An overview of Kamala Harris

Claire Rudinsky

Democratic nominee Joe Biden announced his pick for vice president last Tuesday, four days prior to the Democratic Convention. Kamala Harris, the former Californian state attorney general and current U.S senator, is the decided running mate. Critics of Biden’s choice have pointed out her prosecutorial record, uncertain stance on healthcare, and moderate viewpoints as harmful to the more liberal vision that many Democrats have supported. On the other hand, proponents of Harris have cited her outspoken voice in the Senate, appeal to women, Black, and moderate voters, and her progressive stance on climate change. 

Harris comes from a house of immigrants – a Jamaican father and an Indian mother – who greatly shaped her morals and values. Both faced racist and ethnocentric behavior from their colleagues and even their students, but did not hesitate to strike back, raising Kamala and her sister to be proud of their own culture, but also to be aware of how others would view them. Her mother often said, “don’t sit around and complain about things, do something,” which has inspired Harris to take action on a variety of political issues.
Many people have criticized Harris’ prosecutorial background, citing overzealous prosecution of marijuana possession, which disproportionately affected African American men. Over her seven years as the district attorney, the conviction rate of marijuana arrests leading to convictions was at 24 percent, slightly higher than her predecessor. In the end, her attorneys won 1,956 misdemeanor and felony cases relating to marijuana. However, only 45 people were sentenced to state prison – the majority of the time, prosecutions for low level possession would offer drug treatment programs or the ability to plead down to a lower crime. Many lawyers, from both sides, agree that for her time, Harris was a progressive prosecutor when it came to marijuana. While she fought against the legalization of marijuana in 2010, her opinion has changed over the years, as she stayed neutral during the second ballot initiative that passed in 2016, and then publicly came out in support of legalization in 2018, saying, “We can’t keep repeating the same mistakes of the past. Too many lives have been ruined by these regressive policies.” Following this, Harris has made marijuana legalization an important part of her criminal justice plan. 

Biden and Harris have had opposing views on criminal justice in the past, but finding common ground on this issue was a key part of their partnership. When Harris was elected as San Francisco’s district attorney, one of the many policies she fought against were those put forward in Biden’s 1994 Crime Bill. Harris criticized the use of incentives to build more prisons and impose longer sentences, stating that they disproportionately affected people of color. In an interview with the Washington Post, Harris explained her decision to work as a prosecutor, saying, “law enforcement has such a profound and direct impact on the most vulnerable among us,” leading her to fight for change within the system. 

In her first term as a U.S Senator, Harris was appointed to several high profile committees, including the Judiciary Committee, Homeland Security Committee and Intelligence Committee. She became known for her passionate questioning of people testifying during the Mueller investigation on the issue of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, as well as the confirmation of government positions such as Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanuagh. She has put forward hundreds of bills, and supported many resolutions put forward by other more liberal Democrats like Bernie Sanders and AOC.

Climate change is one issue where Harris is leading Democrats on progressive solutions. In her newly released Climate Equity Act, Harris focuses on an environmental justice plan that will put “frontline communities at the heart of the decision-making process” regarding climate policies, regulations, and laws. Harris has long advocated for disenfranchised communities in relation to climate change, demanding that in the Green New Deal (which she supports), these people will not be forgotten. Even after policies like the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act passed, low income communities continue to bear the brunt of air and water pollution. In the Climate Equity Act, Harris suggests creating an office of Climate and Environmental Justice Accountability that will advise all relevant agencies and provide an equity rating to all climate related legislation Congress passes, similar to the economic scores provided by the Congressional Budget office. Our Daily Planet writes, “Harris’s strength in messaging climate issues and selling the Biden climate agenda is her ability to tie climate to social justice and public health issues.” Harris sees the climate change problem through a prosecutorial lense and is looking to go after the big corporations who are responsible for large quantities of carbon emissions. She has supported expanding clean energy tax credits, reaching net-zero emissions by 2045, and acknowledging environmental justice, which shows that Biden is committed to addressing climate change if he is elected president. 

Harris’ position on climate change, along with the fact that she is the first Black and Indian American woman to ever be put on a major presidential ticket, makes her popular among black voters, women voters and moderates. Several key swing states that Hillary Clinton lost in 2016 (Michigan, Pennsylvania, North Carolina) were due to low turnout from African American communities as well as the moderate suburbian vote, both of which Harris appeals to. Harris was also the VP candidate with the most name recognition (save Elizabeth Warren) because of her presidential run. In a poll done by Georgetown University, Harris has 76% favorability among Democrats, 64% favorability from black voters, and 37% favorability among independents. 

Healthcare is one issue where Harris has struggled to find her footing. As a young Senator, she advocated and voted for Bernie Sanders’ single payer bill. However, during the Democratic presidential primaries, Harris switched from initially supporting “Medicare for All” to ultimately presenting her own solution to the healthcare crisis: a tightly regulated private insurance option as well as a public one. This position attempted to appease both the liberal and moderate sides of the Democratic Party, but it ended up satisfying neither, causing Harris to drop in the polls. However, Harris does support offering healthcare to everyone in America regardless of immigration status, as well as pledging executive action to help legalize Dreamers and create a better path towards citizenship. 

It is important to look at Harris’ record as a prosecutor and Senator holistically, by examining her stances with historical context and acknowledging the obstacles that she had to face to become a successful Congresswoman. While Harris does appear at first glance to be a fairly moderate Democrat, she supports progressive policies in climate change, criminal justice, and many other issues, and is ultimately a strong choice for Biden’s vice president.