Joe Biden was not the first choice of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. Nor the second or third.
The progressives would have preferred Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren as their presidential nominee. But once those two exited the presidential race, they held out hope that Biden would pick their ideological ally – Warren or Representative Karen Bass – as his running mate. His choice last week of Senator Kamala Harris has not made them overly happy.
The primary reason for their cynicism is Harris’ chequered history as a law officer. As the district attorney general of San Francisco, she backed a “law that made truancy a misdemeanor” and “opposed the use of recreational marijuana”. Later, as California’s attorney general, she “declined to support two ballot initiatives that would’ve banned the death penalty” and “refused to investigate the police shootings of two Black men”.
The Time magazine alluded to this past when it wrote that there are people who “don’t want the conversation around Harris’ candidacy as a biracial woman to ignore her past as a prosecutor, given the impact of the criminal justice system on Black and brown communities”.
An ideological split
For some time now, the Democratic Party has been riven by a deep ideological divide. On one side are the progressives, who “stress the environment, protecting immigrants, abortion, and race/gender”, and support Sanders and Warren. On the other side are the moderate and conservative Democrats, who back leaders like Biden and Harris and are “more concerned with job creation and lowering taxes”.
There was a flare-up in these divisions during the Democratic primaries, when both sides worked hard to undercut the other. According to a Boston.com report, in early March, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee asked its over 15,000 members in Michigan to “strategically” back Sanders in the state’s primary to “let the contest continue instead of prematurely coronating Biden”. During that time, the Wall Street Journal notes, “the moderate wing of the Democratic Party swiftly consolidated around Joe Biden’s candidacy.”
This ideological split was documented by a Pew Research Centre study last August:
“About three-in-ten of moderate and conservative Democrats (31%) select Biden as their first choice, while only 11% of those who self-identify as “very liberal” do so. Democrats who describe themselves as “very liberal” are substantially more likely to prefer Warren (35% select her as their first choice) or Sanders (19%).”
Both sides of the party buried the hatchet after Biden won the nomination, but some sore points remain, among them Harris’ prosecutorial past.
California’s ‘top cop’
Harris began her legal career in 1990 as a deputy district attorney in Alameda County, California, and worked her way up. From 2004 to 2011, she held the position of San Francisco’s district attorney, and in 2011, she was elected California’s attorney general.
While in office, Harris took a harsh stand on several law enforcement issues and reportedly referred to herself as California’s “top cop”. According to Bloomberg, when she drew criticism last year from innocence advocates, she described herself as a “progressive prosecutor” and said that she would bring her prosecutorial skills to the White House. An editorial in the Orange County Register, however, saw this as a negative:
“In 13 years as a ‘top cop,’ Harris wasn’t a reformer, but a tough-on-crime prosecutor with close links to the police unions – and someone who stayed on the sidelines in police-misconduct cases.”
Here are some of her other decisions that have made the progressive wing of the Democratic Party suspicious of her:
Inconsistent record on cannabis
During her tenure as district attorney in San Francisco, Harris reportedly oversaw more than 1,900 cannabis-related convictions. According to a Forbes report, the majority of these convictions were for low-level possession and did not lead to imprisonment.
Harris also actively fought against California’s legalisation ballot measure in 2010. When it was ultimately approved in 2016, Harris neither opposed nor supported the move, preferring instead to remain on the sidelines. It was finally in May 2018 that Harris publicly backed the legalisation of cannabis and has since, become vocal on the issue, even cosponsoring multiple bills proposing to federally decriminalise marijuana.
However, Tom Ammiano, a former San Francisco supervisor and assemblyman who endorsed Sanders for president, told The Mercury News that when it came to the fight for marijuana legalisation, Harris was “nowhere, zilch, nada, no help.”
Steve Deangelo, a prominent cannabis activist, has alleged that Harris’ support on the cannabis issue is mere rhetoric. “Cannabis voters should know that Harris took money and support from us in her race for CA AG, then did zero to defend CA when the DOJ attacked us. Then she laughed about it,” he tweeted.
Death penalty record
In July 2019, when Representative Tulsi Gabbard accused Harris of blocking evidence that would have “freed an innocent man from death row until the courts forced her to do so,” the junior senator from California fought back, claiming, “My entire career I have been opposed – personally opposed – to the death penalty. And that has never changed.”
Robert Dunham, the executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, however, told ABC News that there were instances when as attorney general Harris “took steps that made it more difficult for a potentially innocent person to get access to evidence that could get to the truth.”
Harris reportedly also supported the three-strikes law, under which a man was sentenced to 27 years to life. According to a Jacobin report, the accused, Daniel Larsen, was targeted by the police and wrongfully convicted:
“Eleven years later, a judge reversed the conviction due to the lack of evidence and incompetence of Larson’s attorney’s. Yet two years later, Larsen was still in jail. Why? Because Harris, now a vocal opponent of mass incarceration, appealed the judge’s decision on the basis that Larsen had filed his paperwork too late – a technicality.”
Rights of sex workers
Although several LGBTQ+ advocacy groups – including GLAAD, Equality California and the Human Rights Campaign – are supporting Harris, the senator has a “concerning record of endangering the community’s most marginalised members”, according to Them, a website focusing on LGBT issues.
In 2008, Harris opposed a measure aimed at decriminalising sex work, describing the proposition as being “completely ridiculous”. During her tenure as the California attorney general, she backed a pair of bills that took away the ability of several sex workers to use online channels in order to vet their future clients.
According to the Washington Blade, in 2015, Harris supported California’s decision to deny giving Michelle Norsworthy, a transgender woman held in a men’s prison, gender-affirming surgery for her diagnosed gender dysphoria. A federal district court later ruled that denying her care “violated her rights to adequate medical treatment under the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which forbids cruel and unusual punishment.”
When questioned about Norsworthy’s case, Harris reportedly said: “I was the attorney general of California for two terms, and I had a host of clients that I was obligated to defend and represent. I couldn’t fire my clients and there were unfortunately situations that occurred where my clients took positions that were contrary to my beliefs.”
Stand on immigration
Harris’ immigrant family story has come under the spotlight since her selection as the Democratic vice-presidential candidate last week. The senator has said in the past that she would “protect young immigrants through executive orders” and her campaign took a clear stance on the issue. “We are a country of immigrants,” her official website notes. “It’s time for America to lead with our values and enact comprehensive reform.”
But, according to a Huffington Post report, over 100 immigrant youth in San Francisco were detained or deported due to a 2008 city policy. The policy was implemented by Gavin Newsom, the now governor of California, and was supported by Harris.
After the report was published in March 2019, Harris’ campaign spokesperson called the policy a “mistake,” adding that she “wouldn’t support something like it today”.
Apart from all this, Harris has repeatedly accepted campaign funds from Donald and Ivanka Trump, twice voted to increase the Trump administration’s military budget and twice voted against federal funding for abortions.
This controversial record has rankled the progressives, but since her selection as Biden’s running mate, they have tempered their criticism. United in their goal to remove Donald Trump from office, they are beginning to warm up to Harris.
Writing in the New York Times, Sydney Ember and Astead W Herndon pointed to another political reality the progressives are coming to terms with – that Harris could be the party’s face in the future, and ruffling feathers now could have political consequences going forward.
For Black progressives especially, writes Brandon Tensley, support for the senator is “arguably less about enthusiasm than strategy – that is, detecting ways to remain influential, should Biden and Harris win in November”.