Twenty Things You Probably Didn’t Know about Kamala Harris
Then-California attorney general Kamala Harris in 2011 (Mario Anzuoni/Reuters)
A trip through the life and career of the California senator as she gears up for a probable presidential run
1. As both a district attorney and state attorney general, Harris pushed for a new statewide law that lets prosecutors charge parents with misdemeanors if their children are chronically truant. “We are putting parents on notice,” she declared. “If you fail in your responsibility to your kids, we are going to work to make sure you face the full force and consequences of the law.”
2. Harris strongly supports “familial DNA searching,ˮ in which police take DNA samples from crime scenes and compare them to existing databases to look for not just any direct matches in criminal databases, but any familial matches. Police have gradually expanded the practice’s reach, from checking DNA collected against existing samples of convicted criminals to checking them against samples in the databases of genealogy web sites and genetic-testing companies like 23andMe and Ancestry.com. California allows the collection and preservation of DNA samples from anyone who is arrested, even if they’re not charged with a crime.
3. Harris also has been a strong advocate of civil asset forfeiture. She supported a bill in California that would have allowed prosecutors to seize assets before initiating criminal proceedings — a power now available only at the federal level — if there were a “substantial probability” they would eventually initiate such proceedings. Besides cases involving violent crimes, the legislation allowed seizures in cases involving such crimes as bribery, gambling, and trafficking endangered species. Harris endorsed the bill after then-attorney general Eric Holder sharply limited civil asset forfeiture among federal prosecutors. She argued that the practice gave local and state law-enforcement officials “more tools to target the illicit profits [of transnational criminal groups] and dismantle these dangerous organizations.”
4. As San Francisco district attorney, Harris created “Back on Track,” an anti-recidivism program that she expanded as state attorney general. The program received $750,000 in federal funding and quite a bit of praise from crime-policy experts. But it faced criticism early in its history, when illegal immigrant Alexander Izaguirre, who had pleaded guilty to selling drugs, was selected and graduated, only to later grab a woman’s purse and run her down in an SUV, severely injuring her.
As the Los Angeles Timesput it, “Harris’ office had been allowing Izaguirre and other illegal immigrants to stay out of prison by training them for jobs they cannot legally hold.” Harris said she had been unaware that Back on Track had been training illegal immigrants and that they would no longer be eligible for the program.
5. In 2012, she submitted a brief supporting an illegal immigrant’s application for a law license. In 2014, the California Supreme Court ruled in the immigrant’s favor, even though the California State Bar’s rules state that it is disqualifying professional misconduct to commit a criminal act.
6. In her first speech on the Senate floor, Harris declared, “An undocumented immigrant is not a criminal.” She later avowed the belief that illegal immigration is “a civil violation, not a crime.”
This classification applies to only a portion of those in the country without permission. First, entering the country illegally has criminal penalties. Overstaying a visa is considered a civil violation, not a criminal one, with deportation as the appropriate penalty. But reentry without permission after deportation is a crime, as is, in most cases, working in the United States without legal residency, since it almost always involves some falsification of documents or lying on work forms under penalty of perjury.
7. Harris’s reputation as a tough prosecutor has played a key part in her political rise, and she continues to tout the high rate of felony convictions on her watch. But in 2010, SF Weekly reviewed the work of her office and concluded that “felony convictions for cases that actually go to trial and reach a jury verdict — a comparatively small group that nevertheless includes some of a district attorney’s most violent and emotionally charged cases — have declined significantly over the past two years.” The review found that in 2009, San Francisco prosecutors “won a lower percentage of their felony jury trials than their counterparts at district attorneys’ offices covering the 10 largest cities in California,” and San Francisco’s rate dropped further in the first quarter of 2010. Harris’s 71 percent conviction rate on felony cases had been boosted by a significant increase in pre-trial plea agreements.
8. In October 2017, Harris declared that she would rather shut down the government than vote for a spending bill that did not address the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program and ensure those covered by the program would not be deported. “I will not vote for an end-of-year spending bill until we are clear about what we are going to do to protect and take care of our DACA young people in this country,” she said. And she has kept her word, at least so far.
9. In April 2018, Harris urged the Senate Appropriations Committee to “reduce funding for beds in the federal immigration system,” reject calls to hire more Border Patrol personnel, and “reduce funding for the administration’s reckless immigration enforcement operations.”
10. In 2010, a California Superior Court judge declared that as San Francisco district attorney, Harris had violated defendants’ rights by hiding damaging information about a police drug-lab technician and was indifferent to demands that that the lab account for its failings. The crime-lab technician had been convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence in 2008; district attorneys are obligated to hand over to the defense information about prosecution witnesses that could be used to challenge their credibility. Prosecutors’ failure to disclose the information about the technician led to the dismissal of more than 600 drug cases.
11. Some have asked tough questions about whether Harris, as San Francisco district attorney, did everything she could to root out abuse in the local Catholic churches. Prosecutors had obtained personnel files from the Archdiocese of San Francisco dealing with sexual abuse going back decades. But her office did not prosecute any priests, and she argued that those records were not subject to public-records laws:
In 2005, while she was San Francisco’s district attorney, Harris rebuffed a public-records request by SF Weekly to release personnel files from the Archdiocese of San Francisco. (Her predecessor had planned to make them public after prosecuting criminal priests, but the California Supreme Court stopped those cases when it declared unconstitutional a 2002 law that lifted the criminal statute of limitations.) Similar archives in Boston had exposed the scope of the scandal there. “We’re not interested in selling out our victims to look good in the paper,” Harris told SF Weekly in a statement — this, even though many of those victims pleaded with her to release the documents.
12. In 2004, San Francisco Police officer Isaac Espinoza was shot and killed by David Hill, a young gang member with an AK-47. Hill also shot another officer in the leg. Days after Hill’s arrest, then-district attorney Harris announced that her office would not seek the death penalty. This prompted Senator Dianne Feinstein to declare, while speaking at Espinoza’s funeral, “This is not only the definition of tragedy, it’s the special circumstance called for by the death-penalty law.” The comment drew a standing ovation from the crowd of mostly police. Hill was ultimately sentenced to life without parole. Feinstein later told reporters that if she’d known Harris was against the death penalty, she probably wouldn’t have endorsed her for D.A. in the first place.
In 2009, Harris again received criticism for refusing to pursue the death penalty against Edwin Ramos, an illegal immigrant and member of MS-13 who gunned down a father and two sons. As a teenager, Ramos twice served probation for violent crimes but was not deported. Ramos was sentenced to 183-years-to-life without parole.
13. Harris’s most financially significant decision as state attorney general came in 2012, when she negotiated a $25 billion settlement deal with the nation’s five largest mortgage companies (Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase, CitiFinancial, GMAC/Ally Financial, and Wells Fargo) after the companies were accused of improper foreclosure practices.
By 2013, the state reported that California homeowners had received $18.4 billion in mortgage relief from the deal. When all was said and done, roughly 33,000 homeowners received an average reduction of $137,280 on their first mortgage. That sounds like a lot until one looks at the scale of the problem: More than 600,000 Californians received a foreclosure notice in 2009, and in 2012, when the agreement was struck, more than 30 percent of California homeowners with mortgages owed more than their houses were worth.
14. One bank that was not part of Harris’s settlement was California-based OneWest. A 2013 internal memo from the California attorney general’s office, first published by The Intercept, alleged that OneWest and its CEO, Steven Mnuchin, violated state foreclosure laws and recommended filing charges against him. Prosecutors claimed they had “uncovered evidence suggestive of widespread misconduct” and “identified over a thousand legal violations.”
But Harris, the state attorney general, did not pursue charges. She later told The Hill, “We went and we followed the facts and the evidence, and it’s a decision my office made. We pursued it just like any other case. We go and we take a case wherever the facts lead us.”
In 2016, Mnuchin — who would soon be President Trump’s nominee to be secretary of the treasury — donated $2,000 to Harris’s Senate campaign. She voted against his confirmation anyway.
15. For nearly ninety years, California state law prohibited images of handguns from being used in signs for gun stores. In 2014, after Harris’s office cited several gun shops, they sued, arguing that the law violated the First Amendment. Harris’s office argued that the law was needed to prevent handgun-related crime and suicide. Last year a federal judge ruled “the government has provided no evidence directly linking [the law] to reduced handgun suicide or crime,” concluded that the law was a “highly paternalistic approach to limiting speech,” and declared it “unconstitutional on its face.”
16. Starting in 1993, Harris began dating Willie Brown, then the speaker of the California Assembly and later a candidate for mayor of San Francisco — a relationship that brought her in contact with many of the city’s political and financial movers and shakers. Early in 1994, Brown named her as his appointee to the state’s Unemployment Insurance Appeals Board, a job that paid $97,088 a year. Six months later, he named her to the California Medical Assistance Commission, a post which paid $72,000 a year.
Into 1994, press accounts described Harris as Brown’s girlfriend. He was still married, and in his early 60s; she had just turned 30. The relationship had a surprising and tumultuous end, as James Richardson describes in Willie Brown: A Biography:
Columnist Herb Caen all but predicted two days after the election that Brown would wed Kamala Harris, his constant companion throughout the campaign. “Keep an eye on these two,” Caen wrote. No mention was made of what Brown would do about Blanche, to whom he was still married. But the day after Christmas, Brown stunned his friends by announcing that he was breaking up with Kamala. Brown invited Blanche to appear with him on stage for his swearing-in and to hold the Bible. A television reporter from KPIX caught up to Blanche, who had kept a low profile throughout the campaign, and asked her what it was like to live with the future mayor.
“Difficult,” was her one-word answer.
17. Late last year, Los Angeles city officials asked why “armed, plain-clothes LAPD officers were dispatched to California cities outside of Los Angeles at least a dozen times to provide security for U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris at public events.” LAPD officers traveled with Harris to San Francisco, Sacramento, Fresno, and San Diego. Los Angeles taxpayers covered about $28,000 of the cost for airline tickets, hotel stays, car rentals, and meals in an arrangement that retired law-enforcement officers called “unprecedented.”
19. Harris has proposed a sweeping tax reform that would create a refundable tax credit for all workers, peaking at $3,000 for single adults and $6,000 for married couples — meaning that taxpayers could collect cash even if they don’t actually owe any taxes. The worth of the credit would decline the higher a taxpayer’s income, eventually reaching zero for childless single adults making more than $50,000 a year, single adults with children making more than $80,000 a year, and married couples with children making more than $100,000 a year. The plan would repeal all of the 2017 tax cuts for earners making more than $100,000, would cost roughly $2.5 trillion to $3 trillion over ten years, would constitute a serious marriage penalty, according to experts.
20. In April, Harris made an appearance on The Ellen DeGeneres Show, where the hostess asked, “If you had to be stuck in an elevator with either President Trump, Mike Pence, or Jeff Sessions, who would it be?” Harris replied, “Does one of us have to come out alive?”