cameras to the agents at DOJ, launched multiple pattern and practice investigations and demanded data on in-custody deaths and police shooting be made available to the public.”
Citing the criticism of the fact that Harris did not take a position in 2014 on Proposition 47, a reform of California’s three strikes law, Harris aides said her policy as attorney general was that she would not take a position on a ballot measure if she was responsible for writing the ballot language. She viewed it as a conflict of interest.
While Harris did favor reforming the three strikes law for low-level felonies to help reduce California’s prison population, she also had concerns that if inmates were released there should be proper support services in place to help them. Aides noted that while Harris was district attorney and dealing with the three strikes law on a day-to-day basis, she did not seek any 25-year-to-life sentences on any low-level crime.
Bazelon also faulted Harris for refusing as attorney general to support statewide standards governing the use of body-worn cameras by police officers.
At that time, Harris, broadly, supported the use of body-worn cameras and required Department of Justice officers who she oversaw to wear them. But an aide said she believed that each police jurisdiction should have flexibility to set their own standards for how footage could be used, how long it should be kept and when it should be released to the public.
Bazelon’s piece also criticized one of Harris’ most controversial stances, which was her decision to defend the death penalty as California’s attorney general even though she personally opposed it. Earlier in her career, Harris took considerable heat for refusing to seek the death penalty in 2004 for the killer of San Francisco police officer Isaac Espinoza.
In her book, Harris describes her campaign for California attorney general. She writes how a longtime political strategist believed she could not win because she was “a woman who is a minority who is anti-death penalty.”
It was a stereotype, wrote Harris. Her position on the death penalty as attorney general would be far more complicated.
While Harris personally opposed the death penalty, she defended the law as a matter of professional duty to her state. Death penalty advocates would be disappointed, while she won praise from the Los Angeles Times editorial board.
On the flip side, in a controversial 2004 case earlier in her career as San Francisco district attorney, Harris took immense heat from Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein and California police unions when she did not seek the death penalty for Espinoza’s killer.
In part because of the complexity of Harris’ record, Bazelon touched off a vigorous debate about Harris’ criminal justice stances, both on Twitter and in early voting states like Iowa and South Carolina, where Harris is scheduled to visit next week.
If Harris runs, it is a debate that will likely play out for many months among her 2020 rivals, particularly as Harris tries to consolidate the African-American vote in South Carolina and the early states of the Southeast where that demographic makes up a large portion of the electorate.
The Democratic California senator, who has worked closely with Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul on bail reform and co-sponsored legislation making lynching a federal crime, has clearly been expecting these attacks from the left, particularly as criminal justice reform became a focal point for Democratic activists.
In her new memoir and during her talks at book tour events, she frequently noted her family’s surprise at her decision as a young woman to become part of a system that has disproportionately incarcerated black and brown men.
Harris writes in the book that she “knew that there was an important role on the inside, sitting at the table where the decisions were being made. When activists came marching and banging on the doors, I wanted to be on the other side to let them in.”
At every event, she also noted her efforts to reduce recidivism, implicit bias within law enforcement and the program she launched giving first-time drug offenders an opportunity to get high school diplomas and jobs.
Some, noting the breadth and expanse of Harris’ legal record over several decades, rose to her defense.
“It is an unfortunate byproduct of the campaign season to place Democrats into a box,” said South Carolina Democratic Party Chair Trav Robertson. “I would believe that Senator Harris had significant input from her staff—legal professionals in these circumstances. This opinion piece will have little impact on her chances in South Carolina.”
“Most important, her performance during the (Supreme Court Nominee Brett) Kavanaugh hearing and the (attorney general nominee William) Barr hearing more than likely will have motivated those who consider themselves progressives in the Democratic Party,” Robertson said.
Bazelon’s opinion piece in the Times also sent ripples through some Iowa Democratic circles as they await an announcement of Harris’ decision.
Andrew Turner, the former campaign manager for Iowa State Auditor Rob Sand – who narrowly beat the GOP incumbent in the 2018 race – said the piece was “widely talked about and passed around.”
Turner acknowledged that most Iowans aren’t making up their minds at this juncture, “but activists and staffers do, and I think some who had liked her a lot before don’t feel the same way.”
He called the opinion piece “troubling,” especially to him, a young Democratic man of color.
“This op-ed for me, helped narrow down my choices,” Turner said to CNN. “Senator Warren and Senator Booker both have tremendous records on these issues and don’t need to explain why just as recently as 2014 they couldn’t support a State Proposition (47) that would help curb some of the systemic racism in the criminal justice system and would improve the quality of life for so many young black and brown, men and women.”
“I think there’s lots of other black and mixed race Democrats out there thinking the same thing I am right now,” Turner said.
Former Iowa Democratic Party chair Sue Dvorsky called the review of Harris’ record “fair because she’s expected to be top tier.” Dvorsky noted that every one of the 2020 candidates is facing scrutiny of their records.
“It isn’t too early. We’re starting,” Dvorsky said. “Every one of these candidates have three things they have to do: Lay out a positive vision of why them; explain how they are going to address the current occupant’s style; and respond to their own record. The longer the record, the longer the response.”
Dvorsky, a key influencer in Iowa politics who plans to remain neutral this cycle, was an early backer of Barack Obama in 2007 and also caucused for Hillary Clinton in 2016. This cycle, she said, “it will be vision, policy and record” that will determine Iowa Democratic support. “Everyone will have to answer to that.”
CNN’s Rebecca Buck contributed to this story.
This story has been updated.