Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) is, it is now obvious, a rising star in the Democratic Party. Supporters compare her to a neo-Obama — and to Game of Thrones heroine and queen of dragons Daenerys Targaryen. There’s an unofficial Harris 2020 presidential campaign Facebook page with 1,137 followers. Just days after the 2016 presidential election, the New Yorker listed Harris among “Thirteen Women Who Should Think About Running for President in 2020.”
With a background as San Francisco district attorney from 2004 to 2011 and California attorney general from 2011 to 2016, Harris has been recognized as a bold but meticulous legislator for the DC Circuit.
And while she has said publicly that she doesn’t intend to run for president in 2020, her high-profile (and often interrupted) performance at recent Senate Intelligence Committee hearings has left several news outlets speculating that she is positioning herself to at least consider campaigning.
Let’s narrow in on some of her biggest achievements — and what they tell us about her legislative priorities.
1) During the housing crisis, she won a historic mortgage settlement case that helped more than 84,000 California families
Harris’s landmark accomplishment as California AG came on the heels of the financial crisis. In 2012, during her first year in the position, she brokered a $25 billion settlement deal with the nation’s five largest mortgage companies (Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase, CitiFinancial, GMAC/Ally Financial, and Wells Fargo) citing improper foreclosure practices. California homeowners received $18.4 billion in mortgage relief, according to a 2013 report by the AG’s California Monitor Program.
To make this happen, Harris took a major risk. She pulled out of an earlier settlement deal in an effort to hold out for more money for the affected homeowners — a decision that was widely criticized at first. But in the end, her gamble paid off. The New York Times described it at the time:
In the end, she walked away with far more than California was slated to receive in the early days of the talks and a little more than was on the table as recently as January. Beaming into the cameras last Thursday, she said California homeowners were guaranteed $12 billion in debt reduction, while most other states received only promises.
2) She’s come out against for-profit colleges
Her next big victory as AG came in 2016 when she won a $1.1 billion settlement against the for-profit (now defunct) Corinthian Colleges for predatory and unlawful practices.
But her track record on predatory higher education schemes is far from perfect. The issue came up during her Senate race in 2016 when her opponent Loretta Sanchez criticized her for failing to investigate complaints against Trump University after it was revealed that her AG office received contributions from Donald Trump in 2003 and 2011.
The New York Times broke the story that Trump has made tens of thousands of dollars in contributions to at least four state attorneys general who were investigating Trump University, including Harris. The Harris campaign told the Times that she donated the money from Trump to charities after the then-presidential candidate made derogatory statements about Mexicans.
Since her election to the Senate, Harris has demonstrated strong support for affordable opportunities in higher ed. She co-sponsored a bill in May of this year with Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA). If it passes, it would allow students with outstanding loan debt to refinance at the (often lower) interest rates offered to new borrowers.
3) Her work with the LGBTQ community led to the SCOTUS decision in favor of marriage equality
During her time as DA from 2004 to 2011, Harris opposed both Proposition 22 and Proposition 8, which limited marriage to one man and one woman. Though they passed in 2000 and 2008, respectively, both were struck down while she was in office. As San Francisco DA, Harris also created a Hate Crimes Unit aimed at prosecuting hate crimes committed against LGBTQ teens in school.
Harris’s early support of marriage equality in California directly laid the legal groundwork for the US Supreme Court’s decision in 2012 that same-sex couples have the right to marry. The Court cited California’s success in striking down Prop 8 in its opinion. Within hours of the decision, plaintiffs to the Supreme Court case Kris Perry and Sandy Stier became the first gay couple to wed in San Francisco, and Harris officiated their wedding.
4) She has experience prosecuting human trafficking — and is sharply critical of the war on drugs
A major priority for Harris during her tenure as AG was prosecuting transnational gangs known for trafficking drugs, firearms, and humans. Her office also led a groundbreaking study on the impacts of transnational criminal organizations and human trafficking in California.
She’s channeled that experience in her criticisms of the Trump administration recently. At the 2017 Ideas Conference in May, hosted by the liberal think tank Center for American Progress — an event widely seen as a proving ground for potential Democratic presidential candidates — Harris gave a speech where she called out the Trump administration and Attorney General Jeff Sessions on their trafficking and drug policies.
“Let me tell you what California needs, Jeff Sessions,” she said, eliciting applause from the crowd. “We need support in dealing with transnational criminal organizations and dealing with human trafficking — not in going after grandma’s medicinal marijuana.”
5) She calls herself “smart on crime,” but some allege she’s really “tough on crime”
When she was first elected AG in 2010, Harris commanded a staff of nearly 5,000 people in the state with the country’s second-largest nonfederal prison system. At that time it had 135,000 inmates and 750 individuals on death row, per a New York Times report.
In 2014, BuzzFeed reported that the attorney general’s office lawyer had unsuccessfully argued against the release of eligible nonviolent prisoners from California’s overcrowded prisons because the state wanted to keep them as a source of state labor. The federal judges disagreed with this argument and ruled against Harris’s lawyers.
Harris came under fire again in 2016 for signing off on California Gov. Jerry Brown’s sweeping prison reform ballot initiative that would repeal determinate sentencing laws and offer parole programs to inmates in state-run prisons. The state District Attorneys Association alleged that it was forced through without enough time for public comment. That year, Harris’s AG office was also the subject of a 2016 investigation by the Intercept into prosecutorial misconduct and informant misuse.
Meanwhile, Harris’s stance on the constitutionality of the death penalty is a bit of a mystery. During her time as San Francisco district attorney, in a highly publicized and widely criticized decision, she did not pursue capital punishment for then-22-year-old David Hill, an alleged gang member who shot and killed city police officer Isaac Espinoza.
But later in 2014, as attorney general, Harris went to the Ninth Circuit Court to appeal US District Judge Cormac J. Carney’s decision declaring the death penalty unconstitutional. According to reporting at the time by the LA Times, Harris offered a window into how she understands her responsibility to constituents, even those she disagrees with: She reportedly said that though she personally opposes the death penalty, she was elected by voters who supported it, and she pledged to enforce the law.
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