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Harris Enters 2020 Race With Political Baggage From Time As Calif. Attorney General


It's early days still, but the Democratic field of 2020 presidential candidates is growing. The latest to throw in her hat - California Senator Kamala Harris. Harris has branded herself a progressive, but she also carries political baggage that opponents may use to question her progressive credentials - controversial decisions she made as a prosecutor and attorney general of California.

Chris Cadelago is a reporter for Politico. He's been following Harris' career for years. Welcome to the program.

CHRIS CADELAGO: Thank you so much.

CORNISH: So you were based in Sacramento during the years when she was a prosecutor, right? Based on what you saw at the time, how was her tenure characterized?

CADELAGO: As an attorney general, people often criticized Kamala Harris for being overly cautious, basically for siding with law enforcement too often. And I think some of those cases where that came up where some statewide ballot initiatives where she did not take a position on one in particular that would have reduced some felonies to misdemeanors.

CORNISH: Now, when you look at a potential candidate - I'll say like a Joe Biden - people are already talking about his role in the mid-'90s in terms of the crime bill - right? - and its connection to mass incarceration. Is there anything like that for Kamala Harris that could kind of come back as a criticism?

CADELAGO: So even though Kamala Harris has long been personally opposed to the death penalty, she made a vow when she ran statewide in California that she would uphold the law of the land. And there was a sort of famous case in Orange County where the issue of the death penalty came before her office, and her office actually took the side of the state and argued that the death penalty should stand. And her critics now point to that and say, you know, that was an opportunity for her to really take a stand and say, you know, this should not be the law of the land in California. And that's not something that she did.

CORNISH: We saw just as recently as the last presidential election issues of criminal justice coming to the forefront in the Democratic primary. Can you talk about how different the politics are now for this next crop of candidates and including Kamala Harris?

CADELAGO: Sure, yeah. We were just starting to hear a lot of the sort of voices creeping up within the Democratic Party at the time in 2016. Now I think people have really come to digest the new environment that we're in with really the Black Lives Matter movement really taking hold across the country. And I think you've seen prosecutors across the country come out and really take much stronger - what some folks would call activist positions. Folks in Kamala Harris' camp who have come up a couple - maybe a generation or two before them really were a lot more in line with this sort of standard law-and-order prosecutor that sort of defended the law of the land even though she did take some other approaches in her career.

CORNISH: So what does that mean looking forward to 2020? How do you think she tries to reframe this resume?

CADELAGO: She's really going to position herself as a progressive prosecutor and a public interest attorney, as she calls it, someone who worked on behalf of the people. She had clients, so to speak, who were sexually assaulted young women and girls, and she was in the courtroom trying to seek justice for them. That is something that she's going to point out - and I think a lot of environmental laws related to California where she was taking on the big polluters. So I think she has to really own this profile as a prosecutor and talk about the ways in which she did things differently.

CORNISH: What are you going to be looking for in the coming weeks?

CADELAGO: I think the question - she has a speech in Oakland on Sunday, which is supposed to really mark the start of her campaign. And I think that speech is going to take place only a few blocks from where she worked for years at the Alameda County Courthouse, and so it - there's a lot of symbolic value to the location. And I think this part of her record is something she's going to have to explain to people, and she's going to lead with this idea that she was not only a prosecutor but a progressive prosecutor.

CORNISH: Chris Cadelago is a reporter for Politico. Thank you for speaking with us.

CADELAGO: Thank you so much.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In an earlier version of this story, we incorrectly reported that Sen. Kamala Harris is a former federal prosecutor. She is not. She previously was district attorney for the city and county of San Francisco and previously was California's attorney general.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: January 23, 2019 at 12:00 AM EST
In an earlier version of this story, we incorrectly reported that Sen. Kamala Harris is a former federal prosecutor. She is not. She previously was district attorney for the city and county of San Francisco and previously was California's attorney general.
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