Looking Back on Kamala Harris’ Record in California

From cannabis to sex work, the death penalty to truancy, here’s how the VP candidate applied her ‘smart on crime’ philosophy.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This story has been updated to reflect Harris’ selection as the Democratic nominee for Vice President.

After so much waiting and speculation, it’s finally official. Senator Kamala Harris, whose meteoric political rise began in San Francisco two decades ago, has been selected to be Joe Biden’s Vice President as the Democrats seek to take back the White House. 

Harris’ nomination is historic in many respects. As the daughter of a Jamaican father and a Tamil Indian mother, she is the first major party vice presidential candidate in U.S. history of either African American or Asian American descent. If elected, she would also be the first woman to hold the position. As Vice President to Joe Biden, who would be 78 when he assumes office, Harris could turn out to be the most powerful VP ever.

Her mandate is a daunting one. Remain “simpatico” to Biden’s policies while also building a bridge to younger, more diverse and progressive voters who are deeply skeptical of Biden, and, for that matter, of her. All that, while attempting to counter Trump’s authoritarian tendencies and chart a course for public health and economic recovery.

Harris’ career as San Francisco District Attorney and California Attorney General, covered extensively in the pages of SF Weekly, offers clues to the way she might approach her role as the co-leader of the free world — and the way the media and the public might approach her. 

In her San Francisco and Sacramento days, Harris carefully weighed public opinion on sensitive issues, angering activists across the political spectrum looking for more decisive action. She exhibited an uncanny ability to avoid ideological boxes, to skirt the terms of difficult debates. She was wary of the media, at times even secretive, and yet would also put herself in vulnerable situations in public, sometimes getting herself into hot water in the process. Though her critics constantly invoked her immutable characteristics, her political gifts made it easy to forget that with each step in her career she was making history, occupying seats of power never held by someone who looked like her.  

For those squarely focused on defeating Trump in November, one of Harris’ qualities stands out above all others: This Bay Area native knows how to win. 

Working the Room 

In 2003, Kamala Harris unseated incumbent DA Ternece Hallinan by building a broad coalition of supporters. She nurtured strong ties to San Francisco high society while maintaining her campaign headquarters in Bayview and aggressively courting low-income minority voters. Even back then, her political style was rife with contradictions and strange imagery, vividly captured in Peter Byrne’s definitive 2003 profile, “Kamala’s Karma,” a must-read for people seeking to understand the VP candidate’s political DNA. 

At an all-white Pacific Heights fundraiser, Byrne wrote, “the crowd seems fascinated by Harris, an intelligent woman of color who speaks their language, who knows their first names, and who understands that as liberals, they want to maintain law and order — but with a certain San Francisco ­style noblesse oblige.”

Harris’ entrée into this world came in part by way of San Francisco political don Willie Brown, whom she dated in the mid-nineties, as the former began his first term as mayor. The relationship benefitted her mightily, leading to commission appointments that netted her more than $400,000 over five years, and a gift of a BMW. Nearly a decade later while Harris was running for DA and Brown preparing to leave office, the real or imagined conflicts of interest created by their relationship were the main line of attack employed by Harris’ opponents. 

So began the ongoing theme of Harris’ gender, her personal life, or her looks becoming political fodder. Friends and foes alike have gone down this road, such as when President Obama introduced Harris at a 2013 San Francisco fundraiser as “by far, the best-looking attorney general in the country.” In July, CNBC reported that a group of top Biden donors was urging that Harris be removed from VP consideration because she is “too ambitious,” echoing a longstanding gendered critique. 

Playing it ‘Smart’

Ad-hominem attacks might be the easiest to land on Harris, since over the course of her career, she has always tried to walk a middle path that does not alienate her diverse constituencies. (For a recent example, see her flip-flopping on Medicare for All.) But in seeking not to polarize, she has angered groups that want her to take a firmer stand. 

Harris’ “smart on crime” philosophy, also the title of her first book, exemplifies her unwillingness to please either side.  

Before entering public office, as a private attorney, Harris specialized in domestic violence and youth sexual abuse cases, including those involving teenage prostitues. As DA, she brought a less punitive approach to sex work, meeting with sex workers and pushing the vice squad to emphasize worker safety rather than criminalization.

But Harris continued a practice of using undercover cops to catch would-be johns before they solicited prostitution, which was revealed to disproportionately target Latino men. She also drew the ire of sex worker advocates when, as Attorney General, she went after the CEO of Backpage, a popular site for erotic transactions. 

Her tough side really came out when it came to sex offenders. As DA, Harris co-sponsored a state law that would have banned sex offenders from social media sites. And as AG, she presided over “Operation Boo,” a mandatory curfew for all homeless sex offenders on Halloween. 

And yet Harris never fully embraced the tough on crime label. While she vowed to be harsher than her predecessor in the DA’s office, she drew criticism from cops and law-and-order types about her unwillingness to go after Tenderloin drug dealers, and her insistence on only prosecuting tight cases she knew she could win. 

“The District Attorney’s office grumbles that the cops’ lousy work makes it impossible to prosecute suspects,” SF Weekly staff writer Joe Eskenazi wrote in 2009. “The cops, in turn, argue that District Attorney Kamala Harris, a striver and candidate for Attorney General, is loath to take difficult cases lest she blemish her political future with an embarrassing loss.” 

Despite her laser focus on winning cases, Harris wasn’t as successful as she could have been. A 2010 SF Weekly investigation found that if cases resulting in plea deals were removed from her 2009 and 2010 records, which she bragged about in her AG campaign, her felony conviction rate was far lower than the statewide average. (Her murder conviction rate in previous years was closer to the statewide average, and throughout her tenure her conviction rates were much higher than Hallinan’s.)

So Harris became San Francisco District Attorney as a cop favorite, but by the time she ran for California Attorney General, she lost their support, both because of her hesitancy to press charges and because of  her unwillingness to seek the death penalty against a cop killer in 2004. 

The death penalty debate itself is an illustrative example of Harris’ radical centrism. Harris has always personally opposed capital punishment, calling her stance “non-negotiable.” But in 2014, when a District Court judge in Orange County ruled that the death penalty was unconstitutional, Harris asked the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals to overturn the ruling, arguing that her duty to uphold state law trumped her personal beliefs. Notably, Harris made the opposite choice about Prop 8, California’s voter-approved ban on gay marriage, which she chose not to enforce. 

Secrets, Secrets

Harris’ thinking on key issues has often been difficult for the public to parse. As DA, “Harris ran a less-than-transparent office, and refrained from speaking to reporters outside of press conferences,” SF Weekly staff writer Peter Jamison wrote in 2011. 

Much of that secrecy stemmed from two major scandals during her time as DA. The first involved revelations that a San Francisco crime lab technician, Deborah Madden, had been siphoning off cocaine for her own personal use. Harris may have known about this situation, but did not inform defense attorneys in cases involving evidence from the lab, drawing a reprimand from a San Francisco Superior Court Judge. (Harris said she only knew about the scandal after it was publicly revealed.)

The scandal revealed that the DA did not have a good system of accountability for ensuring that police evidence and testimony were reliable. Subsequently, The Chronicle discovered that the police and the DA failed to disclose the criminal background of at least 80 police officers or employees who had testified in criminal cases, in violation of the law.  

Just a month after these revelations, in June 2010, Harris’ office refused to comply with SF Weekly’s records request pertaining to ongoing investigations of sexual abuse in the Catholic church. The Alameda County District Attorney, former SF DA Terence Hallinan, and other legal experts agreed that Harris’ office should have released the records. 

‘A Certain Inevitability’ 

While Harris can be cautious on policy and with the media, she can be bold in the public arena. Well before her campaign-defining challenge of Joe Biden’s prior stance on “busing” — the “I was that girl” moment — Harris was known for putting herself out there in vulnerable and awkward situations. 

Back in 2006, she swung by a poetry slam at a Potrero Hill Starbucks to read a cringey poem in front of a crowd of about a dozen people. Then-supervisor Fiona Ma, the other public official who had RSVP’d, didn’t show. At a gala honoring participants in Harris’ controversial truancy reduction program, Harris soldiered on with the ceremony despite the fact that just 10 of 50 students showed up. 

Harris has also been known to joke at inappropriate times, including at a 2010 Commonwealth Club event when she laughed about her truancy policy causing parents to go to jail. The clip went viral during her presidential campaign, leading Harris to publicly apologize for the program. (While the San Francisco version of that program cut chronic truancy by more than 50 percent, and did not result in any parents going to jail, other jurisdictions in California that adopted similar programs while Harris was AG in some instances jailed parents for their children’s truancy.)

Harris made a similar gaffe during her 2014 AG re-election campaign, when she laughed off a question about recreational cannabis legalization. As her state DOJ continued to seize cannabis plants, weed advocates actually backed her Republican, pro-legalization opponent in that campaign. Harris cruised to victory nevertheless, and just a few months after laughing off legalization, she acknowledged, “there’s a certain inevitability to it.”

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