By Eboni K. Williams
Let her tell it—as she did in front of over 30,000 people in Oakland, California this Sunday, officially launching her 2020 presidential campaign—and California senator Kamala Harris is a proud daughter of Oakland. She was born to a Jamaican father and Indian mother, who studied together at UC Berkeley while fighting side-by-side for the civil rights of all Americans. Harris’ personal narrative is rooted in an unshakable belief in the American Dream, the value of community, and the power of the people. Specifically, as her chosen path has been to fight for justice as a lawyer, she outlined her desire to help our nation make good on its unfulfilled promises.
Over 90 percent of American prosecutors are white, and over 80 percent of them are male, which means that Harris is in rare company as a black woman enforcer of the law. After being the first woman, first Black, and first South Asian to be elected district attorney in San Francisco, after becoming the first Black or South Asian California Attorney General, and after becoming the second Black woman to be elected to the U.S. Senate, her run at the highest office in the land is uniquely historic. In her speech, Harris leveraged her work as a prosecutor to present herself as a fierce champion for the people, telling the Oakland crowd how she created skill and job training programs instead of prison time for young people facing drug charges. She also touted her passage of the strongest anti-foreclosure law in America as the example of her ability to hold big corporations accountable.
In 2004, as district attorney of San Francisco, she refused to seek the death penalty against a man convicted of shooting police officer Isaac Espinoza, which many fellow Democrats opposed. She paid a political price for her disruption, receiving almost no support from law enforcement groups during her attorney general run in 2010. In 2004, she was also responsible for the “Back on Track” program, which allowed first-time drug offenders (including dealers) to get a high school diploma and job instead of prison time. She also introduced first-of-its-kind training for police to address racial bias in 2015, and she made the California Department of Justice the first statewide agency to require body cameras that same year.
That said, she also maintained record-high conviction rates as district attorney, and maintained most status quo positions on issues of over-incarceration and the death penalty. Specifically, her office fought to release fewer prisoners, even though the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2011 that the overcrowding in California prisons was so extreme that it amounted to a violation of the Eighth Amendment. In 2013, Harris’ office also argued against the release of Daniel Larsen — even after he was proven innocent by the Innocence Project — because they claimed his petition for release was late. (The court disagreed, and Larsen was released in 2013.)
As a lawyer, and a fellow black woman who grew up horrified by the lack of compassion and consciousness within the American criminal justice system, I wholeheartedly identify with Harris’ mission to attend law school as a path to become a voice for the voiceless and vulnerable; sometimes, in order to most effectively change a corrupt system, it’s best to tackle it from the inside. But Harris’ record is one both of steps forward and backward; as she moves forward in pursuit of the Oval Office, her efforts to connect with black voters — and black voters’ rightful attempts to hold her accountable for her previous actions — could hold the key to her political future.
It’s worth noting that the black vote has become the gatekeeper to the Democratic presidential nomination in the past several cycles. Barack Obama pulled off the primary upset of Hillary Clinton in 2008 by turning out the black vote, especially in the southern states of South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana, where Black voters account for about half the Democratic electorate. Fast forward to 2016, and Clinton secured the same lift to the nomination over Bernie Sanders by winning the Black vote handily. According to 2016 Democratic exit polls, while Sanders and Clinton were virtually tied among white voters (Sanders’ 49.1 percent just edged out Clinton’s 48.9 percent), Clinton tipped the scales by winning the Black vote by more than 50 percentage points: 75.9 percent to Sanders’ 23.1 percent.
Harris is a graduate of Howard University and a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha, Sorority Inc. But those Black bonafides will not protect her from questions around her career as prosecutor, especially among Black voters. She enters an already embattled field of potential Democratic candidates poised to take on Trump, including Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Cory Booker, and Eric Holder. A recent POLITICO/Morning Consult poll actually shows Biden leading among Black voters with 26 percent, followed by Sanders with 14 percent, Harris with 7 percent, Booker with 2 percent and Holder with 1 percent. It’s worth noting that Obama trailed Clinton in early 2007 general polling among Black voters: an October 2007 CNN poll had Clinton beating Obama with Black voters: Clinton 57 percent to Obama’s 33 percent.
And that same scrutiny and accountability we rightfully demand from Harris should be universally demanded of the rest of the Democratic field. Biden and Sanders will need to account for their own tough-on-crime histories (including their votes in support of the 1992 Crime Bill). Holder, who worked as a federal prosecutor for years before being the nation’s top cop, will also have plenty to explain from his days in federal service. Booker will need to answer (among other things) the growing questions around his cozy relationship with Big Pharma and its complex industry that puts much-needed drugs out of reach for most hard-working Americans. Bottom line, if Harris isn’t for you, just make sure you’re mindful of your better alternative.
Historically, presidential elections are won by providing the electorate with one of two things: fear or hope. As the savvy attorney that she is, Harris took her announcement speech to make the case for her vision for America. It’s full of hope, possibility and her ability to “see what can be, unburdened by what has been.” It might be the perfect antidote to the current administration’s daily dose of fear mongering. Mixed in with her promises of boilerplate progressive agenda items like Medicare for all, debt-free college and middle-class tax cuts, Harris speaks most passionately about “Our America.” Her largest applause lines were when she boldly and unapologetically proclaimed that "Our America" lifts its women and children and in doing so, lifts the whole of society. With equal emotion, Harris denounced the Charlottesville riots, the Pittsburgh synagogue attack, and Trump’s border separation policy as “not Our America.” She proudly explained that throughout her entire career she’s only had one client, which neatly tied into her campaign tagline: for the people.
Whoever ultimately secures the Democratic nomination will end up going toe-to-toe with the current occupant of the White House, Donald Trump. Harris’ skills as a razor-sharp questioner, as demonstrated by her handling of Brett Kavanaugh and Jeff Sessions in their respective U.S. Senate confirmation hearings show that she is unbothered by arrogant, entitled, and bombastic white men; that would come in handy during any debate with Trump. Harris is not new to being the first or the only, and clearly knows how to move differently in spaces never designed for her. But whether she can hold her ground long enough to become a real contender for the highest elected office of the world in 2020 will come down to how she owns both the positives and negatives of her career during the primary, particularly in the face of the black electorate.