© 2024 WGLT
A public service of Illinois State University
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Kamala Harris: 1st California Democrat On A Major Party Presidential Ticket


All right. We just heard about some of the reasons Sen. Kamala Harris is an historic vice presidential nominee. Well, here is another reason that is important to people in California. She is the first Democrat from that state on a major party's presidential ticket. Scott Shafer joins us from member station KQED in San Francisco.

Welcome to the program.


SHAPIRO: You've covered Kamala Harris for nearly two decades, starting with her election as a district attorney in San Francisco. First, tell us about her background as a DA.

SHAFER: Yeah, well, Kamala Harris was born in Oakland, Calif. We heard her dad was from Jamaica. Her mom came to the U.S. from India. And Harris got her start in local politics here in San Francisco. In 2003, she was a deputy prosecutor in the San Francisco DA's office. And the DA, at the time, was seen by many people as kind of soft on crime and generally incompetent. And she ran against him as a political novice and won with help from some labor unions, including the police.

And here's the thing. She ran as an opponent of the death penalty, and within months of taking office, a San Francisco police officer was shot and killed. And true to her word, she declined to seek the death penalty, but that caused an uproar from people like Sen. Dianne Feinstein, along with rank-and-file cops. And as a result, I think she kind of tacked to the middle, trying to mend fences with law enforcement groups. And in 2010, she then ran for California attorney general, and she very narrowly won, just barely defeating the Republican DA from Los Angeles. She was reelected in 2014 and then won a Senate seat two years later.

SHAPIRO: Interesting history there - so as attorney general and now as senator, how do people in California view her? What kind of reputation does she have?

SHAFER: Well, it's been mixed. When she ran for president, Harris marketed herself as a progressive prosecutor, someone who was, you know, tough on crime but also aware that the criminal justice system is biased against people of color. And there was some truth to that. You know, she supported rehabilitation programs and some criminal justice reforms to help drug offenders, for example, avoid long prison terms.

But critics said that she didn't always live up to that image that she tried to paint. For example, she was slow to support the legalization of marijuana, far slower than, say, Gavin Newsom and many other Democrats in California. She also did not have support for holding police accountable. For example, independent reviews of deadly police shootings when she was AG - she didn't support that. She also appealed when a death sentence was overturned by the courts, even though she opposes capital punishment.

SHAPIRO: So we've been hearing national reaction. What has the reaction in California to this announcement been, including from more progressive Democrats?

SHAFER: Well, as you can imagine, there's a sense of pride for sure. Attorney General Xavier Becerra, who replaced Harris as AG, noted the historic nature of Harris being Black and South Asian, and he likes the fact that she's been a civil and criminal prosecutor. He also noted that she brings a lot of West Coast energy to the nation in terms of its thinking on issues like climate change, the environment, civil rights and social justice.

Now, on the left, there's less enthusiasm for Harris. Many supporters of Bernie Sanders, for example - and remember; he won the California primary in March. They're calling Harris a, quote, "political weathervane." They note that she was first for "Medicare for All," then against it. And they feel she failed for years to hold police accountable for misconduct in California and then turned around and touted her commitment to police reform after George Floyd was killed. But, you know, I also talked to former California Sen. Barbara Boxer, who was Harris' predecessor in the Senate. And she noted this election isn't going to be about Kamala Harris' record but about Donald Trump's and Joe Biden's.

SHAPIRO: And what are California Republicans saying about the choice of Kamala Harris as Biden's running mate?

SHAFER: Well, Orange County Republicans in Southern California say - and I'm quoting here - "today's announcement should be clear to every American that Joe Biden is no moderate. In selecting Harris, a San Francisco liberal, as his running mate, he will oversee the most liberal administration in American history." And they're adding that she failed to prosecute dangerous criminals, although they don't give any examples. They do point out that as AG, she went after low-income parents whose kids were chronically truant, and that is true. And they also say that her selection guarantees that Democrats' calls for defunding police departments will become national policy. You know, just to be clear, Harris has never endorsed defunding police departments, nor has Joe Biden.

SHAPIRO: That is Scott Shafer of member station KQED in San Francisco.

Thanks a lot.

SHAFER: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Shafer (KQED)