NAME: Kamala Devi Harris
CURRENT JOB: United States Senator from California
PREVIOUS JOB: Grand Inquisitor of California
Harris was born in Oakland. Her mother was Tamil Indian and her father is Jamaican; her first name, Kamala, is a Sanskrit name that means lotus. That’s not super important but it’s a neat fact.
She worked as a deputy district attorney in Alameda County in the 1990s. She became Chief of the San Francisco Community and Neighborhood Division, a civil code enforcement office, in 2000, and three years later was elected San Francisco District Attorney. She earned a reputation as a progressive prosecutor, sometimes earning the ire of law enforcement. In a notable case, in 2004 she refused to seek the death penalty for a man accused of killing a police officer. During the officers funeral, Senator Dianne Feinstein – who Harris now serves alongside – called on Harris to change her mind and push for the defendant to be executed. She created a new program to help nonviolent first time offenders avoid jail time. The program helped them obtain a GED, get jobs, and take certain life skills classes. While few people participated in the program it had what the New York Times calls “a strikingly low recidivism rate.” She created a special Hate Crimes Unit, chairs a national conference to combat “trans panic”, a defense that is frequently cited to justify hate crimes against transgender people.
While Harris wasn’t exactly a leftist folk hero, her reputation as San Francisco’s chief prosecutor was generally positive (although it included some less savory moments including an incident where her office withheld evidence in a case; Harris said at the time that she did not authorize any person to withhold evidence but said there was no reason to review the office’s policies).
And then she was elected Attorney General of California.
Initially, Harris earned a similarly progressive reputation as Attorney General. She got the California Assembly to pass laws to protect homeowners from foreclosure and required banks to be more transparent and communicative with mortgage customers.
But in 2011, not long after she took office, the Supreme Court said that California’s prisons were so overcrowded that it amounted to cruel and unusual punishment. The federal government sought to oversee California’s prison system until it was brought in line with national standards but Harris fought oversight. She was successful, but without federal oversight the situation did not improve and the state was found in contempt and ordered to create new parole programs. Harris’ office said that if it was forced to release inmates early, the prisons would lose a source of cheap labor. The highest-paid prisoners in California earn $1 per hour as firefighters.
Harris now says she regrets some of the actions she took involving California’s correctional system. At the time, she defended them saying that her client was the State of California and she couldn’t pick and choose her cases. This is largely garbage, because (a) sure she could and (b) her office could have taken the bold position of “yeah, we probably should comply with this court order”.
Harris opposes capital punishment (see a couple paragraphs above in the San Francisco cop killing case). In 2014, a federal judge found that California’s death penalty law was unconstitutional because the state sentenced some 900 people to death from 1978 to 2014 but only executed 13, with the judge writing that it appeared that those 13 were “the random few” who spent over a decade on death row, “so long on Death Row that their execution will serve no retributive or deterrent purpose and will be arbitrary.” The ruling blocked the state from executing Ernest Jones, who was sentenced to death for a rape and murder in 1992. Jones and the rest of California’s death row inmates had not been executed because the state was barred by a judge in 2006 from using a potentially cruel cocktail of drugs to execute convicts and had not, in eight years, come up with a reliable alternative.
Harris appealed the ruling.
There’s a lot of speculation about why Harris appealed. Most point to her campaign promise: she vowed in two separate campaigns for attorney general that she would enforce the state’s death penalty. No one was executed under Harris – the state still hasn’t resolved its “potentially cruel cocktail of drugs” problem – but she successfully had the verdict overturned in the Jones case, and he today is one of the more than 740 people on death row in California.
Harris supports Medicare for All, LGBT+ protections, and says that sanctuary cities are an important tool for effective local law enforcement. She believes marijuana should not be illegal and supports legislation to have marijuana convictions expunged. And she supports efforts to make police more accountable to their communities.
Just kidding: as attorney general, she fiercely opposed a bill that would have required her office to investigate when police officers killed people.