Tuesday, August 11, 2020

Kamala's People

Originally posted Jan. 29, 2019

I met Kamala Harris about 15 years ago and she was very impressive. I was on the board of an anti-death penalty organization that gave her an award when she was the San Francisco D.A. for courageously refusing to seek the death penalty in a cop-killing case despite intense political pressure (Sen. Feinstein pushed for the death penalty at the officer's funeral!)  She was not only extremely personally engaging but she also gave a powerful speech about how the resources spent on death penalty cases could be better spent to ensure public safety. 

But as California's Attorney General she was a disappointment.  As did her predecessors (including Jerry Brown), Harris essentially deferred to the deputy AGs in the death penalty unit, who vigorously defended every death penalty case, no matter how suspect.  Under Harris's watch, the AG's office used every procedural technicality to prevent the courts from considering the underlying merits of cases, defended truly egregious cases of prosecutorial misconduct, refused to acknowledge cases of actual innocence, and vigorously appealed a federal court decision that found the death penalty law unconstitutional.  Harris also refused to support California ballot propositions that sought to reform the  criminal justice and replace the death penalty with life without parole.

Harris claims to have been a progressive prosecutor, but that phrase is really something of an oxymoron.  In my three decades as a defender of death row inmates, I admit to a long-standing bias against prosecutors who, generally, seem to care more about securing convictions than doing justice.  Even the more thoughtful or "progressive" ones still by and large see the criminal justice system as fair and just -- despite the overwhelming disparity in resources between the government and the defendant, and despite the built in bias against the poor and people of color.  And they view the way to solve society's ills through the prism of the criminal justice system, as Harris's history of threatening parents with prosecution for their children's truancy when she was D.A. suggests.

By using the slogan "Kamala Harris for the People" for her presidential campaign, Harris is explicitly linking her history as a prosecutor to her strengths as a candidate.  But the phrase "for the People" is a fraught one, as least from a criminal defender perspective -- after all, my clients were people too.  A prosecutor really represents an agency within the government.  But invoking the phrase "for the People' implies something different; it misleadingly suggests that the community at large wholly supports the prosecution of a given defendant, providing an unfair rhetorical advantage from the get go.

So, I don't buy the progressive prosecutor thing.  But at the same time, I find Harris to be an extraordinarily compelling candidate.  She is brilliant, a dynamic presence and a compelling speaker.  She is fearless and has put her prosecutorial skills to great use on the Judiciary Committee, where she skewered Trump nominees, from Jeff Sessions to Brett Kavanaugh.  She is unabashedly and consistently taking progressive positions on health care, climate change, immigration, equality and even criminal justice reform.  And the zeitgeist calls for a woman -- and a woman of color -- to run for president against an incumbent and a political party that have fully succumbed to misogyny and white nationalism.  And, at least according to Nate Silver, she appeals to the widest coalition of Democratic voters at this point.

I'm not sure how to reconcile Harris's history and her candidacy -- but I'm not sure I have to.  After all, there is not a candidate seeking or thinking about seeking the presidency who isn't flawed.  Indeed, our search for ideological purity last time is no small reason why we are where we are.   So although I'm wary of the embrace of a prosecutor's perspective as Harris's slogan suggests, I will support whoever has the best chance to take back the White House.  It's early, but it very well might be Kamala Harris.


Unknown said...

Thank you for writing this! I've had similar feelings, and have come to a similar conclusion.

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