Shalini Nataraj –
At dinner with friends on Martin Luther King Day, the topic of Kamala Harris running for President came up. The questions that arose: “Is it too early for her to run, after only a couple of years in the Senate? Is the country ready for a woman as President, leave alone a Black woman? Is she too centrist for the Bernie Sanders left? Is she too left for mainstream politics? In talking to a range of people over the next couple of days, these points came up again and again.
However, in a very crowded field of Democrats running in 2020, she is certainly one of the top contenders.
Kamala Harris has a very interesting background – she is of mixed race heritage, her mother is from India and her father is Jamaican. Her mother was a breast cancer researcher and her father an Economics professor at Stanford University. Her mother, who was supposed to go back to India to an arranged marriage, met Donald Harris when both were in college. Both were very involved with political activism and took Kamala, who was born in Oakland, with them to civil rights marches. Kamala comes from a line of activists – her grandfather was active in the Indian independence struggle from British colonial rule and her grandmother worked to inform poor women how to access birth control.
Her journey took her to law school and then the District Attorney’s office in San Francisco, the first woman and the first person of color to hold the office. She moved on to become California’s Attorney General and in 2016 became the junior Senator from California. Kamala’s parent’s who were civil rights activists were aghast when she announced her plans to become District Attorney and then went on to be the State’s Attorney General, as they saw her becoming part of the system that had oppressed poor, black people. Kamala, believing in reforming systems from within, has always had a strong focus on crime prevention. Observing the strong rates of repeat offenses among non-violent drug offenders, she initiated a program targeting first-time drug offenders, mostly aged 18-30, where if they pled guilty, they could access a 12-18-month program that included job training, community service and the requirement that they find steady jobs or enroll in school.
The revolutionary model, Back on Track, built public-private partnerships to create jobs and support services. But there was also a stick – the DA’s office could jail participants if they broke any of the rules, or missed appointments, or committed another crime. At the graduation ceremony at the end of the program, a judge, who typically volunteered his or her time, would expunge the felony charge from the participant’s record.
According to people who worked with her, Kamala was very hands-on in reaching out herself to find opportunities for participants – for instance, calling the Department of Public Works to ask it to hire people from the program, or talking to 24 Hour Fitness into offering free yearlong memberships and even the Art Institute of California-San Francisco into creating scholarships for qualified participants.
Back on Track had a re-offense rate of 10 percent, compared with rates of more than 50 percent among similar populations elsewhere in California. Kamala used the program to build activism within the criminal justice system, often recruiting those who were protesting on the outside for reform, to come work within the system.
To deal with prison overcrowding in California, Kamala worked with the state Legislature and the Republican governor to get Back on Track signed into law as the model reentry program for the state. She considers her work to reform the juvenile criminal justice system in California as one of her biggest policy accomplishments.
Progressives like the fact that she has proposed a bail reform bill that’s backed by several civil rights groups, and has focused her initial Senate work on curbing maternal death rates, particularly among black women. She has also proclaimed her support for “Medicare for All” and has turned down most corporate donations.
Kamala took a number of progressive stances while District Attorney and Attorney General. She has worked to increase transparency around websites’ collection of data, has supported gay rights by opposing the anti-gay Proposition 8, and took the unprecedented path of taking the horrifying “shoot the gays” ballot initiative to court and having the initiative struck down, defended the Affordable Care Act (ObamaCare) in court, supported an undocumented immigrant’s bid for a law license, and filed a brief in the Supreme Court supporting public universities’ policies to consider race in admissions. Kamala also directed the state’s justice department to adopt body cameras, making California police undergo racial bias training, and accelerated the testing of rape kits.
Kamala has also taken on polluters, and as district attorney, she created San Francisco’s first Environmental Justice Unit and fought cases taking on illegal dumping and air pollution.
However, liberals have critiqued her for several positions she took as a prosecutor in California to get tough on crime, including defending the use of the death penalty as recently as 2015 and proposing laws to crack down on chronically truant children by punishing their parents. The fact that there was a dramatic increase in the state’s prison population during her years in public office, has also come under scrutiny.
In the Senate, Kamala is continuing her focus on criminal justice legislation – pushing states to reform their bail systems, so that low-income defendants are not jailed before their trials just because they cannot pay bail, ensuring that incarcerated women are treated with dignity, including providing them with free tampons and calls home to their children.
But most importantly, Kamala’s success inspires young women of color. She is the first black woman in the Senate in over a decade and serves on key committees. Many admired her sharp interrogations of Trump administration officials and nominees, especially the Senate Intelligence Committee where she made former Attorney General Jeff Sessions “nervous”, in his own words.
So as the questions about her readiness to run for President, or the country’s readiness for a President like her continue, it is heartening in the final analysis that so many very well qualified candidates are seeking to take on Trump in 2020. Kamala might not win in 2020, but as the younger generation sees leaders like her in high offices, the possibility of becoming leaders themselves becomes real.
[Shalini Nataraj is currently Vice President of Programs with the Ing Foundation, a private philanthropy focused on advancing human rights. The views expressed in this piece are her own]