Kamala Harris
Credit: Gage Skidmore/Flickr

Joe Biden appeared insufficiently prepared for California Senator Kamala Harris’s sharp attack during Thursday’s debate on his anti-busing record and his warm memories working with racist senators. He rambled and tottered and, worst of all, capped it off with a delicious self-own that could fit on his bumper: “My time is up. I’m sorry.”

Harris, unsurprisingly, was roundly declared the biggest winner of both nights. But her victory, indeed her entire posture as a champion of racial justice, is not safe from irony. Before she was elected to the Senate, Harris was California’s attorney general from 2011 to 2017, and before that she was San Francisco’s district attorney from 2004 to 2011. Harris’s career appears to follow a rather worn arc: young, ambitious lawyer with liberal ideals (opposition to the death penalty and punitive sentencing) encounters situations that lead her to compromise or abandon said ideals in exchange for political advancement.

Harris was a rather zealous participant in California’s particularly harsh version of being “tough on crime.” An attorney general obviously cannot write the laws (like the horrible “three strikes” statute). She was charged with enforcement. That said, she did have significant discretion about which laws to defend and what kind of cases her subordinates should pursue. Harris herself showed unfortunate enthusiasm for fighting against wrongful conviction suits, the most infamous being the case of Kevin Cooper, a black man who was almost certainly framed by the San Bernardino police department for a quadruple-homicide and sentenced to death. Harris not only succeeded in stymying Cooper’s appeal for clemency, she also effectively defended the death penalty by leaving Cooper on death row.

Harris now speaks comfortably about opposing mass incarceration and the death penalty. Her comfort, however, is built on a career that perpetuated both.

Joshua Alvarez

Joshua Alvarez is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal. He edits syndicated opinion columns at the Washington Post, and can be reached at joshuaalvarezmail@gmail.com.