Who Is Senator Kamala Harris? (Biden’s VP Running Mate)

Here's an unbiased look at Senator Kamala Harris, including her experience as California Attorney General, voting record, and policy stances.
Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., listens to testimony from top national security chiefs during a Senate Select Committee on Intelligence hearing on gathering intelligence on foreign agents, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, June 7, 2017. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., listens to testimony from top national security chiefs during a Senate Select Committee on Intelligence hearing on gathering intelligence on foreign agents, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, June 7, 2017. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Updated August 11: Joe Biden has chosen Kamala Harris as his running mate.

Senator Kamala Harris launched her bid for the presidency in 2020, kicking off her campaign “For the People” with a sizable rally in her hometown of Oakland, California and cementing her status as a strong candidate for the Democratic nomination. She has since dropped out of the race and was later chosen as Joe Biden’s running mate. But for those of us just getting familiar with the formidable former Attorney General of California, it’s worthwhile to get a glimpse of who Kamala Harris is and why she, who was once rumored as an Obama pick for the Supreme Court, has captured so much enthusiasm.

What’s Kamala Harris’s background?

Born in 1964 in Oakland, Kamala Devi Harris is the daughter of immigrants from India and Jamaica. Her mother, who was a breast cancer researcher and scientist, and her father, who became an economics professor at Stanford, raised Kamala steeped in the civil rights movement, taking her along to protests at UC Berkeley when she was just knee-high.

Throughout Kamala Harris’s education, her passion for activism never waned and led her to become a public prosecutor and in 2004, San Francisco’s District Attorney. In 2011, Kamala Harris became California’s Attorney General and held that position until she was elected as the state’s Democratic junior senator in 2017, making history as the first Indian-American woman elected to the Senate.

Harris’s tenure in the US Senate has been a high-profile one, where she’s played a crucial role in championing progressive issues and in opposing the Trump administration’s agenda on immigration. Her unofficial motto of “courage, not courtesy” and calm, calculated questioning of Rosenstein, Sessions, and Kavanaugh during Senate hearings earned Kamala Harris a reputation as a rising star of the Democratic party.

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What does Kamala Harris stand for?

When she was running for President, Kamala Harris stated that her top priority would be to raise incomes and has floated a $500 a month tax credit for working and middle-class families as one way to accomplish that. It’s been framed as an incredibly ambitious move whose scope would lift 9 million people out of poverty according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities but might reduce federal revenue by as much as $2.8 trillion over the next ten years.

Throughout her career in public service, with a few notable exceptions, Kamala Harris has embraced a series of progressive policies. She’s a staunch supporter of women’s right to choose and advocates Medicare-for-all. Senator Harris’s views about the legalization of recreational marijuana have evolved and, after co-sponsoring the Marijuana Justice Act alongside fellow Senator and Presidential candidate Cory Booker, she said cannabis “gives a lot of people joy” and has been candid about her own use of the drug in her college years.

Kamala Harris opposes the death penalty and has advocated for life without parole for several high-profile cases during her time as a San Francisco District Attorney, despite drawing condemnation at the time from her colleagues and fellow Democrats for being “soft on crime.” She is a vocal advocate of criminal justice reform and has earned an “F” rating from the NRA for her consistent efforts to pass gun control legislation. Throughout her career both as a District Attorney, Attorney General, and United States Senator, Kamala Harris has advocated strongly for the enforcement of environmental law and has more recently stated she supports the Green New Deal, a climate change initiative first championed by Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

Despite unfounded criticism from Donald Trump that she supports “the animals of MS-13,” Kamala Harris has never wavered in her commitment to immigration reform. She’s opposed several bills that did not include protection for DACA recipients and has consistently called for a pathway to citizenship for DREAMers. Harris also committed to refusing corporate donors and rejecting money from corporate-sponsored PACS to fund her 2020 Presidential campaign.

What is Senator Kamala Harris’s voting record?

In the Senate, Kamala Harris has consistently opposed Trump nominees and backed reforms in many areas. She’s credited with co-sponsoring several bipartisan bills, one with Sen. Rand Paul from Kentucky to encourage states to reform the bail system and one with GOP’s Tim Scott that would make lynching a federal crime. Senator Harris has also unequivocally supported sanctions against Russia and resisted efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act, citing healthcare as a “civil right.” She’s also opposed funding a border wall and repeatedly called for a clean bill to end the longest government shutdown in US history.

FiveThirtyEight’s “Tracking Congress in The Age of Trump,” gives Kamala Harris a strong score for opposition to the administration’s policies (voting in line with Trump’s policies 18% of the time as opposed to an expected score of 21%) and details her voting record as part of the 115th and 116th Congress. Kamala Harris is one of only eight senators whose voting record places her below 20% support for President Trump’s policies.

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Kamala Harris’s record as California Attorney General

When Kamala Harris announced her candidacy for Attorney General of California in 2008, she was endorsed by both Senator Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, as well as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. She won by a slim margin in 2011 to become the first female Attorney General of California and was re-elected comfortably in 2014.

Harris had several wins as Attorney General, including taking on big banks to secure $12 billion in debt reduction for the state’s homeowners who had become victims of the subprime mortgage crisis. In addition to starting a task force to prosecute financial crimes, Attorney General Harris established the Bureau of Children’s Justice that fielded issues with the foster care system, juvenile justice, school truancy, and childhood trauma. Kamala Harris is also credited with taking on oil industry executives for a pipeline spill along California’s coastline in 2015 and opening an investigation into possible price-fixing by Chevron, ExxonMobil, and others.

Her tenure as Attorney General was not free of controversy, however, and Kamala Harris has come under fire for failing to fight injustice in several key cases she presided over. These accusations of maintaining the status quo, however, are juxtaposed with the fact that in her position as Attorney General, Kamala Harris had a duty to protect and advance the interests of the state of California. Much of the conversation surrounding her reputation as a progressive prosecutor does center on criticisms of her record both as District Attorney of San Francisco and Attorney General of California.

What are Kamala Harris’s achievements and controversies?

As a presidential candidate, Kamala Harris has a long career both as a prosecutor and a public servant from which the evolution of her policies and character can be derived. Let’s take a look at both the achievements and the controversies of her career and what it has to say about how she’ll govern.

Kamala Harris Achievements

In her role as a law enforcement official first as District Attorney and then as California’s Attorney General, Kamala Harris implemented reforms to the criminal justice system and opposed the death penalty even when it was not politically expedient to do so. Her “Back on Track” initiative used public and private partnerships to reduce recidivism in Los Angeles and has been credited as a success by the current AG. After Black Lives Matter gained traction, Kamala Harris’s department was one of the first to develop training to address racial bias, and because of her insistence, the California Department of Justice was the first statewide agency to require body cameras. Harris is also credited with establishing a platform called “OpenJustice” that provides the public with data to track reported killings by police officers and increase transparency.

In addition to her opposition of the Trump administration and her support for progressive policies, Kamala Harris has also been seen as an asset in Senate committee hearings. She’s credited by fellow Senators as formidable and notoriously described as someone who makes Republicans “nervous” under questioning. This dogged persistence and calm confidence has earned her accolades, albeit grudging ones, from opponents and allies alike.

Kamala Harris Controversies

One of the parts of Kamala Harris’s background that has drawn the most criticism has been her track record as a self-styled reformer of the criminal justice system. Even as she’s refused to seek the death penalty for cop killers, she’s also been rebuked for failing to hold police officers accountable and for at times, defending California’s death penalty. As Attorney General, her office fought the implementation of a court order to reduce crowding in jails, citing that inmates provided an essential source of cheap labor to battle California wildfires. Harris immediately condemned this approach when it arose in 2014, saying “The way that argument played out in court does not reflect my priorities… The idea that we incarcerate people to have indentured servants is one of the worst possible perceptions. I feel very strongly about that. It evokes images of chain gangs.”

There has also been considerable conversation about whether Kamala’s actions as a prosecutor reflect her rhetoric about mass incarceration. There were several cases that came through Harris’s office as a district attorney where wrongful convictions were upheld, although it’s doubtful. Harris was ever personally involved in these cases. More recently, Senator Harris has come under fire for a video in 2010 in which she appears to be advocating charging the parents of truant children, although it’s not clear if the California Attorney General’s office ever followed through on enforcing this threat.

These contradictions in Harris’s background have been a longstanding source of ire from progressives, some of whom have framed Senator Harris as a “dirty cop.” During her days as district attorney, Kamala Harris was often criticized as not being tough enough on crime as a result of her gender and race, and her careful balancing act throughout a career reflects changing perceptions over the past few decades about racial inequality and the criminal justice system.

Where does Kamala Harris come from?

While there has been some buzz about Kamala Harris growing up in Canada, she’s an American citizen who was born and raised in Oakland, California. Her parents, both immigrants and people of color, did divorce but Harris didn’t relocate to Montreal with her mother until the age of 12. Harris attended Howard University in Washington, D.C., majoring in political science and economics, and was a member of the Alpha Chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority. After graduation, she returned to California, earning her JD and passing the bar in 1990. Shortly afterward, Kamala Harris dated Speaker of the California State Assembly and later San Francisco governor Willie Brown, who says he’s proud of the influence he was able to lend in advancing the career of an accomplished woman in the same way he did for Dianne Feinstein and Nancy Pelosi.

Kamala Harris’s husband is California attorney Douglas Emhoff and her sister Maya Harris, is an MSNBC political analyst. Harris also has another famous family member, her brother-in-law Tony West, who is General Counsel of Uber and a former U.S. Justice Department senior official. Kamala Harris has two stepchildren, one of whom attends college and the other high school. She’s also recently faced questions about her personal life and fielded criticism that because of her background and her interracial marriage, she’s “not black enough.” Harris responded that those voicing the loudest objections don’t understand who black people are.

“Because if you do, if you walked on Hampton’s campus, or Howard’s campus, or Morehouse or Spelman or Fisk, you would have a much better appreciation for the diaspora, for the diversity, for the beauty in the diversity of who we are as black people…I’m not going to spend my time trying to educate people about who black people are.”

The Rantt Rundown

After announcing her candidacy for President of the United States, Kamala Harris was widely seen as a frontrunner for the Democratic nomination. Her campaign slogan, “For the People” is not only a nod to Shirley Chisholm, the first African American woman who served in Congress and the first to run for President but also captures a thread that has run through Harris’s entire career. Senator Harris is an accomplished woman of color who has invested her life in serving the public and fighting to advance civil rights in this country. Only time will tell if the controversies surrounding her career in criminal justice will bear testament to the evolution of her progressive policies or serve as a problem during the 2020 election cycle.

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News // 2020 / Democratic Party / Kamala Harris / Senate