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Politics

Capitol Journal: Kamala Harris can’t afford to be cagey about where she stands on the issues

Kamala Harris Campaigns In New Hampshire
Democratic Presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) speaks during a Town Hall at Dartmouth College on April 23 in Hanover, New Hampshire.
(Scott Eisen / Getty Images)

Clarity, courage and candor. That’s what voters want from political candidates. Not circular claptrap.

That’s especially true of candidates running in a crowded field of 20 for the Democratic nomination to take on President Trump next year. Voters are looking for differences. Everyone’s pounding on Trump. That’s no distinction.

California Sen. Kamala Harris, who’s considered among the top tier of contenders, isn’t always performing up to speed. It’s not enough just to feed the voter base with red meat and focus group-certified talking points.

Harris has long been afflicted with too much caution, as I’ve previously written.

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Prime examples were when she was state attorney general and a longtime opponent of the death penalty, but refused to take stands on ballot propositions in 2012 and 2016 that would have abolished capital punishment. They both failed narrowly. She also didn’t take positions on ballot measures to expedite the death penalty and loosen prison sentencing. They passed.

Her lame excuse: It was the attorney general’s ministerial duty to write the official title and summary for ballot propositions. She didn’t want to appear biased. Nonsense.

Related: A political awakening: How Howard University shaped Kamala Harris’ identity »

I was reminded of this April 22 while viewing a series of fascinating CNN town halls in Manchester, N.H. Five presidential candidates were interviewed separately by CNN moderators and students at Saint Anselm College.

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There was a textbook example of how not to answer a question.

Moderator Don Lemon told Harris that Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders had said he favored allowing felons to vote while in prison. Sanders was asked specifically about the Boston Marathon bomber and sexual assailants. He replied, “The right to vote is inherent in our democracy. Yes, even for the terrible people.”

Lemon asked Harris whether she agreed.

Harris: “I agree that the right to vote is one of the very important components of citizenship and it is something that people should not be stripped of needlessly.”

She criticized states that permanently deprive felons of the right to vote, even after they’ve been freed from prison. “These are policies that go back to Jim Crow … policies that have been about disenfranchisement.”

Lemon: “But people who are…in prison like the Boston Marathon bomber … people who are convicted of sexual assault, they should be able to vote?”

Harris: “I think we should have that conversation.”

Conversation?

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The correct answer would have been a simple “No.” And if any elaboration was deemed necessary: “Hell, no.”

Harris’ advisors surely had a “conversation” with her that night — something like: “That won’t fly. Better fix it.” She didn’t really.

The next morning Harris was asked by reporters to elaborate.

“Listen,” she said, “it’s a complex issue…. I’m going to be very thoughtful and serious about the issues I weigh in on….

“Do I think people who commit murder, or people who are terrorists, should be deprived of their rights? Yeah, I do. I’m a prosecutor. I believe in terms of there has to be serious consequences for the most extreme types of crimes.”

Again, Harris was asked specifically about the Boston Marathon bomber. She avoided a direct answer.

Related: A shift to the left pulls Democratic candidates in different directions for 2020 »

Whether or not you agree with Sanders, he deserves credit for boldly speaking his mind in plain English. I suspect that’s one reason so many young people are drawn to him.

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“What our Constitution says is that everybody can vote,” Sanders said. “So people in jail can vote…. If somebody commits a serious crime — sexual assault, murder — they’re going to be punished. They may be in jail for 10 years … their whole lives….

“But I think the right to vote is inherent to our democracy, yes, even for terrible people, because once you start chipping away …you’re running down a slippery slope.”

Recently announced candidate Pete Buttigieg, mayor of South Bend, Ind., was equally forthright, but on the other side. When asked whether the bomber or sexual assailants should be permitted to vote, Buttigieg instantly replied:

“No, I don’t think so. I do believe that … when you have served your sentence, then part of being restored to society is that you’re part of the political life of this nation again….

“But part of the punishment when you’re convicted of a crime and you’re incarcerated is, you lose certain rights…. And it does not make sense to have an exception for the right to vote.”

Harris was specific on most issues during the town hall. But she dodged a couple of other questions, too.

Queried about forgiving student loans, as Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts has proposed, Harris replied: “I think that’s an important conversation to have.”

And “yes or no,” asked the moderator, should there be reparations for descendants of former slaves? Harris: “I support that we study that.”

In a follow-up panel discussion, David Axelrod, former strategist for President Obama, said of Harris, “She’s very cautious.” That could be a problem for her, he observed. “You have to be ready and able to answer these questions.”

In California, county jail inmates can vote. But felons in prison cannot. Neither can they after being released while still on parole. Assemblyman Kevin McCarty (D-Sacramento) is pushing a bill to allow parolees to vote. That’s sensible.

“It’s morally the correct thing to do to tell people that once they’ve served their time and paid their debt to society, they can go back and be a regular citizen,” the lawmaker says.

Should they be able to vote while still in prison?

“Naw, I don’t support that.”

Correct answer. No conversation needed.

More from George Skelton »

george.skelton@latimes.com

Follow @LATimesSkelton on Twitter


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