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Kamala Harris, For Which People?

The junior senator from California has cemented herself as a presidential contender, but her history of changing her positions to secure new offices has created distrust.



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Cooley was perceived to have an advantage because he supported the death penalty, which became a major issue in the campaign. Harris pledged that while she personally opposed capital punishment, she would carry it out whenever her office received a death row appeal, a stance similar to that of her predecessor, Jerry Brown. Harris won by less than 1 percentage point.

As attorney general, Harris fought to uphold capital punishment when a federal judge ruled California's law was unconstitutional in 2014, saying that the state's system was so dysfunctional it violated protections against cruel and unusual punishment. Its unpredictable delays led to death sentences being carried out arbitrarily, the judge wrote.

Harris at first demurred whether she would appeal, but in a statement a month later she wrote, "I am appealing the court's decision because it is not supported by the law, and it undermines important protections that our courts provide to defendants."

Conflicted Record

There has perhaps been no greater shift in her policy positions than on sex work. Harris has made the decriminalization of prostitution a part of her presidential campaign. "We should really consider that we can't criminalize consensual behavior as long as no one is being harmed," she said in an interview with The Root in February.

But as DA, Harris staunchly opposed what she called a "ridiculous" 2008 ballot measure that would have decriminalized prostitution in San Francisco. "It would put a welcome mat out for pimps and prostitutes to come on into San Francisco," Harris told The New York Times.

Also as attorney general, Harris defended the state in a lawsuit brought by the Erotic Service Provider Legal Education and Research Project, which argued that laws criminalizing prostitution were unconstitutional because consenting adults had a right of association. She also prosecuted, an online advertising site frequently used by sex workers. In 2016, her office filed pimping and money laundering charges against the company's operators. Backpage's operators, who came from the weekly newspaper industry and were part owners of this newspaper until 2007, were later indicted in federal court.

Advocates argue that Backpage was important to sex workers' safety by allowing them to vet potential clients and work free the coercion of pimps and traffickers. And documents recently obtained by Reason magazine undermined the central premise of the prosecution, revealing that U.S. Department of Justice prosecutors had found the company was cooperating with law enforcement and making a concerted effort to keep ads featuring exploited minors off the site.

"Kamala Harris, in her capacity as the California attorney general, played a role in subjugating the Constitution so she could make headlines with those arrests to further her own political career because she was running for U.S. Senate," said Maxine Doogan, an organizer with the project. "It's on our backs that she has consistently stepped on us and used us to further her own political career."

After her election to the U.S. Senate in 2016, Harris co-sponsored two bills that removed "safe harbor" protections for Internet platforms in sex trafficking investigations. As with Backpage, advocates for sex workers argued that the two bills put them in greater danger because the legislation eroded their ability to communicate and conduct business online, where they could vet clients ahead of time and warn each other of danger.

The fact that Harris has subsequently considered decriminalizing prostitution now that she's running for president has only made the sex-work community more wary of her.

"I think people like Kamala are going to say what they need to get elected," said Kristen DiAngelo, founder of the Sacramento chapter of the Sex Worker Outreach Project. "But do I trust her? No."

Such Harris skeptics were outnumbered at the Democratic National Committee's late August meeting in San Francisco, where she had the most vocal contingent. Led by Oakland City Councilwoman Lynette Gibson McElhaney, her supporters were inside and outside the hotel chanting, singing and cheering.

The lone protester, Mary Murrin of San Francisco, at one point walked back and forth in front of the group. "When Kamala Harris was district attorney in San Francisco she created a regime where what mattered was not innocence or guilt ... it was all about the conviction rate," Murrin said. "It was just about winning."

In an email after the meetings, Gibson McElhaney said she was unfamiliar with the criticisms. "What wrongful convictions? How were they deemed wrongful?" she wrote. "Not familiar with the death penalty issue. As far as I know, Sen. Harris has always been critical of the death penalty and have no knowledge of where this was ever sought on her behalf."

Her group cheered loudly as Harris entered the grand ballroom for her speech and they stood and left as she wrapped up, chanting as they walked to the hallway. As Sanders began his speech, they could still be heard: "She's smart, she's strong; with Kamala you can't go wrong."

This article originally appeared in the Sacramento News & Review.