Sen. Kamala Harris used a Saturday night address in South Carolina to mount a forceful defense of her record as a prosecutor, which has been under scrutiny since she entered the race for president.
The California Democrat, speaking at an event organized by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in Columbia, S.C., pitched her law enforcement career as her greatest strength in a contest against President Donald Trump, focusing on the victims of crime she says she’s stood up for—including parents of murdered children—the perpetrators and powerful interests she worked to hold accountable and how she spent years trying to make the system fairer.
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Harris has faced constant questions about her record as a line prosecutor, her time as district attorney of San Francisco and her six years as attorney general of California — amid the Black Lives Matter era and with a Democratic electorate that has moved left on criminal justice reform. She has shown sensitivity to how her record is playing, backpedaling by degrees on whether she favors outside investigations over officer-involved shootings and on a school truancy fight.
But Harris and advisers have maintained that they see her career as her biggest asset against Trump — and plan to use it. While she’s delivered elements of the speech in past venues, the NAACP address in a crucial early voting state, with a decisive African American primary electorate, represented the first big opportunity for her to get back on brand after muddying the waters with equivocations.
On Saturday, Harris went directly at her critics, whom she described as “self-appointed political commentators” with a thin grasp of her record. “My mother used to say, ‘Don’t let people tell you who you are. You tell them who you are,’” said Harris. “So that’s what I’m gonna do.”
She leaned into rather than apologizing for taking on issues like truancy, where her efforts have come under fire because they sought to punish parents whose children missed school. Harris framed the priority as a fight for children that risked dropping out of school entirely, and ending up in jail or “dead in the streets.”
“Beautiful, smart children who if they had lived in some rich neighborhood the alarms would have sounded. And I refused to stand by while the system failed them,” Harris said. “I held the system accountable to get those kids back in school — not by sending people to jail, but by getting families the resources they needed. Those children deserved justice.”
But the crux of her address tackled what Harris describes as a central myth in the debate over law enforcement’s power and tactics: that, as she put it, “Black people don’t want public safety.”
“Everyone wants the police to respond when their home gets burglarized. Everyone wants accountability when a woman is raped, when a child is molested and when one human being kills another. We all want to be safe,” she said. “What we don’t want is excessive force, or for being black to be considered probable cause.”
“What we don’t want is any more cases like Walter Scott,” she added of the black man shot during a daytime traffic stop for a broken brake light. “No we don’t.”
The speech was also a chance for her to talk about her background on her own terms, as her supporters have been urging.
The daughter of academics who were active in the civil rights movement as graduate students at UC Berkeley, Harris recalled how when she told family and friends she was going to be a prosecutor, she had to defend her decision like one would a thesis. And she said she understood why there was hesitation: “There have been prosecutors that refused to seat black jurors, refused to prosecute lynchings, disproportionately condemned young black men to death row, and looked the other way in the face of police brutality,” Harris said.
“And I was clear-eyed that prosecutors were largely not people who looked like me … or the people who grew up in our neighborhood,” she said, adding that when she was elected in San Francisco, there were only three black DAs in the country; there were no other black attorneys general when she was elected statewide in California in 2010. She recalled grieving mothers who told receptionists that they wouldn’t talk to anyone else in the DA’s office but her.
“It matters who is in those rooms,” Harris said. “I knew I had to be in those rooms. We have to be in those rooms even when there aren’t many like us there.”
It’s unclear how much backlash to Harris’ career in law enforcement is affecting her run. While she hasn’t lost ground in polling, she also hasn’t caught fire since launching her campaign in front of 22,000 people in Oakland earlier this year. The RealClearPolitics average of national Democratic primary polls puts her in fourth place at 7.8 percent, behind Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.
Harris used the NAACP speech to frame her career in terms palatable to Democratic Party stalwarts — pointing to cases where she prosecuted rapists, murderers and child molesters, but also banks that defrauded homeowners; oil companies that polluted and pharmaceutical companies.
Turning to Trump, Harris said it’s clear—listing the GOP tax cuts that benefit the wealthy, the various trade wars, family separations at the border, equating neo-nazis with civil rights marchers and the 10 counts of obstruction of justice outlined by special prosecutor Robert Mueller—that Democrats have a “winning case” against him. And she said she would help hold him accountable by prosecuting the case in front of the American people against four more years of him.
“I’ve prosecuted a lot of cases,” Harris quipped. “But rarely one with this much evidence.”