Kamala Harris gambles on embrace of her record as a prosecutor

Senator Kamala Harris is increasingly embracing her record as a California prosecutor, seeking to reboot her campaign by portraying herself as a gritty brawler who is uniquely qualified to take on President Donald Trump in 2020.

Until Saturday, Harris made little effort to emphasize her 13-year career as a top law enforcement official, which has faced criticism from progressives and could imperil her support among black voters.

Now, with her presidential campaign in need of a boost, she is highlighting her work as San Francisco’s district attorney and California’s attorney general to make her stand out among the two dozen Democratic candidates seeking to unseat a president under a legal cloud.

Harris vowed on Sunday to “prosecute the case” against Trump.

“There is a rap sheet full of evidence,” she said at an Iowa Democratic Party Hall of Fame event, relying on the type of rhetoric that law enforcement officers use to talk about criminals. She sarcastically accused Trump of “health care fraud” for a broken promise to pursue universal health care and of “tax fraud” for giving top earners and corporations a tax break after saying he’d fight for working people.

Harris’s decision to put her prosecutorial background front-and-center could pay off if Democrats believe that her legal experience will be an asset against Trump and that she will aggressively promote progressive causes. She isn’t the only Democrat to talk about prosecuting the president: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has reportedly suggested she would like to see him behind bars.

Yet Harris’ tactic of leaning into her history also comes with risks: It could backfire by threatening her support among social justice advocates and black voters.

Her critics point to parts of her record such as a truancy policy that led to jail time for some parents that she later said she regretted. They also have objected to an appeal she pressed that upheld the death penalty or her defense of arguably wrongful convictions. She has been accused of being too cautious about criminal justice reforms or even opposing some measures.

Lara Bazelon, a professor at the University of San Francisco School of Law and director of the Criminal Juvenile Justice Clinic and the Racial Justice Clinic, argued in a New York Times op-ed that Harris was not a “progressive prosecutor” and “often on the wrong side of history when she served as California’s attorney general.”

“Harris turned legal technicalities into weapons so she could cement injustices,” Bazelon wrote, referring to wrongful convictions. She argued that Harris “did not barter or trade to get the support of more conservative law-and-order types; she gave it all away.”

Harris, the daughter of a Jamaican father and Indian immigrant mother, defended her record on Saturday in South Carolina, an early primary state that has a majority-black Democratic electorate and is critical in the race for the party nomination.

Speaking at the South Carolina NAACP Freedom Fund Celebration in Columbia, she assailed the “myth that black people don’t want public safety” and called for “law enforcement that both protects and respects.”

Black Americans don’t want racial profiling or mass incarceration or for “being black to be considered probable cause,” she said.

Harris also sought to burnish her progressive credentials by touting actions she took against powerful entities such as banks, oil companies and drug makers.

Harris is locked in a close battle with Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts for third place in most national Democratic surveys, behind the better-known former Vice President Joe Biden and the 2016 runner-up, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont.

The Harris campaign said her prosecutorial record would propel her forward.

“Democrats see that there is a president in the White House who believes that he’s above the law,” said Harris’ communications director Lily Adams. “It makes her uniquely poised to take on this fight against him.”

“If people want to have that conversation about which candidate has cared about the rights of children or, even back in 2004, wanted to make the criminal justice system more accountable, we’re happy to have that conversation,” Adams said.

Some voters were impressed with her tough questions during Senate hearings for Trump’s Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh and Attorney General William Barr.

“I really liked the way she handled Barr,” said Sue Carty, a registered nurse in New Hampshire who is choosing between Biden and Harris. “She has a lot of oomph.”

“I have watched and listened to her on TV, grilling people that come before them out in D.C. and she knows her stuff and she knows how to ask the questions and she won’t take somebody skirting around,” said Joyce Connors, 73, of Dubuque, Iowa.

Harris took office as San Francisco district attorney in 2004, when a tough-on-crime attitude was more politically attractive in the Democratic Party than it is now, when the focus is on combating racism and injustice in the criminal sentencing system. She became attorney general in 2011 and was elected to the U.S. Senate in November 2016.

A fundraising email from Harris on Monday included the subject line: “I’ve prosecuted a lot of cases. But rarely one with this much evidence.” She evoked “10 counts of obstruction of justice,” a reference to Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report that Trump made attempts to hinder the Russia investigation. (Mueller did not charge or exonerate the president.)

If her campaign takes off, her record as a prosecutor is certain to face scrutiny and criticism. For Harris, leaning into it early is an attempt to define herself before somebody else does.

“There have been those who have questioned my motivations, my beliefs and what I’ve done. But my mother used to say, don’t let people tell you who you are,” Harris said in South Carolina. “You tell them who you are.”

Still, Harris’ tactic isn’t appealing to all voters.

“I prosecuted this and I prosecuted that,” said Marci Kollasch, a 67-year-old retired Walmart store manager from Carroll, Iowa, who heard Harris and other Democrats speak at the Iowa Democratic Hall of Fame on Sunday. “Good for you, but what does that mean for us? What is your plan? She talked about her past, but she didn’t talk of the future.”

“If you don’t go into that office and have a plan from day one, you are not going to make it,” said Kollasch, who plans to support Warren.

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With assistance from Bloomberg’s Misyrlena Egkolfopoulou and Tyler Pager.

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