California Sen. Kamala Harris is Joe Biden’s pick for vice president, a move that catapults the state’s former top prosecutor back into the national spotlight and could elevate her to second-in-command at the White House.
Should the Biden-Harris Democratic ticket defeat President Donald Trump in November, Harris would be the first female vice president, the first vice president who is Black and the first of Indian descent. She is considered a more moderate and safe choice for vice president compared with others Biden considered, including California Rep. Karen Bass and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren.
But Harris, 55, who’s known nationally for her own White House run, hasn’t always agreed with Biden. She criticized him during a Democratic presidential debate last summer for working with segregationist senators and opposing school busing in the 1970s, an effort to integrate schools.
During her time in the U.S. Senate, Harris has also gained a reputation for tough questioning of Trump administration appointees, such as Attorney General William Barr and now-Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh.
In California, Harris is best known for her career as a prosecutor, including her role as state attorney general. That role and the perception that Harris was a defender of the criminal justice system’s status quo became perhaps her biggest obstacle in the presidential race as the party’s base moved to the left.
Progressive critics cited, for example, her decision as attorney general in 2016 to oppose a bill to require her office to investigate shootings by police. They also pointed to her decision not to weigh in on state ballot measures to legalize recreational marijuana and to reduce penalties for nonviolent crimes. And despite her personal opposition to the death penalty, Harris defended it in court as attorney general.
Harris did work to reduce recidivism, eliminate bias in law enforcement, and — to wide controversy — did not seek the death penalty for a man suspected of killing a police officer earlier in her career as San Francisco district attorney.
During her run for the White House, CapRadio’s PolitiFact California examined Harris’ background, early career, her economic plans and fact-checked many of her statements. Here is a closer look at Harris as she prepares for even greater national scrutiny:
Harris’ background and early career
Harris was born in Oakland in 1964 and raised in a black, middle-class neighborhood in Berkeley. She is married and has two adult step-children.
She is the daughter of two immigrants: her mother was a medical scientist from India and her father is an economist from Jamaica.
In Berkeley, Harris has said her parents would often participate in civil rights protests. Harris has described having a “stroller-eye view” of that movement as a child.
She earned her bachelor’s degree at Howard University and her law degree at the UC Hastings Law School in San Francisco in 1989.
Early in her career, Harris worked as a prosecutor in Alameda County and also in San Francisco. She was elected San Francisco’s district attorney in 2003 and 2007.
Three years later, in 2010, Harris won a close statewide race to become California’s attorney general. And she was re-elected to that position in 2014.
Two years later, in 2016, she ran for the California U.S. Senate seat vacated by Barbara Boxer, and won that election.
Fact-checking Kamala Harris
During her presidential run, we found Harris made some false statements about her own record and the Trump administration.
She was accused by a former San Francisco politician and ally of trying to “rewrite history” when claimed that city’s 2008 policy of turning over arrested undocumented youth to federal immigration authorities was an “unintendended consequence.” We rated that claim False, finding that consequence was, in fact, the goal of the policy, and that Harris supported the policy when she was San Francisco DA. It was put in place by then-San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, now the state's governor.
We also found Harris was off-the-mark when she claimed the Trump administration was "raiding money" from the military pensions of service members to pay for the border wall. Experts on federal defense budgets told us that, in reality, the Pentagon planned to move leftover pay and retirement funds and that no service members were in jeopardy of losing pay or retirement benefits. We also rated that claim False.
Criminal justice reformer, or defender of the status quo?
With our national partner PolitiFact, we also took an in-depth look at Harris’ contention that she was a “progressive prosecutor,” and critics’ statements that she defended a broken criminal justice system. We found answering those questions is no simple matter, as her record is complex and, in places, includes contradictions.
Harris’ record on the death penalty is one such example.
Harris has long said that she’s personally opposed to the death penalty, and she demonstrated that sentiment as district attorney. Just days after San Francisco police officer Isaac Espinoza was shot and killed while on patrol in 2004, Harris announced she would not seek the death penalty in the case.
Her decision drew scorn from police groups and from Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who called for the death penalty at the officer’s funeral, drawing a standing ovation from the crowd of mostly law enforcement personnel.
Yet nearly a decade later, as state attorney general in 2015, Harris defended California’s death penalty law in court after a judge ruled it unconstitutional.
The day after her presidential campaign kick-off in Oakland in January 2019, she was asked by an attendee at a CNN town hall in Iowa to reconcile her "contradictory past with what you claim to support today."
"I’ve been consistent my whole career," Harris responded. "My career has been based on an understanding, one, that as a prosecutor my duty was to seek and make sure that the most vulnerable and voiceless among us are protected. And that is why I have personally prosecuted violent crime that includes rape, child molestation and homicide. And I have also worked my entire career to reform the criminal justice system understanding, to your point, that it is deeply flawed and in need of repair."
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