Despite rumors she would make her big announcement in Oakland, Sen. Kamala D. Harris made her 2020 bid for president official during an appearance on Good Morning America.
Declaring her candidacy on the most-watched morning show in the nation — and on Martin Luther King Jr. Day — makes sense. It allowed Harris to reach a national audience mostly unfamiliar with her at this point. It allowed her to highlight her background as the daughter Indian and Jamaican immigrants. And the friendly format meant she could deliver her talking points uninterrupted, flying high over pesky details.
“My entire career has been focused on keeping people safe,” she declared.
It’s a line that undoubtedly does well in polls. The question is whether such one-liners can withstand the intense scrutiny of a presidential contest. Recent news coverage has cast an unfavorable light on Harris’ career in California.
An investigation by the Sacramento Bee revealed the California attorney general’s office had secretly paid $400,000 to settle harassment claims against one of Harris’ top aides. The longtime aide, Larry Wallace, had been a key Harris lieutenant since her time as San Francisco district attorney.
Despite the scandal, Wallace was promoted to the position of state director once Harris was elected to the Senate. She fired him once the Bee started asking questions, claiming she had no knowledge of his troubles. That may be true — but the idea that California’s top legal officer was clueless about the goings-on in her own inner circle is also disturbing. Isn’t that Donald Trump’s excuse?
Harris’ new book portrays her as a champion for justice reform, but a story by McClatchy DC reporter Emily Cadei revealed some troubling inconsistencies between Harris’ auto-hagiography and reality.
“Harris’ account also leaves out a number of more controversial episodes from her career in California, where advocates for criminal justice reform say her office was part of the problem, not the solution,” wrote Cadei. For instance, in 2010 a Superior Court judge in San Francisco ruled Harris’ DA office violated the constitutional rights of defendants in drug cases where a police drug lab technician, Deborah Madden, “systematically mishandled” evidence. The scandal eventually led to the dismissal of hundreds of drug cases.
The judge in the case wrote that prosecutors “at the highest levels of the district attorney’s office knew that Madden was not a dependable witness at trial and that there were serious concerns regarding the crime lab.”
Of course — once again — Harris knew nothing.
The biggest danger to Harris’ candidacy may come from progressives who increasingly hold sway in the Democratic primary. A blistering New York Times op-ed written by a law professor at the University of San Francisco provides a taste of what’s to come.
“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,” wrote Lara Bazelon. “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.”
The essay alleges that Harris remained on the sidelines — or on the wrong side — of justice issues under her authority. It says she ducked out of crucial debates over sentencing reform and that her office pressed for harsh punishment in cases that merited leniency.
Of course, no one should underestimate Kamala Harris. She may well be the next president of the United States. To get there, however, she’ll have to answer tough questions about her past and prove she’s really who she says she is.
“My entire career has been focused on our system of justice. It is one of the hallmarks of our system of democracy,” said Harris. “And it becomes weak when people interfere with that system for a political purpose. And no one — in particular right now when there are so Americans that are so distrustful of their government and its leaders and institutions — no one should give the American public any reason to question their integrity or the integrity of our system of justice.”
The question is whether her deeds can live up to her words.