Kamala Harris, liberal hero?
It certainly doesn’t feel that way after some left-wing leaders and think-piece writers spent the summer dissecting the California senator’s record — often harshly. Even a social-media meme took aim, questioning Harris’ tenure as attorney general and derisively referring to her as a “centrist corncob.”
The attacks surprised many of her supporters, who have watched Harris cultivate a national following since becoming a senator in January. And they raised an unexpectedly early but important question for a woman many see as a possible presidential contender and certain party leader: Does she have a problem with the progressive movement?
The vast majority of progressive leaders would say, in fact, she does not. In interviews with a dozen of them (almost all of whom spoke of Harris as if she were running for president in 2020), they described a talented rising star who has made a great first impression with her strong performance in Washington.
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In the early jockeying for 2020, she hardly carries the same baggage as other possible rivals, such as Cory Booker, a senator from New Jersey.
But the criticism, if not fully representative of the liberal left, carries a warning. Even though she’s popular with many progressives now, she’s not the hero that Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts or Bernie Sanders of Vermont are; and both of them are potential presidential candidates too.
“Kamala Harris is extremely popular in California and has a really strong base of support here. But the presidency is the top prize,” said Rose Kapolczynski, a Democratic consultant in Los Angeles. “And once you start swimming in that pond, you’ve got to expect that other people are going to take a whack at you.”
Harris and her team say she is absolutely not focused on a presidential campaign. For a politician who is establishing herself as one of the party’s most popular leaders and who, at 52, could play a prominent role for Democrats for years to come, the criticism still matters.
The attacks on Harris began in earnest last month after a July report in the New York Post about her spending time in the Hamptons with Democratic donors. The donors’ close ties to Hillary Clinton stirred much of the angst, generating unfavorable online memes about Harris and leading to the proliferation of the hashtag #NeverKamala.
The criticism of her record, however, might have a more lasting impact.
One charge leveled against Harris by progressives involves her decision as AG to not bring legal action against Steve Mnuchin, then the head of California-based OneWest Bank and now the U.S. Treasury Secretary, for allegedly breaking state foreclosure laws. A 2013 internal memo first published by The Intercept alleges OneWest violated notice and waiting-period regulations, misrepresented key documents and gamed foreclosure auctions.
Harris has said her office went where the facts led them. Asked again why she didn't pursue the case, Harris' office suggested there was not enough evidence to support a conviction, and that the state was limited by the law in terms of the information it could compel from the company. They further argued that Harris directed her office's limited resources efficiently to secure another nearly $1 billion in settlements arising from the mortgage crisis.
Other liberals have voiced more general concerns. They claim to be impressed by her early start but say they worry she might be too tepid a politician at a time when progressives demand a bold leader.
“The biggest danger for Harris is that she refuses to raise her profile enough, that she takes a first-termer back-bencher approach to being a senator, as opposed to riding the Resistance wave to higher prominence,” said Markos Moulitsas, founder of the popular liberal blog Daily Kos. “The Resistance can never have enough leaders. This moment in history will define the careers and outcomes of myriad politicians.”
From the start of Donald Trump’s inauguration, Harris has sought to be a voice of opposition. She spoke at the Women's March in Washington in January, urging the crowd to "keep fighting no matter what." She was a vigorous opponent of the GOP's health care legislation, even cursing during one public appearance. More recently, she posted a long note on her Facebook page condemning the white supremacist march on Charlottesville and Trump's response to it.
That Harris would end up on the receiving end of progressive attacks so early after arriving in Washington would not have been predicted by many a few months ago, let alone as she rose though California politics.
From the start of her first contest for attorney general in 2010, political prognosticators from across the spectrum insisted Harris — an ardent early backer of Barack Obama’s run for the presidency — was too progressive to win statewide, including some who pointed to her unique profile. The daughter of immigrants from India and Jamaica, she was a career prosecutor from the ultra-liberal Bay Area who opposed the death penalty and pushed for criminal justice reform rather than a tough-on-crime approach that historically had helped win campaigns for the state’s top law enforcement office.
When she ran for Senate in 2016, she earned an endorsement from Warren, who called Harris a “fighter.”
“As someone who managed a campaign against her in a Democratic primary, I can tell you the recent criticism (of Harris) is probably the most ridiculous thing I have seen in politics in some time,” said Katie Merrill, a Berkeley-based strategist who represented Democrat Chris Kelly in the 2010 contest.
Moulitsas suggested some of the attacks have come from Sanders supporters, but one senior Sanders aide distanced the senator from the criticism.
“Nobody part of Bernie’s inner circle had anything to do with that, or would have any part of the criticism of Senator Harris,” said Mark Longabaugh, a senior aide to Sanders’ presidential campaign.
Like many Democrats, he praised Harris’ performances during a pair of hearings in June, when she questioned former FBI Director James Comey and Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Her performance drew widespread attention in part because of attempts by Republican senators to cut off her off, which endeared the senator to many progressive activists.
“You don’t get many moments as a freshman senator, and I think she’s had a few moments, and I think she’s preformed tremendously well in those moments,” Longabaugh said. “I’m not exactly sure how you could criticize her tenure in the U.S. Senate.”
Karen Bernal, progressive caucus chair of the state Democratic Party, has watched Harris since she served as attorney general. Though she personally opposed capital punishment, Harris had promised to defend “the law of the land.” Once in office, she followed though, angering Bernal and many others.
Lately, Bernal said the donor meetings in the Hamptons “don’t sit well with a crowd that has been pressing our party to not ensconce themselves in elite circles of wealth.”
“What a lot of people fear is that the (Democratic) leadership is doing everything they can to maintain the status quo by cycling in people who put up window dressing while they offer the same types of policies that we’ve seen for decades,” Bernal said.
Harris backs most of the policies Bernal wants to see from Democrats, including expressing support for the concept of single-payer healthcare, and bills to incrementally raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour, eliminate tuition and fees at four-year colleges and universities for families making up to $125,000 and creating more campaign finance disclosure requirements for corporations, unions and super PACs. Bernal wants Harris to use her platform to further elevate them in the national debate.
“We need to see from her strong leadership on these issues,” she said. “Actions kind of speak louder than words.”