Kamala Harris, For Which People? 

The junior senator from California has cemented herself as a presidential contender, but her history of changing her positions to secure new offices has created distrust.

click to enlarge Harris ran to the right of former District Attorney Terence Hallinan and tacked to the center as attorney general, but now is veering to the left as a presidential candidate.

Photo courtesy Office of the Attorney General

Harris ran to the right of former District Attorney Terence Hallinan and tacked to the center as attorney general, but now is veering to the left as a presidential candidate.

Jamal Trulove was innocent, but he spent nearly seven years in prison.

The father of four was convicted in 2010 of murdering his friend, Seu Kuka, in the Sunnydale housing project in San Francisco. Kuka was shot nine times in his head and back shortly before 11 p.m. on July 23, 2007, and, despite a crowd around the body when police arrived, only one person claimed to have seen the shooting, a neighbor who did not identify Trulove as the shooter.

The appeals court ruling that overturned Trulove's conviction found that the prosecutor had committed misconduct when she argued that the witness had risked her life and the lives of her family to testify. "This yarn was made out of whole cloth," Justice P.J. Kline wrote.

Since Trulove's release in 2015, he has resumed his acting career with a role in the 2019 film The Last Black Man in San Francisco. He also has won a $13.1 million settlement from the city of San Francisco and become a vocal critic of the chief district attorney whose office brought the flimsy case against him to trial. Just after he was convicted of a murder he didn't commit, that district attorney was elected attorney general of California. Then in 2016, she won election to the U.S. Senate.

Now, Kamala Harris is running for president of the United States, one of 19 Democrats still standing in the race to replace Donald Trump.

"Kamala Harris talks about how she's proud of her work as California AG, but never as head DA of San Francisco, where evidence of my framing by the SFPD was covered up by 'HER' office just to get a conviction," Trulove wrote on Twitter in August.

But in fact, Harris has made her experience as a prosecutor a key component of her presidential campaign. Earlier this month, she released what she called a "comprehensive plan to overhaul the criminal justice system."

Even her slogan — "For the people" — invokes the introduction of every prosecutor in a courtroom.

"I believe we must have the ability to prosecute the case against four more years of Donald Trump, and it will take a prosecutor to do that," Harris told the Democratic National Committee in San Francisco on Aug. 23. "And I'll tell you, we've got a big long rap sheet to work with."

Outside the grand ballroom where Harris gave her speech, a lone protester wandered the halls with a sign that read, "Kamala convicted innocent people in order to advance her career."


Defining Kamala Harris

Through a campaign spokesperson, Harris declined to be interviewed for this story. But she and her supporters say she worked to reform the criminal justice system from the inside as district attorney and attorney general while taking principled stances against the death penalty, targeting complex criminal enterprises, and going after big banks that hurt homeowners during the foreclosure crisis.

"She was one of the earliest leaders to fight human trafficking and invest in reentry," Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf said at Harris' first presidential campaign rally in Oakland in January. "She was one of the earliest leaders on criminal justice reform. Back when it was still popular to be tough on crime, she was smart on crime."

Criminal justice reform advocates, however, have pointed out that in her first race for district attorney, Harris unseated former defense attorney Terence Hallinan, who was actively working on reforms, by criticizing his conviction rate.

She took a stand early as DA by refusing to seek the death penalty for a man accused of killing a police officer. Though highly controversial with the police, it was a politically popular stance in progressive San Francisco. But as attorney general, Harris appealed a court ruling that the state's death penalty was unconstitutional. Though controversial back in the Bay Area, it was a politically popular stance at the statewide level. Advocates for the rights of sex workers note that she opposed a ballot measure to decriminalize prostitution and led the charge to prosecute Backpage, an online listing site that facilitated the sex trade but which sex workers say was paramount to their safety.

As a presidential candidate, Harris rose to double digits in the polls after the first Democratic debate on June 27, at which she confronted former Vice President Joe Biden for his historic opposition to court-mandated school busing. But Harris faltered following the July 31 debate, when she was forcefully challenged on her record as a prosecutor by U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii.

Gabbard claimed that Harris jailed people for minor marijuana offenses and fought to keep exonerating evidence for death row inmates from coming to light. "The people who have suffered under your reign as prosecutor, you owe them an apology," Gabbard said.

Among the states where Harris is struggling to gain traction is California, where she trailed Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, and Biden in a Sep. 12-15 poll from KQED and Change Research. Harris bolstered her campaign in California in August, bringing on seven new staffers. But she remains well behind Biden, Warren and Sanders in national polls.

Joe Tuman, a professor of political communications at San Francisco State University, said most Democratic voters primarily want a nominee who can beat Trump. But polls show that most top-tier Democratic candidates could win in a head-to-head match-up, so Harris needs to find a way to differentiate herself from the moderate Biden and the progressive Warren and Sanders. Tuman believes that Trump fears Harris more than he does Biden, Warren or Sanders, pointing out that the president has yet to brand her with a nickname, such as "Sleepy Joe," "Pocahontas" or "Crazy Bernie."

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