Kamala Harris: What a Nice Surprise, Bring Your Alibis

Photo Credit: Kamala Harris

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This Spring, the Berkeley Public Policy Journal will profile the (many) candidates vying to become the next President of the United States. Starting Tuesday, March 5 – a calendar year before Super Tuesday – BPPJ will feature weekly posts written by Goldman students who are taking a look at who’s running and why. We note that these posts feature author opinions that do not represent BPPJ, the Goldman School of Public Policy, or UC Berkeley.

By Nandita Sampath

In January 2019, California Senator Kamala Harris announced her candidacy to run for president during an inaugural rally in Oakland, CA. A biracial daughter of immigrants from Jamaica and India, her candidacy marks a historic moment. She has held positions as prosecutor for the District Attorney’s office and was the Attorney General of California prior to becoming a senator. However, with only two years in the Senate, she is still relatively unknown outside her state. In addition, many have been critical of her career as a prosecutor — her past positions on the death penalty and legalizing marijuana have contradicted her claims of being a “progressive prosecutor”. Perhaps to her benefit, Harris has often distanced herself from the party divide but has yet to make concrete policy proposals, unlike some of her competitors including the policy-heavy Elizabeth Warren.

Things to note about Kamala Harris:

  • She is a supporter of Medicare for all, universal pre-kindergarten, and pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. She also hopes to give a $6,000 tax break to working and middle-class families by eliminating parts of Trump’s recent tax law. She supports a ban of assault weapons and high-capacity magazines and wants to implement universal background checks; as Attorney General, she introduced a California-wide seizure of illegally-owned firearms, and collected more than 1,200 in the process.
  • She has shown herself to be a champion of women throughout her professional life. A sizable part of her career included prosecuting sex offenders, human traffickers, and child abusers. She also pioneered the fight against “revenge porn” as a prosecutor, and introduced a bipartisan bill in the Senate that would make disseminating such images and videos a federal crime. Not to mention, she was a ferocious opponent of Kavanaugh’s appointment to the Supreme Court, and asked questions about abortion during his hearing that left him speechless.
  • Harris’s prosecution record is contradictory. She implemented training programs to mitigate racial bias in law enforcement, but also opposed statewide police body camera regulations. She championed herself as a voice for the poor and people of color, but introduced rules whereby parents could be prosecuted for a child’s school truancy, which disproportionately affected lower-income families. The list of contradictions is long, and while she has stuck by the decisions she made, she is trying to position herself as a reformer of the criminal justice system.  

Ultimately, Harris will have to answer for her mixed record as a prosecutor. It is possible, however,  that both sexism and racism are playing a part in the harsh critique of her time in the DA’s office and could affect her popularity as a candidate. In many ways, she is the polar opposite of Trump — she is a woman of color with years of government experience, and her demeanor and rhetoric could not be more different from those of the current president. She is likely to be a front-runner in this race that is now chock-full of candidates from across the liberal spectrum; but to remain so a year from now, she must clearly articulate her reformed views and outline policies that distinguish herself from the pack.

Nandita Sampath is a Master of Public Policy candidate at the Goldman School of Public Policy and a Senior Editor of the Berkeley Public Policy Journal.

This article is an opinion piece, and the opinions expressed represent the author alone. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent those of the Berkeley Public Policy Journal, the Goldman School of Public Policy, or UC Berkeley.