Thursday, July 4, 2019

The long and winding American Journey of Kamala Harris

This post results from comments by two subscribers to the blog who I credit at appropriate places below.

SkyIslandScriber subscriber Georgia Hotton sent me her review of THE TRUTHS WE HOLD, An American Journey by Kamala Harris. Penguin Press, 2019. 281 pages. (It is published here with Hotton’s permission.)

Kamala Harris really earned well deserved attention after lively interchanges with Joe Biden on June 27th as part of the first Democratic debate for the position of Presidential nominee for the 2020 election. There was no doubt that Kamala Harris came across as the winner and Biden as the loser in their encounters. She challenged him on the issue of school busing and also the deportation of undocumented immigrants during the time he was Vice-President.

Having read several political contender books, I would certainly argue that if elected, Harris could well go down in American history as the most intelligent, committed and competent President the country has yet had. Her record in California as Attorney General so impressed Eric Holder that he asked her to consider being his replacement in Washington. However, because her then current commitments in California including convictions against major banks and significant criminal justice reforms were at a critical stage, she chose to stay on in California. In 2016, she did win the race to represent California in the Senate where she is already establishing herself as a tough fighter.

As a District Attorney she was fighting in California what the banks were doing to foreclose against home owners who had been conned into acquiring mortgages that were fraudulent offers to begin with. When she found out that other states were fighting this on a national level through actions of their State Attorney Generals, she realized the way to get to the table was to become State Attorney General of California. After a close election, she did. Once at the seat of power, she led the way in getting major concessions from the banks by threatening to pull California out of the original slap on the wrist concessions they had been willing to make.

Her style in Congress has not yet gotten the attention that Alexandria Ocasio- Cortez’s has gotten, but the media is going to start paying attention now. It would not surprise me to see these two exciting new faces in Congress both shaking up the legislative branches of the United States government to the point where there could be long-overdue gridlock breakthroughs.

Criminal justice - a “mixed”record

The other subscriber to this blog,Pat Hemann, alerted me to two reports about Harris’ tenure as San Francisco District Attorney and then as California Attorney General.

Politifact authors asked whether Harris is a Criminal justice reformer, or defender of the status quo? and concluded that “The record is mixed”. So I will start at their concluding remarks and work backward.

What’s clear about Harris’ record as a prosecutor is that it will get picked apart by the left – and potentially the right.

“In the primary, the left and her opponents will seize on every decision she made that could be perceived as being unfair to defendants, especially minorities,” said Garry South, Democratic political strategist who managed Gray Davis’s successful campaigns for California governor in 1998 and 2002.

If Harris becomes a top contender in the primary, South said, President Trump and national law enforcement groups will likely launch “ferocious attacks” on her decisions, such as refusing to seek the death penalty against the cop killer. Those attacks, he said, “may not set well even with Democrats when they hear about them.”

As her presidential campaign continues, so will the scrutiny. Looking at the question of whether Harris was truly a champion for criminal justice reform or a silent ally of the status quo, there’s no simple answer. The record is complex and, in places, includes contradictions. Our examination shows it’s a mixed record.

If I were to be flippant about it, I would ask “so what?” and point out that every politician has a mixed record. Let’s take a look.

There’s little question that Harris has notched some achievements that are in tune with what criminal-justice reform advocates have sought. They include:

  • The Back On Track program in 2005, which was designed to help nonviolent, first-time drug offenders transition back to their communities and prevent recidivism.
  • Her refusal in 2013 to defend California’s voter-approved ban on same-sex marriage, Proposition 8, saying in a press release, “The Supreme Court has described marriage as a fundamental right 14 times since 1888. The time has come for this right to be afforded to every citizen.”
  • Her 2015 launch of Open Justice, a criminal-justice open-data initiative that provides information on deaths in police custody, including those that occur during arrests, as well as arrest rates by race and ethnicity. It also provides data on officers who are killed or assaulted on the job.
  • Her creation of the first statewide implicit bias training for law enforcement personnel in 2015. It called for a focus on six areas of policing that “emphasize respect, listening, neutrality and trust, while recognizing and addressing implicit biases that can be barriers to these approaches,” according to a news release at the time from the attorney general’s office.
  • Her implementation of a body camera pilot program for all agents in her attorney general’s department in 2015.
  • Her establishment of the Racial and Identity Profiling Advisory Board in 2016.

“As a prosecutor in the early and mid 2000s, a time when so many still held a ‘lock ‘em up’ mentality, Senator Harris pioneered a reentry program that became a state and national model,” Ian Sams, Harris’ campaign spokesman, said in a written statement, referring to the Back On Track program. “As Attorney General, she implemented a first-of-its-kind training on implicit bias and procedural justice and made her officers wear body cameras. And in the Senate, she has championed criminal justice reform measures to end mass incarceration, upend cash bail, and confront discrimination. That is her record, and it’s one of consistently making progress and protecting people in pursuit of a fairer system.”

But alongside those achievements are a variety of criticisms, including Harris’ complicated and controversial record on capital punishment.

Harris has long said that she’s personally opposed to the death penalty, and she demonstrated that sentiment as district attorney. Just days after San Francisco police officer Isaac Espinoza was shot and killed while on patrol in 2004, Harris announced she would not seek the death penalty in the case.

Her decision drew scorn from police groups and from Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who called for the death penalty at the officer’s funeral, drawing a standing ovation from the crowd of mostly law enforcement personnel.

Yet nearly a decade later, as attorney general in 2015, Harris defended California’s death penalty law in court after a judge ruled it unconstitutional.

Even those issues on which she remained silent seem destined to cause problems for Harris.

During the 2016 election in California, Harris declined to take public positions on ballot measures to shorten criminal sentences and to legalize recreational marijuana – efforts reformers said would help disadvantaged communities.

Marcia Godwin, a professor of public administration at the University of La Verne, wrote about Harris in the book The Roads to Congress 2016. She said, once again, there’s a more complex picture to consider.

Harris stayed neutral on the initiatives “under the rationale that her office prepared the ballot descriptions,” as well as titles, and did not want to appear biased, Godwin said.

Other attorneys general, including Jerry Brown, have also followed the same policy, saying they’ve kept their opinions to themselves to avoid a court challenge. …

Crime lab scandal

A Crime lab scandal rocked Kamala Harris’s term as San Francisco district attorney reported the Washington Post.

Here is the essence.

SAN FRANCISCO — Kamala D. Harris was this city’s top prosecutor, running to become California’s elected attorney general, when a scandal stunned her office and threatened to upend her campaign.

One of Harris’s top deputies had emailed a colleague that a crime lab technician had become “increasingly UNDEPENDABLE for testimony.” Weeks later, the technician allegedly took home cocaine from the lab, possibly tainting evidence and raising concerns about hundreds of cases.

Harris, in an interview with The Washington Post, stressed that the crime lab was run by the police. But she took responsibility for the failings, including that she had not developed a written policy so that her office would notify defendants about problems with witnesses and evidence, as required by law.

“No excuses,” Harris said, sitting in a small, windowless office near the U.S. Capitol. “The buck stops with me.”

Following state guidelines, her office had pursued thousands of cases against drug offenders, an unpopular position among many in liberal San Francisco. Those cases depended on evidence examined by the city’s understaffed crime lab, whose technicians regularly testified in court when Harris’s prosecutors went to trial.

Deborah Madden was one of three lab workers. The city’s police department knew that Madden had been convicted for her role in a 2007 domestic altercation in which she threw a phone that injured another person. She was sentenced to 30 days in jail and three years of probation and prohibited from possessing alcohol or a firearm. She was temporarily suspended from working at a crime lab.

Separately, Sharon Woo, an assistant district attorney working for Harris, became concerned that Madden wasn’t showing up to testify in court. That led her to write the email to Harris’s chief deputy in November 2009 that said Madden was “UNDEPENDABLE.”

[Superior Court Judge Anne-Christine] Massullo said in her ruling that when Woo wrote the email, “individuals at the highest levels of the District Attorney’s Office knew that Madden was not a dependable witness.” The judge did not name the individuals.

Harris said in the interview that she was not told of the problem at the time by the police or her top assistants. Shown a copy of the correspondence during the interview, she said, “I never saw this email . . . and that was part of my frustration with the process. But I take full responsibility.” The email was not copied to Harris.

Woo said in an interview that she did not discuss her concerns with Harris but sent her email to Harris’s top assistant at the time, Russell Giuntini. He did not return a call seeking comment.

Finally, in March 2010, the police publicly announced that there might be problems with evidence from the crime lab. Harris said it was not until that time that she was told of the problems.

Some of Harris’s aides raised the possibility that only those cases with a proven taint should be dismissed, not all of those that might have been affected. “And I said, ‘No, we have to deal with the fact this now called into question the integrity of the system,’ ” Harris said. “There has to be consequences paid for that."

… With the local criminal-justice system at risk of devolving into chaos, Harris took the extraordinary step of dismissing about 1,000 drug-related cases, including many in which convictions had been obtained and sentences were being served.

Scriber is of more than one mind on this scandal.

  • For one thing, Harris claimed she was not informed of the budding crisis in the police crime lab, and the email trail seems to confirm that.
  • But, the another thing is that you could make a strong case that Harris should have known: “The buck stops with her.” Superior Court Judge Massullo was “incredulous” that Harris did not know, and did not take steps sooner, to intstitute procedures that would alert defense attorneys to the taint that would bear on their clients.
  • Some of Harris’ aides wanted to deal with those cases with proven taint but Harris decided in favor of even those cases that might have been tainted and ended up dismissing about a thousand cases. That took guts.

Harris’ voting record in the U. S. Senate

I checked Harris’ record in the 538 database of Senate votes, Tracking Congress In The Age Of Trump, An updating tally of how often every member of the House and the Senate votes with or against the president.

Harris is, as of July 3rd, 2019, likely to vote with Trump on 16.2% of the votes in the Senate. That puts her at the 7th from the bottom. Only Sens. Markey, Booker, Sanders, Merkley, Warren, and Gillibrand (all Dems) are less likely to vote with Trump. Other contenders are more likely than Harris to vote with Trump, Bennet (26.3%) and Klobuchar (28.0%). For context, our two AZ Senators are far, far more likely to vote with Trump: Democrat Kyrsten Sinema (55.1%) and Republican Martha McSally (95.6%).

So, since being elected to the Senate in 2016, Harris has a reasonable voting record. And, I remind us all, she was a sharp questioner in the Senate hearings on the appointments of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court and William Barr as U. S. Attorney General.

Scriber’s scales

After all of this, my scales still tip toward Harris as the best bet for taking on Trump. Certainly she will be savaged by the Trump Cult (who used to be known as Republicans) and even in the primaries by other Democratic groups. But that will be true of any other candidate. Her prosecutorial style will serve her well on the debate state and on the campaign trail. And when called on, she has experiences to offer that are colored by emotional sincerity. I just don’t detect the the same degree of fierceness combined with empathy in the other contenders.


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