This story about Kamala Harris begins with her colleague, Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, stepping onto the stage of the Netroots Nation conference Friday afternoon to a massive standing ovation. “It feels like a family reunion,” Warren says moments later, her arms spread wide as if in an embrace.
That’s the type of glowing reception Harris would like to get both at the conference and from the Democratic Party’s base, as the junior California senator prepares what is widely rumored to be a 2020 presidential bid that will rely on the votes of energized progressives like these. “Wassup?” Harris said as she stepped onto the stage, getting her own applause: “We’re here because our future depends on it,” she started, calling it a moment “that is challenging us as a country to look in the mirror and ask a fundamental question: ‘Who are we?’”
At the same time, the thousands of activists gathered are asking a similar question: Who is Harris? The former San Francisco prosecutor and California’s “top cop” as attorney general who built up a mixed record on criminal justice reform, bank regulation and environmentalism? Or a progressive who combines the pragmatism of Hillary Clinton with the promise of Barack Obama — from her history-making candidacy as the first Indian-American senator to the way that she shares the former president’s desire for consensus? It’s in places like Netroots Nation where she will have to prove her core liberal accolades over better-known quantities like Warren.
Is she one of us? I don’t know yet.
Murshed Zaheed, Democrat and former Harry Reid staffer
Many in the grassroots are cautious, as is Justin Smith, a digital organizer for the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D.C. “I am instantly skeptical of a former prosecutor. People who made a living putting Black and brown people in jail are [those] you need to look at and scrutinize closely,” he says. While Harris has had “a promising start,” Californian Murshed Zaheed says, “folks also need to be cautious about her, because she has a streak of moderation to her,” a tendency to play it safe. “Is she one of us? I don’t know yet,” says the former Harry Reid staffer, who has attended 11 Netroots Nation conferences.
For some progressives, Harris’ record as a prosecutor is the blackest mark on her potential presidential candidacy. While she has raged against the Trump policy of separating Hispanic children from families at the border, as the San Francisco district attorney she pushed an anti-truancy law that charged parents of chronically truant children $2,000 … and jailed them if they couldn’t afford the fine. (As of 2012, two mothers had been incarcerated under the law.) As a prosecutor, she gamely stood up to the police union and fellow party members by refusing to seek the death penalty in a cop-killing case. But, when she ran for attorney general, she defended a three-strike law that gave citizens lifelong sentences for any third felony, a point so punitive that her Republican opponent ran to the left of her on it. As attorney general, she also defended the state’s right to execute criminals, and critics complained that she never created a task force to investigate police shootings or hold them more accountable.
The perception is that she was “kind of a hard-ass who wasn’t doing the kind of restorative justice necessary as part of a progressive outlook,” said one national progressive activist, who asked not to be named for fear of professional backlash.
“She’s not going to have that street cred,” Zaheed says. “She’s not going to be a Pramila Jayapal, a Barbara Lee, a Maxine Waters. She’s got a ways to go to catch up to the folks who have built up an impressive body of work when it comes to standing with progressive causes.”
Her cautiousness revealed itself in other areas too. She was equivocal about whether to ban fracking, and some progressives wish she took a harder stance on corporate interests. Harris won California a $20 million settlement with five large mortgage companies accused of predatory loan practices. But she also refused to prosecute Steve Mnuchin and his company, OneWestBank, despite internal memos that showed multiple prosecutable offenses by the company accused of illegally foreclosing on as many as 80,000 California homes. Later, the now Trump treasury secretary reportedly donated $2,000 to Harris’ campaign — Mnuchin’s only donation to a Democrat nationwide.
It’s true that, as attorney general, Harris had to defend laws she might not always agree with. “It’s a tough spot, the job you sign up for,” says Tory Brown, a progressive originally from San Diego. And the prospect of Harris becoming the first female Black president is inspiring to many activists of color. “Black women have been the backbone of the Democratic Party,” says Alaina Reaves, an Atlanta-area activist, “and we haven’t seen Black women rise through the ranks.”
For now, Harris appears to have won some converts. As she speaks onstage about how the Democrats must use their power to bravely tackle bold goals — from defending the Affordable Care Act to protecting Dreamers and enacting “common sense” gun laws — a Latina woman in the back whispers: “I’m ready for Kamala to run. We need some more power.”
As Harris talks about ending mass incarceration and reforming the criminal justice system, about painting “a picture of the future in which everyone sees themselves,” that same woman shouts: “Yes, Madame President!” She leans over to her neighbor and asks him: “I want her to run. Are you in?” Yes, he says, with a caveat … as long as she is willing to “break up the banks” too.