Kamala Harris’ Prosecutor Past Draws Scrutiny

January 28, 2019 Updated: January 28, 2019

WASHINGTON—U.S. Senator Kamala Harris launched her 2020 White House campaign on Jan. 27 with a rally in her hometown of Oakland, California, less than a mile from the courthouse where the Democrat began her career as a prosecutor.

The event’s location is the latest sign she plans to emphasize her track record as San Francisco’s district attorney and California’s attorney general. Her 2020 slogan, “Kamala Harris, for the people,” nods at the introduction she used in court and is a phrase she calls her “compass.”

The only former top city and state prosecutor in the race so far, the first-term California senator’s roots will differentiate her in a crowded field of Democrats seeking to run against President Donald Trump, the likely Republican nominee. Senators Elizabeth Warren and Kirsten Gillibrand are in the race, and more U.S. senators are weighing bids.

Harris’ sharp questioning of Trump administration appointees and officials during Senate hearings made her popular with liberal activists. But her law enforcement background also carries risk in a Democratic Party that has shifted in recent years on criminal justice issues, embracing the Black Lives Matter movement and calling for body cameras for police, sentencing reform, and ending the death penalty.

Her actions as attorney general from 2011 to 2017 on those issues angered some liberals, and critics revived the #KamalaisaCop hashtag on Twitter to knock her after she announced her campaign last week.

Harris must prove to the party’s increasingly diverse and progressive base that some of the decisions she made as a top prosecutor that were unpopular with liberal activists will not follow her to the White House.

“Democratic primary voters have been shaped by rising movements for racial, economic and gender justice,” said Waleed Shahid, spokesman for Justice Democrats, a group supporting progressive candidates.

“Harris will have to figure out how she’ll convince the movement that she’s their champion when many organizers and activists are on record criticizing her approach as attorney general on issues related to prison overcrowding, police shootings and marijuana legalization,” Shahid said.

As attorney general, she reached a settlement with major banks involved in the foreclosure crisis, which hit minority homeowners particularly hard. She also implemented an implicit bias training for law enforcement officers and declined to defend a state ballot proposition prohibiting same-sex marriage.