Harris, as Biden’s VP pick, likely to face renewed scrutiny about prosecutor past
Presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden announced Tuesday that he has picked Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., as his running mate -- a move that will likely draw renewed scrutiny about her past as a prosecutor.
Harris’ past as a public prosecutor both as district attorney in San Francisco and later attorney general of California before she became a senator were both a strength and a weakness for her in her presidential bid last year.
While her past as a prosecutor could help counter attacks from the Trump campaign that a Biden-Harris ticket is soft on crime, it could hurt her with a left of the party that has entertained calls to abolish, defund or overhaul police departments -- although the initial reaction from progressive standard bearers and groups was overwhelmingly positive.
But an example of the kinds of attacks she may face was demonstrated in a furious New York Times op-ed in January 2019, which attacked her claim to be a “progressive prosecutor” from the left.
“Time after time, when progressives urged her to embrace criminal justice reforms as a district attorney and then the state’s attorney general, Ms. Harris opposed them or stayed silent,” the op-ed from law professor Lara Bazelon said. “Most troubling, Ms. Harris fought tooth and nail to uphold wrongful convictions that had been secured through official misconduct that included evidence tampering, false testimony and the suppression of crucial information by prosecutors.”
Harris refused to take a position on a pair of sentencing reform ballot measures, arguing she must remain neutral because her office was responsible for preparing ballot text. She also defended the death penalty in court, setting aside her personal opposition to capital punishment.
Also controversial was Harris’ role in a law that threatened parents of truant children with criminal penalties.
In an interview last year, she said the law was never intended to punish parents for their child’s chronic truancy, but rather to get students on the right track in the classroom. She admitted, however, that it had “unintended consequences.”
“My regret is that I have now heard stories where in some jurisdictions, DAs have criminalized the parents. And I regret that that has happened,” she said, although she said that no parents were jailed because of the arrests -- a claim that has been challenged by fact checkers.
That record dogged her through her presidential bid in 2019. In one of the standout moments of a debate in Detroit, Michigan in July, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, ripped into Harris’ record as a prosecutor.
"There are too many examples to cite but she put over 1,500 people in jail for marijuana violations and then laughed about it when she was asked if she ever smoked marijuana," Gabbard said.
She also blasted Harris for maintaining the cash bail system which, she argued, disproportionately hurt poor people. Gabbard accused Harris of keeping prisoners beyond their sentence in order to use them as "cheap labor" as well as blocking evidence that would have "freed an innocent man from death row."
"The bottom line is, Senator Harris, when you were in a position to make a difference and impact in these people's lives, you did not," Gabbard responded.
Harris responded then claiming that she had consistently fought against the death penalty and reformed the criminal justice system.
"As elected attorney general of California, I did the work of significantly reforming the criminal justice system of a state of 40 million people -- which became a national model for the work that needs to be done," she said.
But, according to the New York Times, Harris advisers pointed to that moment between Gabbard and the senator as “accelerating” her decline in the polls.
According to the Times, several of Harris’ donors were “alarmed” and urged the campaign to fire back at Gabbard. Harris was also aware that her response was “insufficient,” a view “reinforced by her advisers” according to the outlet
After the announcement on Tuesday, while the reaction from left-wing groups was overwhelmingly positive to the pick of Harris, there were already concerns related to her past as a top cop. An article by Elizabeth Nolan Brown in the libertarian Reason Magazine on Tuesday said that the "good news" was that the pick meant Harris would not be attorney general.
“The bad news is that it puts Harris next in line for the presidency should anything happen to Biden and sets her up nicely for a future presidential run,” she wrote. “In Harris, we would get a leader with President Donald Trump's penchant for unchecked executive power and modern Democrats' tendency to consider no issue outside the reach of government.”
Fox News' Gregg Re contributed to this report.