A Woman of Firsts
By Eri Pappas
Joe Biden announced in August that he’d chosen California Senator Kamala Harris as his Vice Presidential running mate.
Harris has served in the Senate since 2016. Prior to her congressional service, she was California’s Attorney General and San Francisco’s district attorney.
Harris is a woman of firsts. She’s the first Black, first South Asian, and first woman to have held both her California district attorney and Attorney General positions. She’s the first Black and first South Asian woman to accept the nomination on a major party ticket. She’s also only the second Black woman ever to be elected to the U.S. Senate.
Trump has already recycled onto Harris the “birther” attacks he once used to attack former President Barack Obama. Feeding a rumor, Trump told reporters he questioned whether she would be eligible for the Vice Presidency because her parents were immigrants. Her parents immigrated to the U.S. from Jamaica and India, but Harris was born in Oakland, California, so she is, of course, eligible. Trump has also called her “nasty” and “a mad woman.”
Similarly to Obama, Harris has been the target of racist and hateful attacks ranging from U.S. residents to politicians. Barry Presgraves, the mayor or Luray, Virginia, posted on Facebook that Biden had “announced Aunt Jemima as his running mate.”
These attacks are not new: throughout her career Harris has faced criticism centering on both her race and gender. But many, including Hillary Clinton, have assured Harris can handle it. In her speech at the 2020 DNC Convention, Harris credited her mother with raising her and her sister “to be proud, strong, Black women.”
In a political sphere riddled with name-calling and pointed defamation, it’s not surprising that a woman like Kamala Harris has heard it all. But what’s striking is that her nomination which was expected to thrill a progressive population turned out a lukewarm reception.
Cardinal among the faults that liberal voters have found with Harris is her prosecution history. In her first three years as San Francisco’s district attorney, the city’s conviction rate rose from 52 to 67 percent. Harris prosecuted for truancy, convicting parents who didn’t send their children to school. This is a far cry from the defund-the-police mantra that has become a pillar of the liberal movement.
Harris has also upset both sides of the capital punishment debate. She publicly opposed the death penalty and refused to implement it in 2004 against a man who had shot and killed a police officer, much to the fury of the police. But she has also taken action to uphold the death penalty, choosing not to support measures to end it in a case in 2014.
Despite her role as a prosecutor, she still has, on many occasions, criticized the criminal justice system. “I was born realizing the flaws in the criminal justice system,” she said in an interview with NPR. Many of the moves she’s made seem strategic; she uses the system as a means to activate other programs.
For example, in the case of prosecuting truancy, she admitted readily that she was trying to “put a spotlight” on the issue and engage struggling families with appropriate programs rather than simply criminalize it.
“And as a result of our initiative, which never resulted in any parent going to jail — never — because that was never the goal, we improved attendance by over 30 percent,” she told NPR.
A 2010 article in SF Weekly challenges Harris’s reputation as a master prosecutor, citing that the actual guilty rulings made by her office of convicted felonies were at 53 percent, compared to the nationwide average of 83 percent.
When she appeared on The View in June, she suggested “reimagining public safety.” Her description of what that would mean: the reallocation of government funds from the police to social services, schools, job training, and mental health resources. In summary: defunding the police. But not abolition; she told Good Morning America, “We have to stop militarization of police, but that doesn’t mean we get rid of police.”
In his and Harris’s first joint interview, Joe Biden told ABC News on August 21 that he still does not support defunding the police. The coupling of her middle ground and his opposition has caused disdain among those who had hoped Biden’s running mate would push his ticket farther left.
Centrist though this ticket is, it still promises to fight for many issues worth fighting for. Biden’s website emphasizes a salvation of the middle class, a commitment to respectable leadership, criminal justice reform, license-focused gun control, and strides toward equality for everyone. The platform is imperfect and it does not highlight some of the most important demands of the progressive voice. But a Biden administration, especially with Harris, is an invaluable chance to build a diverse governing body that is listening.
Election Day is November 3, with early and absentee voting available in most states. Be sure you are registered to vote at registertovote.ca.gov. If you are voting absentee, request and return your absentee ballot as soon as possible.