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Editorial: How Kamala Harris has grown as a political leader

Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) speaks during the Democratic National Convention on Aug. 19 in Wilmington, Del.
Democratic vice presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) speaks during the third day of the Democratic National Convention Aug. 19 at the Chase Center in Wilmington, Del.
(Carolyn Kaster / Associated Press)

When she was San Francisco district attorney, Kamala Harris literally wrote the book on criminal justice reform. Or one of them, at least. Amid a societal debate on whether it was a better policy to be tough on crime or soft on crime, Harris published “Smart on Crime,” less a manifesto than a collection of essays that hammered at the failure of a generation to curb criminal recidivism. The book was her calling card when she ran for state attorney general in 2010 against Los Angeles County’s district attorney, Republican Steve Cooley.

Harris was, at least to Los Angeles, someone new — a woman of South Asian and (via Jamaica) African descent boasting a shiny political future built on a 20-year prosecutorial career in two different Bay Area counties. Cooley was an unassuming and somewhat frumpy white guy finishing up his third term as district attorney here, and an unlikely candidate for statewide office. The Times editorial board was becoming increasingly impatient with counterproductive tough-on-crime measures and progressively exasperated by the state’s Republican leadership, which seemed bent on driving the state into economic ruin in order to shrink government and slash aid to struggling Californians amid the Great Recession.

The editorial board took the measure of both candidates. And picked Cooley.

Not because he was the local guy. The board was impressed by Harris and said it was a close call, but members liked the way Cooley bucked his fellow Republicans and the tough-on-crime crowd to cut back on punitive excess.

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That endorsement decision serves as a reminder that elections aren’t mere evaluations of individuals, but choices between available candidates. It’s tough to pick between two good ones or two bad ones, not so hard to pick one who’s head-and-shoulders above the other. Harris was good, but we found Cooley to be a bit better.

Even in endorsing Cooley, though, we noted that on a number of issues Harris was right where he was wrong: on healthcare, on same-sex marriage, on the death penalty (although she said she would enforce it). And besides, amid wrenching policy changes in criminal justice — a modest rollback of the Three Strikes Law, transfer of responsibility for lower-level felons from state prison to county jails, a court order to reduce prison crowding — California needed a guiding hand, a counselor of sorts, to reassure residents when policy was on the right track and step in when it wasn’t. Cities and counties, meanwhile, needed some direction in sorting out medical marijuana laws.

So there was reason to welcome Harris’ victory that November. The surprise in Harris’ first term was that she generally stayed away from controversial stances on the criminal justice issues that were in her smart-on-crime wheelhouse.

She focused instead on the mortgage crisis and California’s role in the settlement among states, the federal government and banks. Much of the tough negotiations had been led by Iowa Atty. Gen. Tom Miller, and Harris could have chosen to go along for the ride. Instead, she held out for more debt reduction and larger damage awards. She later leaned on the Legislature for a homeowners bill of rights. She prevailed on both fronts.

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When she ran for a second term, The Times editorial board found her to be the easy choice, notwithstanding our continuing but unanswered call for her to be more vocal on the particulars of criminal justice reform.

In more recent years, progressive criminal justice activists have weighed Harris’ record as a county and state prosecutor and found it wanting, and it is true that her record was more aligned with a slightly earlier line of reformist thinking that stressed prevention of recidivism than alternatives to incarceration for accused and convicted felons.

But the differences are often more in style than in substance. The point of Harris’ book and her approach to criminal prosecution was that incarceration had not slowed recidivism.

Harris was a natural candidate for U.S. Senate on the retirement of Barbara Boxer, and she was The Times’ choice. Again, it helped that she had the right opponent: Rep. Loretta Sanchez, also a Democrat and a fighter, but one prone to gaffes that undermined her value as a reliable leader.
It was more than that, however. Harris may have remained a work in progress as state attorney general, but she was a perfect fit for the U.S. Senate, a legislative position that requires less administrative savvy and more advocacy, vision and leadership.

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In the Senate, Harris has revealed herself to be a bold leader, a reliable ally and a formidable opponent. She appears unfazed by the twin attacks from right and left — that she is a San Francisco lefty who released felons from prison and, apparently at the same time, a “top cop” who ran interference for police and furthered anti-poor, anti-Black “tough on crime” policies of the past. These claims aren’t so different from those made by detractors against former Vice President Joe Biden, or indeed anyone who rejects ideological purity for a pragmatic approach to progress.

In Harris’ case, each charge contains a grain of truth but misses the broader point. Harris navigated through a California that for much of her career was motivated by an exaggerated fear of crime and an unacknowledged reliance on white racial privilege. More recently the state has evolved, developing a more sophisticated understanding of crime and the excesses of punishment while also undergoing a delayed but dawning reckoning with racism.

Like many people of color, Harris is undoubtedly familiar with the unfairness of racism, and like many politicians, she undoubtedly developed a feel for when to keep her critique to herself and when to attack it head-on. In a sense, it is the nation that is a work in progress. And by now, it should be ready for Kamala Harris to help lead it.


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