Okay. We all knew the Kamala Harris VP pick was coming. But I think that her record is not actually the reason I’m disheartened by this pick at this point. This takes her out of the running for Attorney General, after all, where she has clearer power to do damage.
I think I’m more disheartened because of what this says about how Joe Biden will choose his people.
On June 27, 2019, Joe Biden pleasantly surprised me, for maybe the only time during the primary campaign. Most people remember that night as Harris’s shining moment for hitting Biden hard on busing. The “that little girl was me” quote? There are dozens and dozens of articles about it.
But it’s what came after that stuck with me the most. Joe Biden gave a meandering response, but halfway through that response, there was an overlooked moment of shocking clarity:
“If we want to have this campaign litigated on who supports civil rights and whether I did or not, I’m happy to do that. I was a public defender. I didn’t become a prosecutor. I came out and I left a good law firm to become a public defender.”
I hadn’t yet been hired at my current public defender job at the time, but this was almost jarring to hear. Even for Dems, the prosecutor-to-power pipeline has been, and remains, strong, even for younger generations who may (or should) be more aware of the human cost of incarceration.
Obama, despite appointing record numbers of minorities and women to federal courts, also appointed more federal prosecutors in his first term than Reagan, Clinton, Bush 41, or Bush 43 did during their presidencies.
These numbers did improve in Obama’s second term, including the high-profile confirmations of Jane Kelly and Phil Restrepo, but still, many confirmed judges through 2013 and 2014 were former prosecutors as well.
Now, former prosecutors are not always automatic votes for the government. In addition to Gorsuch and Alito, the third federal prosecutor on the Supreme Court is Sonia Sotomayor. But in the aggregate, there is an imbalance.
Biden’s comment made me think that the culture leading to the imbalance might change, or at least could change. Even though I saw it as a tactical ploy, I hoped that it at least meant that the tactical calculations were changing.
Selecting Harris, of course, flies in the face of all this. Not just because Harris was the target of Biden’s public defender comment, but because Harris’s insistence, in her responses, that she was a progressive prosecutor flies largely in the face of the data.
I may write a separate thing about this, but just a few points: as DA, Harris oversaw one of the worst Brady scandals ever, where the office failed to turn over constitutionally required information to defendants that might exonerate them. Over 1,000 cases ended up getting dismissed after the 2010 revelation. Aides had pushed for a Brady policy as early as 2005, and Harris did not act.
As state AG, Harris’s office was appointed as counsel after a judge terminated the Orange County DA’s office as counsel due to an egregiously illegal informant scheme. Harris’s office, instead of taking the case for good government optics or to maintain public trust, objected and argued that Orange County should keep the case.
Harris’s office also argued that a Supreme Court decision requiring California to release inmates from overcrowded prisons because it would deprive the state of California of an important labor pool for fighting wildfires. She said she learned about this position her own office was taking when she read it in the paper.
As an aside: none of this is merely “ambition.” And if it is, then we need to redefine “ambition” to exclude throwing entire marginalized populations under the bus in order to advance in your career.
But if Biden is trying to earn the votes of the left, as he’s stated before, what does it say to us that the commendable stands he’s willing to take regarding an issue such as criminal justice are easily forgotten when choosing people to be a part of his administration?
Now, of course, nobody is perfect. Every possible appointment, selection, hire, everybody has flaws. But Biden knows the book on Harris. He helped write it.
So why her?
This question bugs me in particular because there is a Black woman who garnered rave reviews on the campaign trail in Iowa and has been active in decarceration circles during COVID.
I speak, of course, of Rep. Ayanna Pressley.
Pressley and Barbara Lee are just two of the progressive names that never even made it onto Biden’s longlist. Maybe Biden thinks that Pressley doesn’t have enough experience, although Val Demings only has one more House term than Pressley does. Or maybe both Lee and Pressley are just too far left for Biden. Whether this is intentional or simply an oversight, Biden’s focus on other options such as Val Demings raise a pretty clear inference that this is either directly or indirectly about ideology.
This is not only something to be concerned about regarding a Biden administration’s appointments and hires in the administrative state, which controls a staggering amount of implementation and enforcement (particularly the attorney general, as we’re seeing now).
But shortly before Biden became the presumptive nominee in March, he expressed that his goal was to be a bridge to future generations of leaders. He had kind remarks in particular for Harris, Cory Booker, and Gretchen Whitmer, whom he was sharing the stage with.
He also spent a lot of time in March talking up Pete Buttigieg as someone who reminded him of his own son.
To some extent, this is Biden recognizing that he does have to pass the torch, as Eric Swalwell asked him to do four thousand years ago at the June 2019 debate.
But it matters how you pass the torch. An elder statesman like Karen Bass or Barbara Lee would have allowed the voters to decide who should take the torch up should Biden win in 2020. Biden is explicitly putting a thumb on the scale here.
And as somebody with decades of Washington experience, he knows as well as anybody how well his hires will be set up in the future to accumulate even more power. And this is the choice he’s making.
This is not to say Harris doesn’t have a chance to rewrite her narrative either. She can push good policy on criminal justice, and she can apologize for her role in the scandals mentioned above. But she hasn’t felt the need to do so up until now, and she’s given no indication that she’s even thinking about it.
And to be clear: I don’t think that the correct answer here is changing your voting decision. The Supreme Court alone is worth way too much to civil rights for this to budge me. But it confirms my belief that the only way that we bring about structural and lasting change is to stay in the streets and to continue to make our calls long past January 2021, especially if Biden wins in November.
November 4 is not the end of the fight. It’s the beginning. We need your efforts and your activism, no matter what happens.
The work, as always, continues.