San Francisco Dist. Atty. Kamala Harris stood at the pulpit and spoke of redemption and second chances, the first of many clues that she is a different kind of prosecutor.
The Democratic candidate for California attorney general was on a recent campaign swing through Long Beach churches, and blamed California's lock-'em-up law enforcement policies for creating a "broken system" of overcrowded, revolving-door prisons that do little to make neighborhoods safer.
"Everybody will make mistakes, and for some that mistake will rise to the level of being a crime," Harris, 46 on Wednesday, said to the congregation at the Greater Open Door Church of God in Christ. "Yes, there will be consequence and accountability, but after that … isn't it a just society that says we are going to create a role and opportunity for folks to earn their way back among us?"
Harris' Republican opponent in the race, Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley, seizes on comments like that to cast Harris as a far-left liberal, a "radical" too concerned about the welfare and rights of criminals whom many California voters would rather leave behind bars.
There's no doubt Harris has vulnerabilities. An opponent of capital punishment, she refused to seek the politically popular death penalty for a cop killer in 2004, and again last year for an illegal immigrant accused of gunning down a father and his two sons. In May, her office was chastised by a San Francisco judge for failing to disclose information about a police drug-lab scandal.
But Harris, the first African American woman elected as a district attorney in California, doesn't appear worried. The near-decade she spent in courtrooms convicting murderers, rapists and child molesters shows she's tough on crime, Harris argues, and she campaigns relentlessly on her office's increased conviction rates, crackdown on gun-related offenses, and emphasis on environmental and financial crimes.
Beneath Harris' disarming ability to connect with people of widely different backgrounds is the thick skin of a San Francisco politician who has flourished in a city known for gleefully devouring its elected leaders. No one opposed her when Harris ran for reelection in 2007.
Harris' interest in politics and public service was cultivated at an early age. She talks of "marching for civil rights in a stroller" in the 1960s in Oakland and Berkeley, nudged along by two politically active professors, a Jamaican father and a mother from India.
Her parents divorced when Harris was a toddler and her mother, a breast cancer researcher at the University of California, raised Kamala and her sister Maya to be proud African American women during a tumultuous time in the United States. (Her sister is a Ford Foundation vice president and is married to Tony West, head of the Department of Justice's Civil Division). Harris was a member of the second class to integrate Berkeley's public schools.
"My mother had a saying: 'Kamala, you may be the first to do many things, but make sure you're not the last,' " Harris recalls.
Harris worked for Walter Mondale's presidential campaign while at Howard University in Washington, D.C., and within years of returning to the West Coast to attend UC Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco she immersed herself in California Democratic politics. (She's also backed Barack Obama since he was an Illinois Senate candidate). The prosecutor's decision to hop across the bay in 2000, leaving the respected Alameda County district attorney's office after eight years for the dysfunctional, yet higher profile one in San Francisco, was perceived by some as a political maneuver.
At age 39, Harris won a bruising campaign in 2003 to unseat two-term incumbent San Francisco Dist. Atty. Terence Hallinan. Harris had briefly worked for him before she became disillusioned with his leadership and left for the San Francisco city attorney's office. Hallinan attacked Harris as a cog in the political machine of her mentor and one-time boyfriend Willie Brown, the former Assembly speaker and the city's mayor at the time.
Under Hallinan, a rigid liberal, conviction rates hovered around 50%, by far the lowest in the state. Prosecutors lacked simple necessities such as e-mail accounts. And Hallinan had infuriated the Police Department by filing corruption charges against the command staff, a case that was quickly tossed out of court.
"She inherited all that mess," said defense attorney Bill Fazio, a former prosecutor who ran against Harris and Hallinan in 2003. "And I must say, even though she's had some problems, she cleaned up a lot of it."
Under Harris, San Francisco's conviction rate has risen above 70%, state Department of Criminal Justice records show, still below the 83% state average but enough of an improvement to become a centerpiece of her campaign.
Harris also took over and retooled the county's diversion program, called Back on Track, which offers nonviolent, first-time offenders job training and other life skills as an alternative to jail. She worked with schools to crack down on the parents of chronically truant elementary school students, children vulnerable to growing up into a life of crime.
"A district attorney will usually not take the lead on prevention. Historically, they are putting people in prison, not keeping people out of prison, and that's what makes her unique," said Joan Petersilia, co-director of the Stanford University Criminal Justice Center and expert on the state prison system.
Back on Track came under fire in 2009, however, when the Los Angeles Times reported that Harris' office had allowed illegal immigrants into the program, training them for jobs they couldn't legally hold. One of the immigrants, accused drug dealer Alexander Izaguirre, was in the program in July 2008 when he snatched the purse of a woman and hopped in a car that ran her over.
Harris said she quickly corrected the "glitch" and illegal immigrants no longer are eligible. She has dismissed criticism by Cooley and others that it was related to San Francisco's "sanctuary city" policy protecting immigrants.
One of Harris' greatest tests as D.A. came only four months into the job, when San Francisco Police Officer Isaac Espinoza was gunned down by a gang member in April 2004. Sticking to a campaign promise never to pursue the death penalty, Harris just days after the slaying announced that she would not seek a death sentence for the killer, David Hill, 22. He was later convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison.
"She made the decision after just three days. My son wasn't even in the ground yet," said Carol Espinoza of Daly City, the officer's mother, who has endorsed Cooley.
Democrats U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, then-state Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer and then-Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown all criticized Harris' decision. Harris' relationship with San Francisco police officers has never recovered. She remains steadfast, however, that capital punishment is both unjust and immoral.
"I feel it's a flawed system. With the advent of DNA, we know that people have been convicted and sentenced to death who later proved not to be guilty of the crime. That's at the top of the list of my concerns," Harris said in a recent interview.
Animosity about the case was rekindled in 2008, when Harris declined to seek the death penalty against Edwin Ramos in the slayings of Tony Bologna, 48, and his sons Michael, 20, and Matthew, 16. Ramos, an illegal immigrant and reputed member of the notorious MS-13 gang, allegedly opened fire after he pulled alongside the Bolognas' car. Ramos is awaiting trial.
Harris also was singed by recent scandal at the police lab after a technician was accused of stealing cocaine and other drugs in evidence, leading to the dismissal of hundreds of cases. Amid the scandal, it was revealed that the district attorney's office had failed to provide defense attorneys with information on the credibility of prosecution witnesses, specifically the disciplinary records of police officers.
"I don't think it was an intentional attempt to keep the information from being disclosed, but it certainly was negligent," said San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi. "This is something that cuts at the heart of the criminal justice system, because if you're not playing by the rules, you can't trust the system."
Harris said the problem has since been corrected, and noted that the Los Angeles County district attorney's office didn't adopt its disclosure policy until after it faced similar criticism in the wake of the Rampart scandal.
"Being a D.A., period, is a hard job," Harris said. "You have responsibility to make very important decisions based on the worst of human behavior, based on what you truly believe is the right thing to do. And that's always a difficult job."