Kamala’s kryptonite


Illustration by Anika Vucicevic

Sean Gannon, Columnist

Perhaps the biggest surprise of the 2020 Democratic Primary is the stunning collapse of Sen. Kamala Harris. On the outset of her campaign in January, she was the betting favorite to secure the nomination. Lauded for her intelligence, political talent and grit, her position as a pragmatist, person of color and woman lent hopes that she could best reconstitute the Obama coalition of ‘08. It didn’t hurt that her home state of delegate-rich California was moved up in the primary process either.

So what went wrong with this once-promising candidate — the only candidate to fall out of the top tier? Chief among them: (1) Team Kamala struggled mightily with messaging: unlike her peers in the top tier of the primary, Kamala was unable to articulate a clear vision of why she was running in the first place. (2) Her campaign had trouble with positioning too; for instance, she flip-flopped repeatedly on the question of mandatory Medicare-for-All (perhaps the defining issue of the primary), seemingly embracing or rejecting Bernie’s program whenever it was politically advantageous at the time. These first two issues speak to the internal confusion and conflict within her campaign, exacerbated by strategy disagreements between campaign chairwoman Maya Harris (Kamala’s sister) and Chief of Staff Juan Rodriguez. (3) Just as bad as her campaign’s mismanagement was Kamala’s knack of sounding rehearsed and at times inauthentic — a complaint that dogged Hillary Clinton’s campaign. 

Yet the kryptonite to Kamala’s campaign may have been the narrative that she was “a cop” — a “conservative prosecutor” when she was district attorney of San Francisco (2004-2011) and attorney general of California (2011-2016). The notion that Kamala was a “conservative prosecutor” is, frankly, ridiculous. Was she the change-agent reformer she purports to be and that Progressives had hoped for? No. Did she support some policies that by 2019 standards look regressive? Yes: foremost, she defended the cash bail system in 2004, and as district attorney (DA), she backed a bill that threatened parents of truant kids with jail time (she has since expressed remorse for this decision, and noted that no parents were locked up in her district).

What many Progressives – and often the media – omit are the many progressive achievements Kamala accrued as San Francisco’s, and later California’s, top cop. As San Francisco DA, she implemented a “Back on Track” program in 2005 that funneled ex-drug dealers to high school, not jail, to get a diploma. She refused to pursue the death penalty of a man convicted of shooting and killing police officer Isaac Espinosa, costing her political allies in her attorney general election. And she took on the infamous California 3-strikes law too, which saw felons locked up for life for three non-violent felonies. Kamala’s office only charged a third strike if that felony was serious and violent. As California attorney general (AG), Kamala implemented a “first-of-its-kind” racial bias training (according to the Times) and made her state the first to require officers to wear body cams. Marijuana-related admissions dropped nearly 80 percent during her tenure, and she launched OpenJustice too, a platform that lets the public track reported police killings. Do these sound like the actions of a conservative prosecutor?

We should also remember that Kamala — the only black female DA of a major city and AG of a major state at the time — found herself in a unique bind. Being “soft on crime” was politically untenable (even with Democrats) during the 2000s, but it was a political death sentence for black politicians — particularly women. They had to simultaneously be perceived as equally capable of fighting crime compared to their male and/or white counterparts, but not too tough to ostracize them with the black community.

Kamala may have had trouble navigating these waters, but she surely didn’t deserve this smear that hurt her chances with the most important voting bloc in the Democratic primary: black voters, which make up a fourth of primary voters. Kamala never broke 10 percent support among this constituency, no doubt partly due to the narrative that she was a “traitor to her own community.” I have to wonder, would a white candidate with Kamala’s record face this high a standard? Or might they be praised as a prosecutor ahead of their time? I smell a double standard.