In the years since former California Attorney General Kamala Harris entered national public life—first as a U.S. senator, now as a leading candidate for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination—one strain of criticism has surfaced again and again. It can be captured in just five words: Kamala Harris is a cop.
The phrase, which the candidate's critics use frequently, is meant to conjure more than just Harris' history as a hard-nosed San Francisco prosecutor. It's colloquial. To label someone a cop in this way is never to invoke the best behavior one might expect from police officers. It implies the person is a bully, a bootlicker, a professional tattler—the sort of person who shuts down un-authorized lemonade stands run by kids. A cop, in this context, is someone who will always defer to authority and the status quo, someone who is unaccountable and not to be trusted. Calling someone a cop invokes the worst sorts of police overreach, a legalistic authoritarianism that exists for its own sake.
During her 28-year tenure as a county prosecutor, district attorney (D.A.), and state attorney general (A.G.), Harris proved quite willing to live up to the epithet. In the public eye, she spoke of racial justice and liberal values, bolstering her cred as one of the Democratic Party's rising stars. But behind closed doors, she repeatedly fought for more aggressive prosecution not just of violent criminals but of people who committed misdemeanors and "quality of life" crimes.
Every attorney general fights for state power and police prerogatives. It's part of the job. But over and over again, Harris went beyond the call of duty, fighting for harsher sentences, larger bail requirements, longer prison terms, more prosecution of petty crimes, greater criminal justice involvement in low-income and minority communities, less due process for people in the system, less transparency, and less accountability for bad cops.
In the early days of her presidential campaign, Harris has sought to define herself as a liberal reformer who has kept up with the times. But a review of her career shows a distinct penchant for power seeking and an illiberal disposition in which no offense is small or harmless enough to warrant lenience from the state. Now she wants to bring that approach to the highest office in the land.
The Path to Power
Harris was raised in Berkeley, California, the daughter of a Stanford economist and a respected breast cancer researcher. After her parents split up, she spent her high school years in Montreal, then attended Howard University in Washington, D.C., and the University of California's Hastings College of Law.
In 1988, with one year left in law school, she took an internship in the Alameda County, California, District Attorney's Office. Upon graduation, the county offered her a job, provided she passed the state bar exam, which she did on her second try.
Harris served as an assistant Alameda County prosecutor until 1998. But her side career in politics would soon receive a kick start from the Bay Area's well-established political favor system, in which the friends of Democratic power players were often rewarded with cushy government positions. In 1994, Harris was appointed as a member of the California Medical Assistance Commission, which oversaw payments to hospitals from the state's Medicaid program—a part-time job that paid $72,000 a year for a few hours of work per month.
Harris was selected for the position by Willie Brown, whom the Los Angeles Times Magazine described in 2004 as "a fixture in California politics for years" and "something of an unofficial deal-maker and influencer." Brown, then 60, was the Democratic speaker of the state Assembly. He was also Harris' boyfriend, and it wasn't the first time he had gotten her a lucrative state appointment. Earlier that year, Brown had appointed her to a nearly $100,000-per-year spot on the state's Unemployment Insurance Appeals Board, which handles disability and unemployment insurance claims. Harris quit after six months.
It wasn't exactly an inspiring entry into public service, which may explain why neither job is mentioned in Harris' 2019 memoir, The Truths We Hold (Penguin Press). But it was the beginning of a career as a successful cog in the Bay Area Democratic machine.
Throughout the mid- to late '90s, Harris appeared in San Francisco media, mostly as part of the city's liberal political/philanthropic glitterati. Even after decoupling romantically from Brown, the pair remained friends and political allies, often showing up together at fashionable San Francisco and Los Angeles events.
Harris has always had a knack for maintaining public visibility and for converting that visibility into personal prestige and power. She saw a bump in both in February 1998, when she left her job in Alameda County and went to work as head of the career criminal division at the San Francisco District Attorney's Office, then headed by Terence Hallinan. A longtime player in the city's liberal political circles, Hallinan had been elected D.A. in 1995. He never sought the death penalty, pushed for the legalization of prostitution, believed in alternatives to jail for drug crimes, fought against trying juvenile offenders as adults, threatened law enforcement officers with personal civil liability for not reading arrestees their Miranda rights, and made it a priority to take domestic violence cases more seriously. The city's police union hated him. If there was ever such a thing as a "progressive prosecutor," Hallinan was it.
Harris would work as a deputy district attorney under Hallinan for less than two years before leaving in 2000 for the San Francisco City Attorney's Office, in what an outgoing colleague in the San Francisco Examiner called a "wonderful high-visibility new position for Kamala Harris." This allowed her to dodge fallout from her association with Hallinan, who had come under fire for low prosecution rates. In 2002, she announced she would run against her former boss in the following year's election.
She was by all accounts a formidable opponent. In a 2019 story about the campaign for Politico, former police union president Gary Delagnes called Harris "intelligent" and "ruthless." Her campaign was built around the argument that although she supported Hallinan's ideas, he had been ineffective and irresponsible, letting too much crime go unpunished. It was a frame that let her run to his right without explicitly identifying as "tough on crime"—and it worked. Harris narrowly won a three-way race with Hallinan and lawyer Bill Fazio.
Besides her emphasis on increasing prosecutions, Harris also had the city's money and power at her disposal. She "counts among her supporters and friends San Francisco's glitzier crowd of liberals," the Examiner reported in October 2003, at which point Harris had already "spent about half a million dollars on her campaign." After she blew through a voluntary $211,000 spending cap that she had previously agreed to abide by, she was rebuked by the city ethics commission, resulting in a $34,000 penalty.
It didn't matter. In January 2004, she was sworn in as San Francisco's district attorney.
By the end of her second year in elected office, Harris would appear on The Dennis Miller Show and The Tavis Smiley Show; serve as an appointee to the Democratic National Committee (DNC) platform body; host a fundraiser for Barack Obama and later have him guest star at one of her fundraisers; and open for Hillary Clinton at a DNC Black Caucus convention event. Her political star was rising—and her policy convictions would soon begin to shift accordingly.
Liberal Politician, Illiberal Prosecutor
Harris campaigned on promises to avoid seeking capital punishment, reform the use of enhanced sentencing, rely on treatment and diversion programs (rather than prison terms) for nonviolent drug offenders, and generally take a holistic approach to crime. In March 2003, she told the Ukiah Daily Journal that exploitation in the sex trade needed "a social services response instead of a criminal justice response." That October, she told the San Francisco Examiner that the D.A. must "participate with other agencies within the city…to divert people who end up being successfully prosecuted by the criminal justice system into appropriate rehabilitation."
But once in office, Harris would revise, if not completely reverse, many of her previously stated principles.
In 1994, California had passed a three-strikes law, under which a second felony conviction automatically resulted in an enhanced sentence and a third felony conviction automatically resulted in 25 years to life. At her inauguration, Harris promised that she would "only use three strikes when the third strike is a serious or violent felony" and "never charge the death penalty."
Barely a year after taking office, Harris encountered a defendant who had previously been charged with a serious crime and was then being charged with a nonviolent third offense: illegal possession of a handgun by a felon. She pushed for a three-strikes application, seeking 25 years to life in prison. "When you talk about crimes that involve guns [and] certain sex offenses, while they're not defined by the Penal Code as serious, they are serious," she told the Associated Press in January 2005. Harris' position boiled down to an argument that she alone would define which offenses deserved a sentencing enhancement—and in her view, weapons charges always counted.
She would eventually abandon her anti–death penalty stance too. In 2014, as state attorney general, she appealed the decision of a judge who had ruled that California's capital punishment scheme was unconstitutional, arbitrarily applied, and plagued with inexcusable delays. Curiously, she said the ruling "undermines important protections that our courts provide to defendants."
Harris' supporters argue that as A.G., she had a duty to defend the laws of the state as they were, regardless of how she felt about them. But just a few years prior, she had declined to defend another California law facing a federal challenge: Proposition 8, which prohibited same-sex marriages in the state. "I had no intention of spending a penny of the attorney general's office resources defending Prop 8," Harris writes in her 2019 book. Defending the death penalty did not provoke such resistance.
Then there are drugs. Harris was much tougher on them than her predecessor had been. Hallinan "considered narcotics a low priority," the Examiner noted in January 2004, and that stance drew criticism from the law enforcement community. But "the narcotics detail is enjoying a better working relationship with Harris." In the three weeks since she had taken over, D.A. reviews of drug arrest cases had jumped 25 percent.
By 2005, Harris was also turning against the city's decade-old Drug Court, which allowed some people arrested on nonviolent possession and small-time sales charges to go to a city-run addiction treatment program as an alternative to incarceration. Successful completion could lead to the charges being dropped. In an op-ed that year in the San Francisco Examiner, Harris complained that people had "learned how to manipulate the system—by simply claiming to be addicts." She proposed barring anyone who had previously sold any quantity of any drug from the Drug Court, and the chance it offered for lesser sentencing, even if the current arrest was for mere possession.
The notion that there's a bright line between users and sellers, and that we can somehow save the former while ramping up raids and penalties on the latter, is an old drug-warrior refrain. Harris took this idea and ran with it, telling reporters that drug dealers "need to be treated differently from someone who is a genuine addict." There is "a direct connection between drug sales and violent crime," she said.
Other local legal authorities disputed the idea that the Drug Court was being abused. Public Defender Jeff Adachi told the Examiner the problem was that drug users would "get arrested, spend time in jail, get out and can't work because of the conviction and go back to selling drugs." A Drug Court coordinator said 15 percent of participants were rearrested within a year, compared to 51 percent for people prosecuted in general court.
Harris got her way, and then she got more. By 2006, defendants were "ineligible if they do not have a drug addiction" and excluded, even if they were wrestling with addiction, if they were carrying a gun when arrested. "The approach of my administration vs. the prior administration is I don't think drug crime is a victimless crime," she told the Examiner's editorial board in 2006.
In The Truths We Hold, Harris details an experience that she says served as "a defining moment" in her career. In this story, "an innocent bystander" is caught up in a drug bust. Harris, then a clerk at the D.A.'s office, makes sure the woman sees a judge on Friday afternoon instead of the scheduled Monday hearing, so she doesn't have to spend the weekend in jail. "I never did get the chance to meet her, but I'll never forget her," Harris wrote.
The book doesn't disclose what ultimately happened with the woman's charges, nor does it contain any reflection on what caused the police to arrest her in the first place. Harris doesn't question the kinds of operations that sweep up bystanders with little thought.
Instead, she paints the woman as an extraordinary case, one of those rare instances where justice isn't being served but one well-meaning official can make all the difference. By contrasting the bystander's innocence with the obvious criminality of most others in the system, she tacitly accepts the premise that drug users should be rounded up and thrown in jail.
Harris writes that after this experience, "I knew the kind of work I wanted to do and who I wanted to serve." Apparently, it was the small subset of cases where doing the right thing requires—and risks—very little.
Just Enforcing the Law?
One catchall answer to criticism of Harris goes like this: As a district attorney and a state attorney general, she was required to enforce the law. Thus, enforcing bad laws shouldn't count as a mark against her.
Harris herself has implied this. Asked about her defense of the California Department of Corrections for denying sex reassignment surgeries to transgender inmates, she answered that she "had a host of clients that I was obligated to defend and represent."
Yet no one forced Harris to become a county and state prosecutor or to stay in the job for so long. There are plenty of positions—including quite powerful and politically advantageous ones—for a promising and ambitious law school grad. Harris chose the path that involved punishing people for violations of laws she has said she believes are unjust. And once in that system, she often pushed for tougher enforcement of those laws.
In any case, it's a mistake to paint prosecutors as automatons who must blindly pursue all offenders. These positions, especially at the top levels, come with an enormous amount of discretion about what individual cases to pursue and what the priorities of the office will be. In 2005, Harris herself told the Examiner that D.A.s have "a great deal of latitude."
More than a decade later, her book would stress that she decided to become a prosecutor out of a desire to reform the system from within—to help end policies that lead to mass incarceration by sending people to prison for minor crimes and that disproportionately affect people of color, immigrants, and the poor. Yet while in the district attorney's office, Harris amplified attacks on vulnerable populations, launched new enforcement initiatives (including one against parents), and brought the hammer down on "quality of life" crimes.
That category includes things such as panhandling, prostitution, graffiti, loitering, driving under the influence, and living in an unapproved homeless encampment. It also covers minor gun offenses, such as breaking one of California's many regulations about how and where firearms can be stored and carried.
Harris actively worked to police law-abiding gun owners, not just the criminal use of guns. She helped get a San Francisco law passed that required firearms that don't have trigger locks to be kept in locked containers within homes. The law also banned gun possession or sales on any city property.
Under Harris, the D.A.'s office bragged about rising prosecution and conviction rates for gun felonies, gun misdemeanors, and "misdemeanor quality-of-life crimes." According to one press release, "since DA Harris' arrival in office, misdemeanor deputies took 104 cases to trial in 2004, an increase of nearly 50 percent over 2003." She "stepped up enforcement of misdemeanor gun crimes by seeking a minimum of 90 days" of incarceration for convictions, and she ensured that her office "seeks substantial county jail or state prison time for even first-time firearms violators."
In 2006, Harris gave a speech at Yale decrying mass incarceration and the disparate effect of our criminal justice system on poor and black communities. "As many of you know, many of our biggest challenges to social justice are tied to the C.J. system," she told students. "In this country, we currently have over 2 million people in jail." Yet even as she preached about criminal justice reform, Harris repeatedly rejected lighter sentences and alternatives to prosecution—and touted increased arrests and prosecutions as victories.
In 2004, Harris and then–San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, now the governor of California, launched an anti-truancy initiative. The $450,000 program included a warning to parents that they could face criminal charges if their kids didn't show up to school.
To be considered truant, a student need only be more than 30 minutes late without an approved excuse on more than two occasions. Parents of students with 20 or more unexcused absences in a year could face up to a year in jail or a $2,500 fine for "contributing to the delinquency of a minor." Penalties for lesser violations included parenting classes and fines starting at $100.
During her successful 2010 campaign for attorney general, Harris backed Senate Bill 1317, a measure making it a criminal misdemeanor in California to have truant children. "Instituting a statewide plan on truancy was part of the reason I'd run for the office in the first place," she writes in The Truths We Hold. Some people "don't appreciate the intention behind my approach," she adds, but jailing parents "was never the goal." Yet for parents punished by the program, her "goal" was almost certainly irrelevant.
Take Cheree Peoples, arrested in April 2013 after her daughter missed 20 days of school. The girl had sickle cell anemia and chronic pain, and she had gone through multiple blood transfusions and surgeries. But getting excused absences was difficult, Peoples told HuffPost this year, and suspicious school officials provided few of the resources promised. After pleading not guilty, Peoples spent more than two years navigating dozens of court dates and eight different prosecutors. "I am living the worst nightmare that any mother could possibly understand and go through," she said in a video diary during the ordeal. (The charges were finally dropped in August 2015.)
To defend her record, Harris likes to ask voters to separate her values from her actions. "I am liberal and progressive," she said after winning her first elected office in 2003. "But I was not running for the public defender, and I recognize there is a role for the public defender and a role for the D.A."
The trouble is that she seems to want the credit for both. Prosecutor and victims' advocate. Leftist and centrist. All things to everyone, accountable to no one.
Kamala Harris vs. Sex Workers
Some of Harris' most revealing work has been related to prostitution. As a prosecutor, she ramped up stings in immigrant communities, opposed measures to legalize sex work (or simply to stop sex worker arrests), spread misinformation about human trafficking, ignored sexual misconduct by police, and aggressively targeted websites where sex workers advertised.
So it was a surprise last February when, asked by The Root whether she supports the "decriminalization of sex work," Harris said: "I think so. I do."
Had she evolved? Not really. Decriminalization advocates believe that neither selling nor buying sex should be subject to criminal penalties unless force, fraud, coercion, or minors are involved. But in the same interview, Harris spoke about the need to go after "johns," a.k.a. prostitution customers, along with "pimps and traffickers." At a CNN town hall in April, she again emphasized the importance of targeting customers.
What Harris was describing was a version of the "end demand" model, which treats buyers of commercial sex as criminals while allowing sex workers to avoid arrest under some conditions. It's an approach that replicates almost all of the problems of full criminalization, and it has been criticized by everyone from sex workers themselves to human rights and health groups such as Amnesty International and the World Health Organization.
Harris has talked about sex work this way for a long time. In January 2005, she told the Examiner that she agreed with "the spirit" of a proposal to impound cars belonging to those convicted of soliciting prostitution, because it's important "to hold accountable the true perpetrators of prostitution—the johns, the pimps, and the traffickers."
Despite her supposed openness to decriminalization, Harris has long advocated the arrest of adults selling sex, too. A 2008 measure in San Francisco would have stopped police from arresting adult sex workers. "It will allow workers to organize for our rights and for our safety," one advocate told the Associated Press at the time. It also would have prohibited the city from taking state or federal money for the racial profiling of Asian businesses.
The local Democratic Party backed the measure. Harris fought against it, saying it was a mistake to consider prostitution a victimless crime. She also encouraged local police to intensify crackdowns on adult prostitution, especially at Asian-owned massage parlors.
Harris did help launch a "safe house" for minors in the sex trade, modeled after Lois Lee's long-running Children of the Night program in Hollywood, which provides a shelter and services to teenagers picked up for prostitution. It was a step in the right direction—exactly the kind of tangible, noncarceral program needed to address underage sex work. But it could house only six girls at a time, at a cost of about $1 million per year. And while she spoke out against arresting minors for prostitution offenses, it still happened in practice.
Harris' attitude on these issues seems to stem from early in her career. In the '90s, she worked closely with nonprofits and fellow city officials on several anti–domestic violence campaigns. In 2003, when she was first running for D.A., coalitions "built up around issues of domestic violence and juvenile prostitution" were "central to the Harris campaign effort," the San Francisco Examiner noted at the time.
In the late '90s and early '00s, many groups concerned about domestic violence began shifting their focus to "human trafficking." Soon, Harris started pushing for a law to make human trafficking a crime in California.
This was largely redundant: Forcing others into labor or sex was already illegal under a host of state laws. Still, the new legislation, enacted in 2006, was at least nominally concerned with coerced labor.
When it passed, "detectives dramatically stepped up their investigations, helped by federal grants aimed at finding trafficking rings," the Los Angeles Times noted in 2006. Police forces received money for training officers, buying "sophisticated surveillance equipment," and paying informants.
These federal-local police partnerships to "fight trafficking" were mainly used in undercover prostitution stings, with the bulk of arrests focused on sex workers themselves or their customers. Contrary to the stated purpose of the law, prosecutions and convictions for actual human trafficking were rare. But as the moral panic around what Harris called "modern slavery" heated up, she would join a coalition demanding that Craigslist, Backpage, and other classified-advertising sites and web forums that host user-generated ads be blamed and punished.
Harris was sworn in as state attorney general in 2011, just as calls to "end demand" for prostitution were getting a turbocharge from celebrity campaigns, federal funding, and a few motivated ideologues. In 2013, Harris joined 46 other state attorneys general in asking Congress to amend Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, a measure the Electronic Frontier Foundation calls "the most important law protecting free speech on the Internet."
Section 230 says that digital platforms and service providers shouldn't be treated as the speakers of user-generated content and that they are thus immune under state (but not federal) law from legal liability for things that people use their products to say. At the time, this factored into an array of state cases against web platforms: Prosecutors were routinely shot down by judges on the grounds that their prosecutions were illegal.
It wasn't long before some members of Congress took up the A.G.s' request, presenting various bills to gut Section 230 under the guise of fighting "the growth of internet-facilitated child sex trafficking."
It would be a few years before the effort saw success. In the meantime, in January 2015, Harris announced her candidacy for the U.S. Senate. She also acted, in her role as California attorney general, like Section 230 didn't exist.
A month before the 2016 election, Harris and Texas A.G. Ken Paxton had Carl Ferrer, the CEO of Backpage, arrested on a warrant for pimping, pimping of a minor, and conspiracy. The site's founders, Michael Lacey and James Larkin, were also arrested and charged with conspiracy.
Backpage had become the most visible target in the political fight against sex trafficking. The A.G.s behind the operation worked from the theory that because the site had failed to filter out all instances of teenagers posting ads while pretending to be adults, and because some of these ads eventually led to minors getting paid for sex, the owners and managers of Backpage were guilty of "child sex trafficking."
In December 2016, a judge tossed the case. "Congress did not wish to hold liable online publishers for the action of publishing third party speech," wrote Sacramento County Superior Court Judge Michael Bowman. "Congress has spoken on this matter and it is for Congress, not this court, to revisit."
By then, Harris had won her Senate race and would soon be on her way to Washington. Once there, she would indeed push Congress to revisit the law. But she had three days left in the California A.G.'s office; she used them to bring another case against Ferrer, Lacey, and Larkin, this time alleging pimping and money laundering. (A judge would again reject the pimping charges, though the money laundering case is still open.)
Even as Harris was building her case against Backpage, she was ignoring growing documentation of sexual exploitation by police officers in the place where she had started her career. Multiple cops in Alameda County had had inappropriate contact with a teen girl going by the name of Celeste Guap. At least one of them had engaged in a sexual relationship with her before she was of age.
The daughter of a police dispatcher, Guap got involved early with drugs and prostitution. Officer Brendan O'Brien first encountered her in 2015 as she was fleeing an abusive boyfriend/pimp. But rather than treat her like a victim—or at least like a minor not old enough to legally consent to sex with an adult—O'Brien started sleeping with the girl himself.
After he committed suicide, leaving a note that mentioned Guap, other officers helped cover up their relationship—and then began pursuing the newly 18-year-old girl themselves. She would eventually claim to have had sexual relationships with more than two dozen Bay Area officers and prosecutors. Guap does not allege that they forced themselves on her, but they did have the power to arrest her for prostitution if she didn't give them what they wanted.
In the end, more than a dozen officers were disciplined or fired, Oakland's police chief resigned, Oakland's next police chief was removed after less than a week, and a judge shipped Guap off to Florida for counseling.
During this saga, Guap's lawyers repeatedly asked the attorney general's office to investigate what was happening, expressing concern that local officials alone couldn't fairly or competently handle charges involving so many of their own. The A.G.'s office—helmed by Harris—declined. The case, which occurred just as she was making the transition to the national stage, demonstrated her priorities as both a prosecutor and a politician.
Not Just a Cop—a Politician
The most charitable reading of Harris' record is that it signals how difficult it can be to keep promises and principles once you enter the political establishment. Another interpretation is that Harris is someone who has spent a lifetime using the rhetoric of social justice and civil liberties to further her own quest for fame and power.
Since taking her seat in the U.S. Senate in January 2017, Harris has continued to crusade against "online brothels." She attended a 2017 congressional grilling of Backpage's founders and then helped to get the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) passed in 2018. FOSTA made "facilitation" or "promotion" of prostitution a federal crime, even though prostitution itself is not. It also amended Section 230 so that state attorneys general can bring criminal charges against websites in such cases.
A large contingent of sex workers vocally opposed FOSTA and lobbied against it as a dangerous imposition on their ability to find clients safely. Tech companies and civil libertarians fought the law as a hindrance to innovation and free speech. And people in the legal adult entertainment and sexual wellness industries objected because of the chilling effect it could have on them online. Even the U.S. Justice Department panned the bill that passed, writing in a letter to lawmakers that it was likely unconstitutional and that it created "additional elements that prosecutors must prove at trial," thereby making it harder to address serious sex trafficking crimes.
Harris has long tended to describe her record in ways that lack context or absolve her of responsibility. During a speech at the 2012 Democratic National Convention, for example, she applauded Obama for having "stood with me and 48 other attorneys general in taking on the banks and winning $25 billion for struggling homeowners." But that money did nothing to directly benefit homeowners. California used its part to help pay down the state's massive budget gap.
That tendency has followed her onto the presidential campaign trail. Earlier this year, she told a crowd in Iowa that San Francisco's previous policy of reporting undocumented minors to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) when they got arrested was an "unintended consequence" that she "did not support" when she was D.A. But according to CNN, "there was an active push by the city's Board of Supervisors when Harris and Newsom were in city office to change the policy to prohibit reporting juvenile undocumented immigrants to ICE unless they had been convicted of a felony." Harris and Newsom opposed the supervisors' effort. (Harris also recently described truancy arrests as an unintended consequence of her push to arrest truant parents.)
Since launching her campaign for the Democratic nomination in January, Harris has signaled that she's open to just about any popular progressive talking point, from the Green New Deal and Medicare for All to the Equal Rights Amendment. In a January interview with CNN, she expressed no reservations about nationalizing the health insurance industry, thereby ending private coverage for nearly 180 million people. In April, she said she would use executive power to pass gun regulations if Congress failed to do it and seemed to support a federal ban on state right-to-work laws.
On the campaign trail, Harris has mastered giving satisfactory-on-first-blush but vague and noncommittal answers on all sorts of issues. She told Jimmy Kimmel in March that she's "open to the discussion" about getting rid of the Electoral College. "We should have that discussion" about voting rights for felons, she said on CNN. "We need to study" the issue of reparations for black Americans and should take "steps toward" the impeachment of President Trump. And so on. ("The future is looking at the best way of doing that" could be her campaign motto, journalist Jeb Lund joked on Twitter.)
Meanwhile, Harris is working hard to polish her "progressive prosecutor" image, massaging her record as a cop into a civil rights struggle from the inside. In reality, she's a bandwagon socialist and a former D.A. with a deep streak of anti–civil libertarianism—someone who pairs the liberal vision of paternalistic bureaucracy with the carceral politics of tough-on-crime conservatism.
That is, in fact, the foundation of her presidential campaign. Rather than apologizing for her past positions, Harris is focusing on her "experience." She even drew her 2020 slogan from the way she addressed courts during her time as a prosecutor: "Kamala Harris, for the people." One of her advisers explicitly laid out the approach in an interview with Politico. "In the face of a lawless president and a lawless administration," the adviser said, "Americans are going to be looking for somebody who represents and stands for the rule of law."
Harris, in other words, isn't just a cop—an authority figure who likes to use government force to inflict punishment. She's a politician—a ruthless and effective seeker of personal power for its own sake. It's hard to say which is worse, but in the end it doesn't matter: With Harris, there's no need to choose.