Newly elected California Sen. Kamala Harris was in Washington, D.C., this week for new member orientation, working out of shared temporary space in a Senate office basement and “figuring out all the logistics including where’s the bathroom.”
“I got lost a couple of times and I had some very bright eyed 20-year-old interns who were happy to show me the way. And in moments like this, one cannot suffer from pride,” Harris said.
Harris herself was once one of those interns, having worked in the mailroom of then-California Sen. Alan Cranston when she was a student from Oakland attending Howard University in Washington. Barbara Boxer replaced Cranston in the Senate when Cranston retired in 1992 and now Harris, California’s attorney general, replaces the retiring Boxer.
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Harris will join the U.S. Senate in January days before Donald Trump is sworn in as the 45th president of the United States, and already she is preparing to fight Trump on immigration, health care and the environment. She spoke to California reporters in Washington about her plans. Here is a selection of the questions and answers.
Q At your recent event in Los Angeles you talked about immigration rights. What do you think about Trump’s statement on “60 Minutes” that he wants to specifically target people with criminal records for deportation?
A I have an experience with this kind of approach and what I have seen is when you say criminal, that’s a very broad term. It’s not a monolith. There’s a whole range of behaviors that can qualify as being called a crime. A DUI is very different from rape. And as a career prosecutor I have constantly and consistently seen that one of the best tools in the tool belt of a predator of an undocumented immigrant, be it rape, be it domestic violence, be it fraud, one of the best tools that the predator has is to look at the victim and tell the victim, ‘if you report this it is you who will be treated like a criminal.’
So we have to really think about what is in the best interests of public safety and understand that one of the best ways we can create justice is that we also have to make sure that we set up a system that will protect victims. Just based on previous experience, the definition of a crime can be left up to a lot of interpretation, and I think can have unintended consequences.
So I am suspicious of that approach . . . And here’s the other reality of it, every federal agency, every state or local agency, especially in law enforcement, will tell you they have limited resources and as far as I’m concerned I prefer that those resources as it relates in particular to nonviolent, nonserious crime, go into helping me – I’m still AG – do the work we need to do in dealing with transnational criminal organizations, who have a proven track record of trafficking in guns and drugs and humans. I can tell you we don’t have enough resources for that. So the concern is also about misplaced priorities for the sake of a sound bite.
Q Can you talk about areas where you might be able to agree with this president?
A One area, which is a very important area for me is infrastructure. California has $59 billion in unmet transportation needs . . . If you are ever on the 405 in LA and if you lived in Los Angeles people would tell you it is a human rights issue (laughs). We have an incredible need for upgrading our transportation infrastructure in California. I joke, human rights, but the reality is that in a lot of places in our country people cannot afford to live where they work . . . they commute long hours, and that’s hours they are not spending with their family, hours they are not spending at work, so we should make transportation easier.
And it’s directly obviously connected to greenhouse gas emissions and that is about climate change, that is about public health, An equally important point is that building up infrastructure is about jobs. So I would be very happy to work with President-elect Trump on infrastructure.
Q One thing Donald Trump said he’d like to do is repeal the Affordable Care Act. What would be your approach to that?
A To fight it, as I did. There have been many attacks on the Affordable Care Act in court and every step of the way California has taken a position and often a position of leadership in defending it during my tenure as AG, and those were the decisions we made.
I’m heartened by the fact that at the very least he recognizes that pre-existing conditions and the component about kids up to the age of 26, that they’ll be covered . . . But the population is obviously bigger than that so there’s going to be a need to fight.
We’ve done a great job in California, we were one of the states that agreed with the intent and purpose of the Affordable Care Act and so we created Covered California, which was our state’s initiative to comply with the state piece of the Affordable Care Act. And we have seen great results.
Q What committee assignments are you going for?
A I’ll wait and see what I get but you can probably imagine some of the obvious ones, I’d love to help California in terms of its infrastructure needs so wherever I can help there. Judiciary is an obvious one that I’m interested in. I’m interested certainly in veterans, we have the largest population of veterans of any state in the country.
One thing I believe and I think is true is that you can find ways to collaborate and do work on just about any subject regardless of the committee. I don’t feel that I’ll be confined to any one area of focus based on whatever the committee assignments end up being.