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KAMALA HARRIS: I stand before you today to announce my candidacy.
THOMAS HEDGES: On January 21, Kamala Harris announced she was running for president in 2020. Now, more than a month later, she's emerged as one of the Democratic party's frontrunners.
However, she's currently facing strong criticism, especially for her career as a tough-on-crime prosecutor in California. But between her Senate win in 2016 and her announcement to seek the presidency in January, she started to support measures in line with the progressive agenda figures like Bernie Sanders and Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez have advanced. From tackling bail reform, to supporting the Green New Deal, to even backing Medicare for All, Harris is taking positions that past establishment candidates like Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama wouldn't have taken. So where does she really stand?
BRANKO MARCETIC: My sense of her has always been that she was someone who suddenly had an eye on higher office, and the role that she wanted to take to that was to be a tough prosecutor.
THOMAS HEDGES: Branko Marcetic, a contributor to Jacobin magazine, who wrote one of the most extensive profiles of Kamala Harris back in 2017, says that Harris's recent progressive rhetoric is a form of compensation for a lifetime of enacting tough-on-crime policies Democratic voters no longer think are fair.
BRANKO MARCETIC: And so basically the piece I wrote was looking at how much current rhetoric really aligns with her past policies, the answer being not all that much.
Having gotten their political education in the '90s and 2000s, which is the kind of high point of Democratic centrism and the third way, her politics are very much of that era, where the way you defeat the right is by basically trying to triangulate and take some of their positions so you can peel off right-wing voters.
THOMAS HEDGES: Marcetic argues that Harris's whole career has been a balancing act between garnering popular support and gaining the trust of the establishment, and the first stark example of that was in 2004, when she had just been elected as district attorney of San Francisco, and had refused to seek the death penalty for a man who had killed a police officer. It was a stance for which she was heavily criticized, including by U.S. Senator and former San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein. In later years, however, it was something she really didn't speak about or continue to challenge, even though she ran on an anti-death penalty platform. In fact, 10 years later, she reversed her position, and even appealed a federal judge's conclusion that the death penalty was unconstitutional.
Her explanation was that while she was personally opposed to capital punishment, her job as a prosecutor was to enforce the will of the voters, the majority of whom had voted for the death penalty. That explanation might have been plausible, if it weren't for the fact that in 2008 California faced the same exact situation with regards to banning gay marriage.
SPEAKER: And a battle that's too close to call is over the future of same sex marriage.
THOMAS HEDGES: As with the death penalty, voters had approved a ban on gay marriage in the state. And again, as with the death penalty, a federal judge later ruled that referendum to be unconstitutional.
KAMALA HARRIS: I think that Prop 8 is, as the court has declared, unconstitutional.
THOMAS HEDGES: However, Harris chose not to defend the referendum on banning gay marriage.
KAMALA HARRIS: Think about it conceptually, it's just wrong.
THOMAS HEDGES: Proving that she was, indeed, selective on which issues she was willing to fight for.