(in defense of) Getting Excited About Kamala Harris

Last week, when Kamala Harris was announced as Biden’s VP pick, I got excited and posted the following comment on Facebook: 

“KAMALA HARRIS YES YES YES! Someone get me a giant yard sign STAT!”

Most of my Facebook feed was full of other super excited pro-Harris posts, but one Facebook friend was less enthusiastic. He made a simple request: “Maybe you can get me excited about her.” He went on to explain the candidates he would have preferred to see, and then listed major, legitimate concerns he had about Harris’ history. A few other Facebook friends (none of whom know each other, which is always weird to watch) engaged with him, and said several of the same things I wanted to say. But I just didn’t have the time to respond, especially given the insane amount of stuff I wanted to say. But now I do have time! So here we go…

There are a handful of issues to address here:

  1. The number one priority is getting rid of Trump.
  2. What about the other potential candidates?
  3. What about Harris’ faults?
  4. Why is Harris so awesome?

The first point is one that everyone seems to agree on, but I’ll repeat it again because it is just so insanely important. Trump has to go. Donald Trump is an evil, evil man who has done more damage to this country than I ever thought imaginable in such a short time. It’s not just that he doesn’t stand for my ideals (which are pretty left-leaning); he doesn’t stand for any ideals. Nobody with a functioning conscience and/or intellect should be supporting him. Everyone on both sides of the aisle should be actively trying to get rid of him. We all land at different points on the political spectrum and have different ideas of which candidates we would tolerate over others;. But no matter where we fall on this spectrum, this year most of us should and would vote for someone who we straight-up don’t like or don’t agree with because no matter who it is, they would be better than the dictator-wanna-be we have right now. I would vote for a dirty sock at this point. Hell, I would even vote for Huckabee or Ted Cruz if it would get rid of Trump. That’s how desperate this situation is. So if you’re a leftist who feels that the left-leaning candidate doesn’t lean far enough left for you, well… tough titties. You suck it up and vote for them. The nation learned this lesson the hard way four years ago.

The good news, though, is that we could have skipped over that entire paragraph, because everyone who was involved in this conversation agreed with it. The friend who expressed his lack of excitement said this multiple times himself. He never said “I’m not going to vote for Biden/Harris.” He said he wished he didn’t have to vote for someone he found unpalatable, but he’ll vote for them anyway since obviously they’ll be better than Trump. His main frustration, really, is the fact that we live in a two party system (a frustration I share, but not the point I was initially asked to respond to). But everyone who responded to him responded by telling him to vote the Democrat ticket anyway. I mentioned to my partner that I found it weird that everyone harped on this point since at no time did this guy imply he wouldn’t vote for Harris, and my partner pointed out that people are so on edge and scared right now that anything with even a hint of 2016 is terrifying. We don’t need to be all holding hands around Harris and Biden and singing kumbaya together, but we also don’t need to put anything out there that might push away any potential anti-Trump voters. We can’t afford to give anyone any fodder to vote stupid!

And as I thought about this point, I realized that’s why this simple Facebook response, from a guy who I, frankly, barely even know, has been weighing on me so heavily over the past few days. Because he didn’t come on my page and say “Harris sucks! Let’s fight!” He said “Please try to make me feel better about voting for her.” So, that’s what I’m about to attempt to do…

The next point was: What about all these other potential candidates? They would have been better! In this particular case, we’re talking about Warren, Duckworth, and Abrams. I would add Rice, Demmings, and Bass. “Basically absolutely anyone except Harris.” First of all, I love pretty much all of these people, and think they would have been great. But I don’t think any of them would have been better picks than Harris to be Biden’s VP. Note I didn’t just say VP- I said Biden’s VP.

Let’s start with Warren. I absolutely ADORE Elizabeth Warren. I think she would have been an absolutely amazing president. But not a good vice president, and not for Biden. The president and VP have to complement each other, and those two are just too far apart on the political spectrum to read as a sincere pairing. Plus she would scare off moderate voters, which are soooo important in this particular election where, like I said above, there SHOULD be right-leaning voters who suck it up and vote anti-Trump. Finally, I know I was not alone in my frustration when the panel of diverse primary candidates narrowed down to just white people, then just old white people, then just old white men. It’s not Biden’s fault that he’s an old white dude, but he has the opportunity to put an end to a pattern from which he has benefitted, and picking a woman of color as a running mate is a solid step in that direction.

Rice and Bass would give Republicans easy attack ad fodder (Benghazi and Cuba, respectively) for their low-attention-span followers, without enough name recognition to balance it out. And Abrams and Demmings don’t have enough experience (yet) with the multi-faceted roles of national-governing to instill enough confidence in me that they’ll have any clue what to do with, say foreign affairs.

Duckworth, actually, was the other person who I would have liked as much as Harris. I disagree, to a point, with the other commenter who said she doesn’t have the name recognition of Harris. Everyone and their mother knows Duckworth. She’s that Asian-American, purple heart recipient helicopter pilot who got shot down in combat and lost two limbs. It’s the first thing that gets mentioned about her every single time she comes up. The problem is, I don’t know if anyone (myself included) knows much about her beyond that. Even her badass military record isn’t safe, though it should be. Trump could attack McCain, with his decades of well-known public service, because Mr. Bone Spurs “prefers people who weren’t captured,” so it’s an easy leap to “I prefer people who weren’t shot down,” to “this is why women shouldn’t be in combat” (something that tons of people, including within the military, still agree with), to even, because this is Trump, “Why are Asians trying to fly helicopters when they can’t even drive?” So Trump would get his evil base all fired up hating on the main things that people know about Duckworth, and then what’s left? Stuff that people have to go look up. And this is the point where I lean Harris over Duckworth. The OP said Duckworth would be better than Harris because of her limited name recognition due to less skeletons in the closet, but I personally feel the other way. I want to know that my candidate has robust experience leading and governing, which will inevitably result in an imperfect record because nobody is perfect. Conversely, a person with a blank slate could eventually present us with any number of imperfections we can’t yet predict. This leads us to the next point…

What about Harris’ faults?

This was the toughest point, and the one that most made me want to take my time. Everyone has faults, and it does no good to simply ignore or dismiss them. We have to know what they are so that we can weigh them against that person’s strengths. So let’s take a look at the presented concerns. They fall into two major categories:

1. Her criminal justice record as a prosecutor and AG
2. Her late arrival to support progressive views

We’ll start with the CJ record. Harris used to be a prosecutor, which means it was her job not to write the laws, but to prosecute those who violate them. But prosecutors do have leeway in deciding when to bring charges, and which sentences to recommend.

With that in mind, the three specific issues mentioned by our OP were:

  1. Support of the three strikes laws
  2. Opposition to the legalization of marijuana
  3. Criminal penalties for parents of truant schoolchildren

We’ll start with the 3 strikes law because other folks already talked about it in the thread and saved me some work. According to another poster, Harris “forced her constituency to only follow the 3 strikes rules for sentencing if the 3rd violation was a violent felony, which is a great way to interpret the letter of the law (which she had to do as AG) while avoiding disproportionate punishment for minor crimes.” That’s the basic gist of it. But of course there’s a little more to it than that. Harris was against repealing the 3 strikes rule, but was for reforming it. She pushed to eliminate some third strikers, allowing the 3rd strike to count if either of the previous two strikes were murder, rape, or child molestation, and pushed to allow third strikers to petition for re-sentencing. Plus, as already mentioned, she declined to prosecute many non-violent third strikers. (I hope I got all those details right.) In other words, she wanted to keep it in place to put away the most violent, dangerous, non-repentant offenders, while trying to keep young or nonviolent offenders out of the system. While doing all this, she was promoting other progressive criminal justice measures and reforms, but we’ll hit on these at the end when I talk about why I love her.

Now… let’s talk weed! Harris’ record on marijuana legalization, as far as I know, goes back a decade. At that point she was on record as being against legalization. She is now on the record as being for legalization. In other words, her views have evolved. I’ll talk about the entire concept of Harris’ evolving views later. But for now, let’s take a look at what Harris was actually arguing, when, and why.

In 2010 she was the San Francisco District Attorney, and California was voting on Proposition 19, which would legalize recreational marijuana use at the state level. Harris, along with others, authored a rebuttal to arguments in favor of Prop 19. Her main concerns, on paper, weren’t with the general idea of marijuana, but with flaws in the policy. Prop 19 claimed to disallow driving under the influence, but didn’t provide any way to actually test for impairment. It also allowed employees to possess marijuana at work as long as smoking doesn’t interfere with their abilities to do their jobs, meaning employers who relied on federal funding or contracts could not guarantee compliance with federal drug-free workplace requirements. And, though of course plenty of marijuana legalization advocates might disagree, it’s not irrational to believe that drug use, including marijuana and alcohol, harms communities. In 2010 Prop 19 would have left tons of uncertainty on how regulation, taxation, etc even could or would work given that no other state had passed such legislation, and it would be at odds with federal laws. The Obama administration claimed it would not bother with enforcement, but what of future administrations? Even for weed enthusiasts, the legislation was problematic. I haven’t seen anything that indicates how Harris personally felt about the general idea of legalization at that point, only her reaction to this particular legislation.

In trying to research her evolution over the next few years, I’m not finding much to suggest she had any strong feelings against legalization, just that she remained kinda quiet and neutral on this issue while continuing to do her job of enforcing current laws. The main anti-pot argument that keeps popping up in every article I’ve found is a reference to the time she “laughed in the face of” a reporter who asked about it. This video seems be highlighted as a sort of “gotcha!” moment. But I’ve watched the video repeatedly and just can’t get worked up about it. She’s told that her opponent is pro-legalization and is asked what she thinks of that, and she just says “He’s entitled to his opinion,” and laughs a little. I can’t get riled up about such a non-comment, nor can I understand why this interaction is so frequently cited. Sure, Harris wasn’t out there championing legalization, but she wasn’t doing much to stand in the way, either.

What about locking up people for marijuana-related offenses? And the fact that she claims she used to smoke pot? Isn’t it hypocritical to lock up tokers when you’re a toker yourself? I could see this, but I don’t really agree. She says she tried pot in college and hasn’t since. I’m not aware of her denying this at any point, just not bringing it up until recently. Conversely, all the info I can find suggesting that she locked up people for marijuana offenders seem to all point to locking up dealers, not users. There is a big difference between locking up a teen for possession, and locking up a drug dealer who is having an immense negative effect on his community.

Harris’ public pivot on marijuana seems to have come around the same time that she switched roles from being a state-level law enforcement executor, to a federal-level law creator. Which, you know, makes sense. Because now it’s her job to pass common-sense legislation. And legalization at the federal level makes it easier for states to follow suit. Her updated views aren’t really that different from her old views, though. Even in the radio interview where she admitted to toking herself, she goes on a stern lecture about how dangerous drugs can be to health and communities, how dangerous stoned driving is, and how important it is to carefully regulate usage. So she’s still a bit of a stick in the mud about the whole thing. Or, another way to look at it is that she’s been consistently approaching the issue with a critical eye, weighing pros and cons, and speaking up when it seems to make the most sense, whether it’s to say “hey this proposed state legislation won’t provide a way to test for impaired driving” (2010) or to say “we need to pass federal legislation that will provide a way to test for impaired driving” (2019).

I can’t believe I just wrote so much about this topic, because to me, frankly, it’s such a non-issue in the grand scheme of things. But I bothered to do the research, so here we are. Moving on…

Truancy law. Let’s make something extremely clear: Harris didn’t throw a bunch of parents in jail cuz their teens skipped a couple days of school. Harris, like many criminal justice professionals and scholars, saw her job not as one of punishing criminals, but of reducing crime. She studied potential means to prevent and reduce crime rates. Which is great! She noted a link between chronic truancy in early education (meaning missing at least 10% of the school year, not skipping a day here or there) and eventual crime victimization (something like 80% of her murder victims at the time were drop-outs, I think) and criminal behavior. She found studies that show children who aren’t on track with their reading by third grade are basically screwed for life in many ways, including being likely to wind up in the overpopulated criminal justice system. So as the district attorney, she used the tools at her disposal to create a program to try to reduce truancy. The idea was to identify families that were having issues, then call those parents in to mediation meetings to outline the steps parents must take to get their kids in school, and to get them working with several city agencies that could provide services to help. If, after this intervention, families were still failing, the parents could get “prosecuted.” But in this case we’re talking about a specialized Truancy Court which allowed the introduction of social workers to address more serious potential issues such as transportation, abuse, neglect, mental health, unresolved special ed needs, transportation, homelessness, etc. The entire system was set up to bring resources to kids in need. Fines and imprisonment were only intended to be used as a last resort if parents really were resisting absolutely all attempts at solutions. In other words, only if they’re going out of their way to harm their child.

Under Harris’ watch, only a handful of parents made it to the “prosecution” phase, and none were jailed. The idea behind the program, in my opinion, was absolutely solid, and I frankly don’t think Harris should be backpedaling or spinning as much as she is. Her program got help to countless families and reduced citywide truancy by 30%. HuffPo did a piece where they followed up with current truancy courts to see how the aftermath of Harris’ program is working today. In many of the locations HuffPo visited, everyone seemed to be working in good faith. For each family that made it to the “prosecution” phase, there were countless others who had used the program to receive effective support ahead of time. In the vast majority of cases, law enforcement and criminal prosecution only steps in when all other options seem to have failed.

It was only when a statewide program modeled after Harris’ program went into effect that other DA’s began jailing parents, something that Harris at least claims to regret.  The main problem with the program, which is true with any program when scaled up, is that countless other people are responsible for implementing it, and the methods in which different people implement the same action will, of course, be as different as the number of people involved. There are, of course, individual cases of people falling through the cracks, of specific schools not being communicative, of individual DAs being more punitive, etc. For the handful of cases where it seems some parent really has been treated unjustly, I think it makes more sense to do exactly what Harris does: don’t throw out the entire system, but try to find out why, exactly, these particular instances are failing, and then solve that problem. Why is this DA so trigger happy, or this school so inflexible? But to spin this as “Harris wants to throw all the poor parents in jail, and ok yeah sometimes they provide a schoolbus” is disingenuous when the true story is “Harris provided a framework that brought help and resources to countless families, but yeah, sometimes the execution misfires.”

Holy cow, I can’t believe I’m still writing this. Everyone go take a water break or something. You back? Okay, moving on to…

Harris’ growth and evolution over time. Or, put more eloquently and pessimistically:

“Both Biden and Harris are notable for being Johnny-come-latelys to every political debate. They stick to the status quo until the rest of the country drags them kicking and screaming into the next decade’s political ideology like rusty weathervanes for political winds. They are not leaders. They are followers. Both followers with archaic and damaged beliefs only now coming around to changing their harmful views.”  Ouch!

The simplest answer to this is one that others in the thread already made. People change. People learn. People evolve. It happens. Simple enough.

But I would go beyond that and add… Good. This may be the main place where the original poster and I disagree, because what he sees as a failing, I see as a strength, at least where the heads of the executive branch are concerned. The president and vice president have two main roles: 1. Effectively execute the legislation passed by congress, and 2. Act as the face of America. Now, America is an exceedingly diverse place, with diverse opinions, and so acting as that face for everyone is impossible. But they can try to come close, and that means not being all the way on either far end of the political spectrum. It makes sense to have a president or VP who takes the country’s temperature and reflects that temperature accordingly. They are the last people involved with any issue, not the first, and will have to shape their work and approach based on the assignments of the legislature, and the advice of their experts. They need to be careful and measured. They need to hold appeal even to the people with whom they do not agree, and they need to be able to work with every single member of congress. The ability to consider which views are most popular or which actions are most workable, for better or for worse, is the mark of a good politician. And politics, as much as they suck, are an integral part of the job.

It is on the American people, and the legislature, to be vocal about what we care about. To assemble, and protest, and speak out. It is on us to elect legislators who will push the issues we prioritize (and UNelect those who displease us), and to voice our displeasure when we disagree. We want them to be our followers, not the other way around. And, much like our constitution is designed to move slowly to help avoid unsteadiness, I don’t think it’s bad for our executive to move slowly, either. For example, I think most of us wish that our current executive wasn’t able to dismantle democracy as quickly as it is.

Would a candidate hold more appeal if they’d had perfect opinions, policies, and approaches for their entire career? Sure! But come on dude, perfection is a big ask. What matters way more is what they stand for right now, because right now is the timeframe in which we are asking them to serve.

I don’t think any of what I just said will be enough to convince my disappointed friend to stop being disappointed. And that’s fine. But now we get to the fun part, so, if nothing else, maybe this part will help. It’s time to talk about how…

HARRIS IS SO AWESOME!!!

Why do I like her so much? Well, let’s talk about the main qualities I value in a leader, in order of importance:

  1. Competence (including preparation, organization, delegation, and listening/learning)
  2. Intelligence
  3. Actually giving a shit about helping people
  4. Presentation skills (including confidence, wit, ability to inspire, and ability to debate)
  5. Agreeing with me

Note that “agreeing with me” is relatively low on the list. That’s because there are an infinite number of issues out there, and it would be virtually impossible for someone to align with me 100% of the time. There will always be a discrepancy or a disappointment somewhere in there. And even if they agree with me, that doesn’t mean that they’re going to be any good at doing their jobs. I’m a bit of a pessimist where human beings are concerned because, frankly, so many of us are giant fucking idiots. Including the smart, accomplished ones. If you can’t negotiate with opponents, inspire the masses, comprehend a security briefing, or plan, then you can’t actually do anything tangible with this view we both hold. But, frankly, as long as numbers two and three are covered, there’s a really good chance that #5 is already covered.

I’m not sure when I first noticed Harris, but I’m guessing it was at some point early in Trump’s presidency when I was constantly streaming senate hearings on C-SPAN. Harris always impressed me. The truth is that plenty of televised senate proceedings consist entirely of senators taking turns to create soundbites so that they seem suitably outraged to satisfy their constituents. Harris gave great soundbites, sure (checkbox #4), but she was also always the most competent at actual questioning (checkbox #1). She asked direct questions that witnesses could not weasel out of. She had clearly prepared, enough that she seemed to have a mastery of anything being discussed. And she seemed to actually care about the task at hand, not just looking good. Whenever it was her turn to speak, I’d be relieved. “Oh good, finally some actual content and action.”

Folks may not know this about me, but in my professional life I’ve spent a lot of time working with lawyers and observing their leadership abilities. Theoretically, lawyers should be pretty bright to have made it through law school and to have passed the bar. This is especially true where I work because it’s one of those competitive dream-job situations for them. So when they’re leading a trial team, most of them have #2 (intelligence) in the bag. Because of where I work, the lawyers and I tend to agree on the issue we’re arguing, so that’s #5 (they agree with me) covered. But after that, even with these super geniuses, the rest of these leadership skills can be a total crap shoot. A lawyer may be well-informed and passionate about their case, but may be completely useless at planning their time or tasks (failed at #1 – competence). They may not even notice the support staffer who had to pull consecutive all-nighters to get their materials prepared (failed at #3 – actually giving a shit about helping people). They could be complete dogshit at reading a jury and presenting their case effectively (#4 – presentation). After so much time with lawyers, I can tell you which ones I would trust to be in charge or something I cared about. And from watching Kamala Harris reign supreme in the senate, I can tell you that she is a lawyer who I would want leading me. In other words, she knows what she’s doing. Which, crazily enough, is a rarity in so many public figures.

Harris has experience, which is both a blessing and a curse. The blessing is obvious. She understands how the system works. She’s built relationships. She’s encountered challenges and roadblocks that inexperienced candidates have not. She has practice remaining poised in the constant spotlight. In her years of public service, she’s racked up a long list of accomplishments and views. For anyone with years of experience, it is impossible to find someone without misstep somewhere along the line. So if you disagree with a couple of her approaches regarding criminal justice, that’s understandable. But Harris has done so much more that I think folks can get behind. 

Let’s start with criminal justice. Folks may not know this one either, but I have two degrees in criminology and criminal justice and at points have tried (unsuccessfully!  laaame) to make a career out of criminal justice planning or research. Crime is a SUPER complex issue. There are no easy answers. Everyone wishes we could flip a switch to turn off the opioid epidemic, or systematic racism, or mass incarceration. But we can’t. It’s never as straightforward or easy as “just stop arresting poor people” or “just put bad guys in jail.” The best we can do is try to identify and study issues, then try our best to address them. Dismissing these efforts as “creative nuance in law enforcement” is unfair; as long as we have laws, we need to put effort into understanding and implementing them as wisely as possible. And contrary to some people’s beliefs, there are plenty of progressive thinkers inside the system trying to do just that (I know, because I kept applying to jobs to be one of them). Harris the prosecutor was one of these people. The truancy program was one example (with mixed reception, obviously), as was her reform of the 3 strikes policy. She wrote an entire book about potential information-based criminal justice reforms. She devoted her career to curtailing recidivism and trying to keep young people out of the system. Her Back on Track program placed young first-time offenders into apprentice programs. She developed the Bureau of Children’s Justice to investigate the legal rights of children, based on a desire to prevent trauma and violence against children and promote their education (this bureau focused on kids who often fall through the cracks, including minority or LGBTQ kids, foster kids, and kids in the juvenile justice system).  She’s against raising mandatory minimums. She introduced body cameras for state-level law enforcement. She accelerated rape kit testing. She mandated implicit racial bias training for state police.

Outside of criminal justice reform, she’s opposed anti-gay legislation, defended Obamacare, filed a brief against drug companies paying competitors to keep generics off the market, set up a privacy enforcement protection unit to go after spyware installers, prosecuted predatory lenders, created a Homeowner’s Bill of Rights to protect against foreclosures, and, this is a big one, prosecuted the shit out of corporate polluters.

She has one of the most liberal voting records in the senate. She’s for single-payer health care, free college tuition for lower and middle class families, ending the pay gap for black women, clarifying rights for border detainees, raising the federal minimum wage, closing tax loopholes for oil companies, and stopping new/renewed oil and gas leases. 

She’s smart, witty, badass, prepared, relatable, and inspirational. I watched her bash Mark Warner’s tuna melt recipe, and I  laughed. I watched the fire in her eyes when she fought for Dr. Ford during the Kavanaugh hearings, and I felt her fighting for all women. I watched her talk about her immigrant parents fighting for repressed people, and I saw my own immigrant parents fighting for repressed people. And I watched her shut down Senator Cornyn’s stupid question about public hearings with a sly smirk, and I whooped and cheered in admiration.

So, yeah, in a nutshell, I am absolutely pumped about Kamala Harris.


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