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Kamala Harris' prosecutor past draws scrutiny in White House bid

Kamala Harris' prosecutor past draws scrutiny in White House bid
FILE PHOTO: Senator Kamala Harris (D-CA) speaks to the media after announcing she will run for president of the United States at Howard University in Washington, U.S., January 21, 2019. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts/File Photo Copyright Joshua Roberts(Reuters)
Copyright Joshua Roberts(Reuters)
By Reuters
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By Amanda Becker

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Senator Kamala Harris launches her 2020 White House campaign on Sunday with a rally in her hometown of Oakland, California, less than a mile from the courthouse where the Democrat began her career as a prosecutor.

The event's location is the latest sign she plans to emphasise her track record as San Francisco's district attorney and California's attorney general. Her 2020 slogan, "Kamala Harris, for the people," nods at the introduction she used in court and is a phrase she calls her "compass."

The only former top city and state prosecutor in the race so far, the first-term California senator's roots will differentiate her in a crowded field of Democrats seeking to run against President Donald Trump, the likely Republican nominee. Senators Elizabeth Warren and Kirsten Gillibrand are in the race, and more U.S. senators are weighing bids.

Harris' sharp questioning of Trump administration appointees and officials during Senate hearings made her popular with liberal activists. But her law enforcement background also carries risk in a Democratic Party that has shifted in recent years on criminal justice issues, embracing the Black Lives Matter movement and calling for body cameras for police, ending the death penalty and sentencing reform.

Her actions as attorney general from 2011 to 2017 on those issues angered some liberals, and critics revived the #KamalaisaCop hashtag on Twitter to knock her after she announced her campaign last week.

Harris must prove to the party's increasingly diverse and progressive base that some of the decisions she made as a top prosecutor that were unpopular with liberal activists will not follow her to the White House.

"Democratic primary voters have been shaped by rising movements for racial, economic and gender justice," said Waleed Shahid, spokesman for Justice Democrats, a group supporting progressive candidates.

"Harris will have to figure out how she'll convince the movement that she's their champion when many organizers and activists are on record criticizing her approach as attorney general on issues related to prison overcrowding, police shootings and marijuana legalization," Shahid said.


Harris, 54, the daughter of a black father from Jamaica and an Indian mother who met as activists during the U.S. civil rights movement in the 1960s, said in her memoir that she was not surprised when her family and friends questioned her decision to become a prosecutor.

"America has a deep and dark history of people using the power of the prosecutor as an instrument of injustice," Harris wrote, but said she wanted "to be a prosecutor in my own image."

Harris touts her work as attorney general reaching a settlement with major banks involved in the foreclosure crisis, which hit minority homeowners particularly hard. She also implemented an implicit bias training for law enforcement officers and declined to defend a state ballot proposition prohibiting same-sex marriage.

She refers to herself as a "progressive prosecutor." But University of San Francisco law professor Lara Bazelon says Harris' "record on wrongful convictions alone is disqualifying" for that title.


Bazelon, the director of the school's juvenile and racial justice clinics, said there was widespread criticism of Harris in 2015 from civil rights leaders and racial justice advocates for her failure to support legislation mandating statewide standards for police body cameras and that the attorney general's office investigate police shootings.

Civil rights activists also have criticized Harris' attorney general's office for defending a "three strikes" law. As a district attorney, however, she only pursued 25-to-life sentences on a "third strike" that was a serious or violent felony.

At a press conference following her White House announcement, Harris said she took "full responsibility" for her offices' work, adding as a government lawyer she did not always agree with her clients.

"There are fundamental flaws in the criminal justice system, and this criminal justice system needs to be reformed," Harris said. "The bottom line is the buck stops with me."


Berkeley Law School Dean Erwin Chemerinsky said he thinks highly of Harris but rejected the notion she could not have done more as attorney general to investigate allegations of misconduct in the Orange County district attorney's office. Harris instead defended the prosecutors, who were found to have used illegal jailhouse informants and concealed evidence.

"I was disappointed in her failure as attorney general to respond to serious civil rights violations that were occurring in the Orange County jails," Chemerinsky said.

Quentin James, leader of the Collective PAC, which focuses on electing black candidates, said Harris has struck the right balance in explaining her record. Black voters would be pragmatic in evaluating her candidacy, he added.

"She has been fighting to change these issues within a broken system. She has tried to reform it from the inside," James said. "That's a tremendous asset to have on the Democratic ticket."


(Reporting by Amanda Becker; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Lisa Shumaker)

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