Kamala Harris receives the oath of office from Chief Justice of the California Supreme Court, Ronald M. George, during her inauguration on January 8, 2004 as District Attorney in San Francisco. Harris & # 39; mother Shyamala Gopalan is at the center.
George Nikitin / AP
George Nikitin / AP
George Nikitin / AP
Three months after Kamala Harris became a district attorney in San Francisco in 2004, she was on fire trial.
Harris had just won her first inauguration by positioning herself slightly to the right of her Liberal predecessor and promising to hold a more professional position as the city's chief prosecutor. She promised to fight against domestic violence and sex trafficking and to stand up for those who felt ignored.
And she had promised never to impose the death penalty – a promise that was put to the test when a 29-year-old police officer, Isaac Espinoza, was shot dead by a gang member.
Despite this, Harris kept her promise and announced before Espinoza's funeral that her office would seek a life without parole.
At the time, Harris said she believed the majority of Franciscans wanted to see that "the worst crimes are punished with the gravest consequences," and that in this liberal city, life without parole would probably be the worst consequence of a jury hand down.
However, former police officers union president Gary Delagnes said the timing of Harris's announcement had alienated many in the San Francisco Police Department.
"Having a press conference before the child was even in the ground to announce that they are not pursuing the death penalty, it was such a cold political move it just showed a complete lack of compassion." he said.
But while the timing of her announcement poisoned the young prosecutor's relationship with the police union, even Delagnes admitted she made the right call in a progressive city where opposition to the death penalty is strong.
"Obviously, no jury in San Francisco would convict a 19-year-old African American – they are not going to give anyone the death penalty in this situation, and that's what I said from the start," he said.
Harris & # 39; office was convicted and sent Espinoza's killer to life in prison with no parole.
During her time in politics, Harris was caught between two very different groups who see herself in her: law enforcement agencies and progressive activists who advocate a more racially just legal system.
Harris is now the Democratic nominee for Vice President and has been talking about the need for systemic change in the police and criminal justice system in America for the past few years.
But long before she was the second black and first South Asian woman to serve in the U.S. Senate, when she became District Attorney for San Francisco and then Attorney General of California, she was viewed by many in the law enforcement world as an outsider, says a longtime Debbie Mesloh Adviser to Harris.
"I remember many situations where people who were in charge of the prosecution office or the police department seemed to struggle with their leadership," Mesloh recalled. "At that first meeting with the District Attorneys Association of California, she was the only woman walking in that room. She was one of three people of color I believe."
Mesloh said that throughout her career, Harris "had to absorb subtle and not-so-subtle messages sent to her:" Who do you think you are? You have to know your place. Do you know you might have won an election, but there is only one of them. We are more numerous than you. «" "
Mesloh said Harris never let this news intimidate her.
I want a seat at the table
Suzy Loftus, who served as both assistant district attorney and assistant attorney general under Harris, said convicting the policeman's killer was important to Harris – and was in line with her policy. And she said Harris learned from the case.
"She made the decision quickly, quickly announced it, and later realized that there were so many people who were so deeply affected in that moment and in grief and pain. And that loss was compounded by an announcement in the middle. So me I think she tried to learn from her mistakes, "Loftus said.
The selection? Do not rush to make an announcement – consider the public's pain and sadness. But, Loftus said, it didn't make Harris a different or more cautious politician.
"I think you're more careful as a prosecutor," Loftus said.
Jim Stearns, who led Harris' first campaign, said Espinosa's decision, which at the time weighed some law enforcement against Harris, also won over many voters and made her a political star in San Francisco.
"I think what got the city going for them was the first time people had remembered a politician making a difficult promise like 'I will never enforce the death penalty'. , and actually did it under the most incredible pressure, "he said.
Stearns said there had been tension throughout Harris' career: between what is expected of her as a member of the law enforcement and what progressive activists who see themselves in her ask of her.
"Kamala always wanted a seat at the table," he said. "So it would be a mistake to see Kamala or to expect Kamala to ever stand outside the system and demand the kind of sweeping changes that people who stand out from the system want."
That tension would be most dramatic when Harris took her next job as Attorney General for the state of California.
"Someone … who was so slandered"
In 2010, Harris won the closest victory, becoming California's first female and first black attorney general.
It was a tough race. Law enforcement unions had overwhelmingly backed Harris's opponent, Los Angeles Republican District Attorney Steve Cooley, who used these notices to paint Harris as anti-police.
To build relationships with local attorneys, sheriffs, and police officers, Harris was the first attorney general to visit all of California's 58 counties. Loftus, her longtime deputy, planned the tour.
"It was incredibly effective because I think there is nothing like talking to someone – especially the one who has been so slandered," she said.
Four years later, when Harris ran for re-election, police groups largely supported her. But it soon came into conflict with another important constituency: the progressive Democrats.
Fatal police shootings were in the news and Democrats in California were pushing for a bill to require an independent investigation into lethal use of force.
Sacramento MP Kevin McCarty drafted a 2015 bill asking the attorney general to take away investigations into police shootings by local prosecutors who have an inherent conflict of interest.
"You know, if you look outside at a high school baseball game and see that the umpire is the uncle of one of the star players, will you trust that umpire to call balls and punches fair? The answer is no," said McCarty.
Harris rejected the bill and she died. She also declined to endorse another bill requiring police officers to wear body cameras, despite being the first to hire a state agency, the California Department of Justice.
Still, their opposition to statewide legislation did not align well with the California Black Caucus legislature. They saw her as on the wrong side of the fight.
Senator Holly Mitchell, a Los Angeles Democrat and a member of the Black Caucus Legislature, told the Los Angeles Times in 2016 that Harris' "absence is palpable," adding that "people are asking for guidance and direction ".
Now a lawmaker, not a law enforcement officer
Unsurprisingly, an attorney general faces such pressure – and that's especially true of a black woman, said LaDoris Cordell, an independent police inspector in San Jose.
"There is this fine line. You are the chief cop, but you are also a prosecutor who represents people. And often the two things are incompatible," she said.
Police shootings investigations are in some ways not a win-win situation, Cordell claims.
"The feeling is that people are passing this hot potato around. When these shootings happen, they are very controversial. The public is very aware of that. There are protests and it's like people just don't really want it to be around dealing with them, "she said.
Harris said her rejection of the bill was not based on a fear of catching a hot potato but rather on a concern of disturbing local prosecutors.
She knew what it felt like firsthand: in 2004, some San Francisco officials urged the then attorney general to remove the Espinosa murder case from her office after she refused to petition for the death penalty.
Loftus, Harris' longtime second-in-command, says the experience was profound.
"I think she basically always believed that a local prosecutor's job is to do the right thing, not to stab," she said.
Now that she is in the Senate and on her way to the presidential campaign, Harris has spoken out on policing issues and passed laws to ban chokeholds, racial profiles, and arrest warrants, and to make lynching a federal crime. In her Democratic nomination acceptance speech, she called for systemic racism in America and named two of the most recent victims of police violence, George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.
Mesloh, Harris' longtime advisor, said she's not taking these positions now because she changed her mind: the difference is that she is now a lawmaker, not a law enforcement agency.
"After working with her for so long, these were conversations that we would always have," said Mesloh. "She may not have had it on the outside, but this is the Kamala that I have known and seen for 20 years."
Mesloh said that given who Harris is – a black, South Asian woman and the daughter of civil rights activists – she has often been expected to ally with liberals pushing for outside change. But for most of her career, she was a prosecutor, working to change the system from within.