Kamala Harris brings anti-Trump energy to Biden's ticket, but her law enforcement record poses risks

Key Points
  • Sen. Kamala Harris is among the top potential choices to become Joe Biden's running mate in the 2020 election. 
  • A woman of color and former presidential candidate, Harris has been a leading congressional voice in addressing systemic racism and holding the Trump administration accountable. 
  • Criticism of her record as a prosecutor in California could risk dampening enthusiasm among younger Democrats. 
Democratic U.S. presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden is greeted by U.S. Senator Kamala Harris during a campaign stop in Detroit, Michigan, March 9, 2020.
Brendan McDermid | Reuters

UPDATE: Since this story was first published, Joe Biden selected Kamala Harris to be his running mate.

By all accounts, Sen. Kamala Harris stands near the top of Joe Biden's list of potential 2020 running mates. 

Harris would bring a lot to the presumptive Democratic nominee's ticket as he tries to beat President Donald Trump in November. Even so, the California Democrat and former prosecutor could exacerbate one of Biden's key liabilities as a candidate: criticism that he reinforced racist failings in the criminal justice system. 

At 55 years old with several statewide election wins to her name in California, Harris has a combination of vigor and experience matched by few others on Biden's short list. Key allies have urged the former vice president, a 77-year-old white man, to choose a woman of color as his running mate. Harris, a daughter of Indian and Jamaican immigrants and one of three Black U.S. senators, would bring a vital perspective to the ticket during a national reckoning over systemic racism. 

But critics have contended the senator took some regressive stances during her time as district attorney of San Francisco and attorney general of California — charges sharpened during her bid for the Democratic nomination last year. While Harris has defended her record and been a champion for anti-lynching and police reform legislation in recent weeks, some observers of her career say she could alienate parts of the Democratic Party, particularly younger Black voters.

"Kamala Harris I think would undermine the hostility that Black Americans have toward Donald Trump," said James Lance Taylor, a professor of politics at the University of San Francisco.

Even so, it is unclear how much of an effect Harris — or any other Biden running mate — will have on an election increasingly looking like a referendum on Trump's first term in office. The list of potential choices got shorter Thursday, when Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., said she would take herself out of the running and urged Biden to pick a woman of color.

Kamala Harris' resume

Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) joins fellow Democrats from the House and Senate to introduce new legislation to end excessive use of force by police and make it easier to identify, track, and prosecute police misconduct at the U.S. Capitol June 08, 2020 in Washington, DC.
Chip Somodevilla | Getty Images

Harris enjoyed a steady rise through the legal ranks in California. After she graduated from historically Black Howard University and the University of California, Hastings College of Law, she became the deputy district attorney for northern California's Alameda County. Harris held the job from 1990 to 1998. 

She then joined the San Francisco District Attorney's Office. In 2003, Harris defeated incumbent Terence Hallinan to become the city's top legal official. She served as San Francisco's district attorney from 2004 to 2010. 

Harris was elected California attorney general in 2010, narrowly defeating Republican Steve Cooley. After her 2014 reelection, she ran for Senate in 2016. 

She easily defeated former Democratic Rep. Loretta Sanchez to replace retiring Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer, garnering more than 60% of the vote. 

How much is Kamala Harris worth
How much is Kamala Harris worth

Harris ran in the 2020 Democratic primary, but failed to make it as far as the Iowa caucuses. She briefly vaulted higher in polls in July after she targeted Biden for opposing busing policy during the integration of public schools and for comments about working with segregationists in the Senate. 

But Harris failed to gain much more traction and dropped out of the race in December. Even at the heights of her campaign, Black poll respondents overwhelmingly preferred Biden over other Democrats, partly driven by a feeling that he had the best shot to deny Trump a second term. 

The public disagreements during the primary have not appeared to hurt Biden and Harris' relationship. At a fundraiser earlier this month where she helped Biden's campaign raise $3.5 million, she praised the former vice president as someone who "always has a sense of how people are experiencing this world," highlighting the "many contrasts" between him and the president. 

Biden called Harris a "fighter and a principled leader." He also said he "won't forget" when he saw the senator after the death of his son Beau. Biden said Harris told him, "I love you, and I loved Beau." 

Work in the Senate

During her time in the Senate, Harris' prosecutorial grilling of Trump administration officials and nominees, from Attorney General William Barr to Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, has earned her plaudits from Democrats. She has aimed to take a leading role in holding the Trump White House accountable for abuses of power — a helpful practice if she eventually has to debate Vice President Mike Pence or target the president on the campaign trail. 

After a May 2019 Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in which Barr declined to answer Harris' questions about whether the White House asked him to open investigations into anyone, the senator called on him to resign. She said "this attorney general lacks all credibility and has, I think, compromised the American public's ability to believe he is a purveyor of justice." 

Kamala Harris grills AG Barr during Senate hearing
Kamala Harris grills AG Barr during Senate hearing

Harris has since brought her oversight push to the federal coronavirus response. She has sought better disclosure of how the Trump administration has used money meant to go to struggling small businesses and health-care providers. 

The senator has supported a range of benefits for essential employees during the pandemic, from raises to paid leave and better protections in the workplace. Harris also co-sponsored one of the most ambitious proposals to sustain Americans' income during the coronavirus shutdowns. The bill introduced in May would give individuals $2,000 a month during the crisis. 

The plan marked at least the second time she joined Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., in backing a sweeping social safety net proposal. In April 2019, Harris signed on to "Medicare for All" legislation. The senator later muddied her health-care position during the presidential primary as she faced questions about whether her plan would abolish private insurance.

A running mate's policy preferences may not prove all that important "because the presidential candidate is going to set the agenda," said Robert Shrum, a veteran political consultant and professor of the practice of political science at the University of Southern California. He noted one possible exception in Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., a vice presidential contender whose bankruptcy plan Biden adopted after she dropped out of the primary earlier this year. 

The push for reform

Biden addresses George Floyd’s 6-year-old daughter in emotional funeral video
Biden addresses George Floyd’s 6-year-old daughter in emotional funeral video

As the only Black woman in the Senate, Harris has been a leading congressional voice in the policy discussions around systemic racism sparked by repeated police killings of Black men and women. She has helped to lead the charge for an anti-lynching bill that Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., blocked from passing the Senate earlier this month. 

When she joined House leaders in introducing a sweeping police reform bill a few days later, she tied the inability to pass the anti-lynching legislation to the broader challenges in securing justice for Black Americans.

"We're here because Black Americans want to stop being killed. ... Yes, as a country, we've seen great progress. But just last week in the year of our Lord 2020, we could not get an anti-lynching bill passed in the United States Senate," she said. 

The bill Harris co-sponsored did not embrace activists' calls to either slash police budgets or defund departments entirely. But she has said she supports Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti's proposal to cut up to $150 million from the city's police budget and put it toward a $250 million investment in health care and jobs programs. 

"We've got to re-examine what we're doing with American taxpayer dollars and ask the question: Are we getting the right return on our investment? Are we actually creating healthy and safe communities?" she asked earlier this month. 

Of course, pushes for reform bring questions about Harris' own role in the criminal justice system. Taylor at the University of San Francisco said the senator may not do much to solidify support for Biden — whom Black voters already overwhelmingly supported during the primary — while risking dampening the zeal of the activists pushing for an overhaul of the justice system.

"They are coming for Trump," he said of people protesting racial injustice. "If Biden were to select Kamala Harris, it would have a wet blanket effect on that enthusiasm." 

Harris has faced criticism on issues including an anti-truancy program and instances where she did not dismiss cases against convicted defendants after new evidence emerged. She also saw backlash in California for what critics saw as her being slow to embrace liberal positions on the death penalty, marijuana legalization and police and criminal justice reform. 

During her presidential campaign, Harris described herself as a "progressive prosecutor." She has previously defended her ambitions as a legal officer by saying she wanted to "reform systems" from "the inside." Supporters have pointed to programs Harris previously backed such as one that aided people in looking for work rather than putting them in jail.

As a presidential candidate, Harris pushed to legalize marijuana, ban private prisons and issue a moratorium on the death penalty at the federal level. She also called for sentencing reform and more emphasis on rehabilitation rather than incarceration. 

A spokeswoman for Harris did not immediately respond to a request to comment on this story. 

Shrum said many voters may judge Harris by where she stands on criminal justice issues now rather than her record as a prosecutor. He noted that Black voters pushed Biden through the Democratic primary despite his role in the 1994 crime bill that critics say helped to fuel mass incarceration of people of color. Biden appeared to address concerns about the legislation earlier this year when he said, "I haven't always been right" but "I've always tried." 

Shrum noted that Harris would not help Biden on one specific front: giving a boost in a swing state. Other potential choices such as Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Rep. Val Demings of Florida could potentially aid Biden in critical Electoral College states. 

However, Shrum, who served as an advisor to the Kerry-Edwards and Gore-Lieberman campaigns, said a vice president has not appeared to give a significant geographic boost since Lyndon B. Johnson helped John F. Kennedy win Johnson's home state of Texas in 1960. 

Correction: This story has been updated to reflect that Kamala Harris worked for the San Francisco District Attorney's Office and was elected in 2003 to serve as San Francisco's district attorney. 

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