What Did Kamala Harris Do As A Prosecutor? : Consider This from NPR No major political party has ever put a woman of color on a presidential ticket. Until now, when Senator Kamala Harris — a former district attorney and state attorney general — is meeting a moment of national reckoning with the role of law enforcement in American life.

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Former 'Top Cop' Kamala Harris And America's Reckoning With Police

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JOE BIDEN: My fellow Americans, let me introduce to you for the first time your next vice president of the United States, Kamala Harris. Kamala, the floor is yours.


A major political party has never put a woman of color on a presidential ticket until now.


KAMALA HARRIS: As I said, Joe, when you called me, I am incredibly honored by this responsibility, and I'm ready to get to work. I am ready to get to work.


MCEVERS: Joe Biden and Kamala Harris today in Delaware.


HARRIS: The president's mismanagement of the pandemic has plunged us into the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. And we're experiencing a moral reckoning with racism and systemic injustice that has brought a new coalition of conscience to the streets of our country, demanding change.

MCEVERS: Coming up - what Harris' former experience as a prosecutor means right now, when a lot of people around the country are talking about remaking law enforcement, and how her career in the Senate brought her to this moment.

This is CONSIDER THIS from NPR. I'm Kelly McEvers. It is Wednesday, August 12.


MCEVERS: So back when she was attorney general for the state of California, Kamala Harris described herself as the state's top cop. And she got a lot of criticism for that.


CHRIS CADELAGO: Some of those cases where that came up were some statewide ballot initiatives where she did not take a position on one in particular that would have reduced some felonies to misdemeanors.

MCEVERS: Chris Cadelago, a reporter with Politico, has covered Kamala Harris for years. One of those state ballot initiatives he's talking about when Harris didn't take a position was from 2014. It downgraded some drug and property crimes from felonies to misdemeanors. Harris also didn't say much when it came to a sentencing reform effort that was passed by voters or for a ballot initiative that legalized recreational marijuana. And before all that, when she was district attorney in San Francisco, Harris threatened to prosecute parents whose kids miss school. Now, Cadelago says...


CADELAGO: Now I think people have really come to digest the new environment that we're in with, really, the Black Lives Matter movement really taking hold across the country. And I think you've seen prosecutors across the country come out and really take much stronger - what some folks would call activist positions.


MCEVERS: We should say, in 2004, when she was San Francisco DA, Harris did take a position that was seen as activist at the time. She refused to seek a death sentence for a man who had shot and killed a cop with an AK-47. The city's police union was so opposed to that decision they asked the state to take the case away from Kamala Harris. But she said flat-out out at the time, the death penalty is disproportionately applied to people of color, and she would not support it under any circumstance. Later, though, as state attorney general, she told voters she would enforce capital punishment. And she did. Here's how she responded to her critics last year.


HARRIS: It is my belief that when you want to reform systems, when you want to change systems, there is no question that there's a very extremely effective role to be played in terms of advocacy from the outside of the systems. In fact, you know, there's so much change that has happened for the better because of strong advocacy from the outside of certain systems. But I also believe that it is important to be in the room where the decisions are being made.

MCEVERS: This is Harris talking to NPR. In recent years as a senator, when she has been in those rooms where decisions get made, she has supported marijuana legalization, voted for major sentencing reform laws and supported plans to reduce incarceration rates. She said on "The View" this year that America needs to, quote, "reimagine how we do public safety in America."


HARRIS: We have confused the idea that to achieve safety, you put more cops on the street, instead of understanding to achieve safe and healthy communities, you put more resources into the public education system of those communities, into affordable housing, into homeownership, into access to capital for small businesses, into access to health care, regardless of how much money people have.

MCEVERS: In the end, it's clear that Harris has evolved on criminal justice. And her argument about her past experience as a prosecutor boils down to this. It's much harder to change the system if you don't have a role inside the system. Here's more of what she said to NPR.


HARRIS: My parents were active in the civil rights movement. I grew up acutely aware of the inequities in the criminal justice system. And so when I made a decision to become a prosecutor, it was because - I mean, it was a very - an extremely conscious decision. Listen; the people in my community were like, what? You're going to go do that? Why would you do that? Why aren't you going to be a public defender? And I said, well, because it is the prosecutors who make the decisions about who's going to be charged. Is the juvenile going to be charged as a juvenile or an adult?

MCEVERS: Democratic surrogates have already been making this argument, too. South Carolina Rep. Jim Clyburn told NPR on Tuesday that people of color should be more represented in all parts of the justice system, including as prosecutors.


JIM CLYBURN: If you've got a problem with the way Kamala Harris conducted herself as a prosecutor, then that's fair game. But you can't criticize her for being a prosecutor. That's what we're trying to do; get people of color and people of various backgrounds, gender, into these positions.

MCEVERS: As for how she talks about race...


HARRIS: I couldn't agree more that this is an issue that is still not being talked about truthfully and honestly.

MCEVERS: Last year in a Democratic primary debate, Kamala Harris made a point to highlight something Joe Biden had said; that he had had a civil working relationship with two segregationist lawmakers decades ago.


HARRIS: Two United States senators who built their reputations and career on the segregation of race in this country - and it was not only that, but you also worked with them to oppose busing. And, you know, there was a little girl in California who was part of the second class to integrate her public schools, and she was bused to school every day. And that little girl was me. So I will tell you that on this subject, it cannot be an intellectual debate among Democrats. We have to take it seriously. We have to act swiftly.


MCEVERS: It was pretty tense in the moment. But an ally of Kamala Harris later told NPR that Joe Biden, quote, "has been in politics long enough that nothing is irreparable."


BIDEN: That's mischaracterizing my position across the board. I did not praise racists. That is not true.

MCEVERS: Before she made her way to that presidential debate stage with Joe Biden, Harris started her national political career as the junior senator from a blue state. Here's NPR's Kelsey Snell with my colleague Mary Louise Kelly.




KELLY: So Kamala Harris has only been Sen. Harris for about three and a half years, not so long in the grand scheme of Senate careers. How has she used her time there so far?

SNELL: You know, not only is it not a lot of time in Senate time but it's also time spent in the minority, where it's notoriously difficult to get legislation passed. You know, her very first speech on the Senate floor was all about the DREAM Act, and that's the legislation to provide a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants who were brought to the country as children. And that has been kind of a central issue for her. She also works on justice-related issues like due process for immigrants and that police reform bill that passed the House earlier this summer. She was a major figure in that. You know, at the same time, she was one of the main sponsors of a bill to make lynching a federal crime. Here's how she talked about the convergence of those issues.


HARRIS: Black lives have not been taken seriously as being fully human and deserving of dignity. And it should not require a maiming or torture in order for us to recognize a lynching when we see it and recognize it by federal law.

SNELL: So those are major issues for her. And you know, she has been criticized for her background as a tough-on-crime attorney general back in California. But supporters say her record in the Senate has really been focused on justice and due process.

KELLY: Speaking of the background that propelled her to the Senate, she - among other past lives, she was a prosecutor. How has she used that experience?

SNELL: You know, it has given her a reputation as a person who will ask direct and pointed questions. I'm thinking about the confirmation hearings for Brett Kavanaugh, now Supreme Court justice Brett Kavanaugh. She asked him to address specific abortion-related cases and whether or not they were correctly decided. She also got into a contentious exchange with him over his insistence that the investigation into allegations of his past sexual misconduct was a witch hunt. You know, that got a lot of national attention. And she, you know - her tough questioning really did frustrate President Trump, and it's something he's brought up repeatedly. He's called her treatment of Kavanaugh nasty, which is a term he has typically reserved for women.

KELLY: So that is how the president says he sees her. What about how her colleagues in the Senate see her, Kelsey? As somebody who has walked those halls at Capitol Hill and watched a lot of Senate hearings, how is she perceived there?

SNELL: You know, I've talked to a lot of her colleagues, Democrats and Republicans, and they say she's a very active member on the committee she works on. She does intelligence and judiciary and homeland security. People say she's the kind of member who does her homework, and she's a person who really wants to understand policy. They say she's tried to find bipartisan co-sponsors when she could, though we know that that is often difficult in Congress. They pointed to things like election security and maternal health. Though I will say a major criticism that I've heard is that she doesn't have much of a track record of actually passing laws; though it is actually a tale of legislating in the Trump era writ large. It's hard to get legislation passed right now, and it hasn't really been the story of this Congress in general. So she works on some very sought-after committees, and it's given her a really big opportunity to be in the mix on issues like immigration that would be very important to the American story no matter who is president.

KELLY: So pull it all together for us. What does her Senate career tell us about what kind of vice presidential candidate she's going to be?

SNELL: Well, as we've said, we know she's not afraid of conflict and that she's direct and known for her follow-ups, like we saw in primary debates where she was criticizing her running mate Joe Biden. You know, and she's got a quick and ready response. I think a good example of her using that technique in the Senate was when she was questioning Attorney General William Barr. Here she is.


HARRIS: Attorney General Barr, has the president or anyone at the White House ever asked or suggested that you open an investigation of anyone?

WILLIAM BARR: I wouldn't...

HARRIS: Yes or no.

BARR: Could you repeat that question?

HARRIS: I will repeat it.

SNELL: So you hear there her kind of catching him off guard and moving him into a place where he had to come up with a response. And she's not afraid to step in if someone appears to be filibustering or answering insufficiently, so I expect to see more of that when she debates Vice President Mike Pence in the fall.


MCEVERS: NPR's Kelsey Snell. Additional reporting in this episode from our colleagues at All Things Considered and the NPR Politics Podcast. For more news, download the NPR One app or listen to your local public radio station. Supporting that station makes this podcast possible.

I'm Kelly McEvers. We will be back with more tomorrow.


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