On Tuesday, Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden finally announced that his running mate will be California senator Kamala Harris. She is a 55-year-old accomplished politician and prosecutor, as well as the first Black woman and South Asian woman to run on a major party ticket. She’s also running alongside a 78-year-old man who, if he wins, will be the oldest U.S. president ever elected.
Harris’s résumé is by now well known, and loaded with powerful positions that are bound to appeal to moderate liberals. Before becoming the second Black woman elected to the Senate in 2017, she served as California’s attorney general, and before that as San Francisco’s district attorney. But the particulars of Harris’s political positions have been harder to nail down, especially as several of them have shifted over the years, most dramatically during her failed presidential campaign. Though she established herself as a centrist with a passion for law and order — a position reflected for the most part in her record — she spoke often about discrimination and inequality on the 2020 campaign trail and has championed some legislation and policies designed to promote racial justice.
Here’s a guide to Harris’s policy positions.
Policing and Criminal Justice
Throughout her political career, Harris has painted herself as a tough-on-crime Democrat and trotted out her prosecutorial credentials, but has emphasized racial justice as well. During her presidential campaign, Harris called for reforms to address racism in the criminal justice system. She vowed to end private prisons and mandatory minimums, legalize marijuana, and abolish the death penalty and solitary confinement. Harris wrote in her platform that she saw these proposals as part of a larger plan to end mass incarceration and undo “decades of failed polices” that “created an unjust, unequal, and vastly expansive system that disproportionately harms communities of color and criminalizes individuals just because they are poor.”
Because most of her career was spent as a top prosecutor in California, her record on issues of criminal justice and policing is her most controversial. As California’s attorney general, despite her professed opposition to the death penalty (she called her position “nonnegotiable”), when it came time for her to exercise political power on the issue in 2014, she appealed a judge’s decision that had found the state’s death penalty unconstitutional.
Harris has also drawn criticism for creating and boasting about an anti-truancy program during her time as San Francisco’s DA, where her office issued citations to parents whose children missed more than 50 days of school, warning them of possible prosecution. In 2010, Harris continued her crusade against truancy when she sponsored a law that threatened some parents whose kids missed more than 10 percent of school days in a year with up to a year in jail and $2,000 in fines, the Los Angeles Times reports. In an April 2019 interview with Pod Save America, Harris said she’d since had misgivings about this strategy. “I have now heard stories where, in some jurisdictions, DAs have criminalized the parents,” she said. “And I regret that has happened.”
SF Weekly, which covered Harris’s prosecutorial record extensively in the early aughts, asserts that despite her job description and tough talk, the senator “never fully embraced the tough on crime label,” and that “while she vowed to be harsher than her predecessor in the DA’s office, she drew criticism from cops and law-and-order types about her unwillingness to go after Tenderloin drug dealers, and her insistence on only prosecuting tight cases she knew she could win.” According to Vox, Harris was known during her time as a prosecutor for supporting programs that helped people secure jobs as an alternative to prison, but also for keeping people in prison even after they’d been proven innocent. The New York Times reports that during her time as California AG, Harris “largely avoided intervening in cases involving killings by the police.”
Harris has taken a firmer stance on addressing climate change and environmental justice over the past couple of years. During her presidential bid, she endorsed the Green New Deal. In September, Harris released a climate plan in which she pledged a $10 trillion investment in a clean-energy transition over the next ten years. She did not specify where much of that money would come from, but the amount was larger than what many of her fellow candidates pledged. Harris’s climate plan did not include a ban on fracking, but she said at a CNN town hall in September, “There’s no question I’m in favor of banning fracking.”
Last July, Harris and New York representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez introduced a plan for legislation that would ensure that new environmental bills are evaluated based on how they impact frontline communities. And during her time as San Francisco DA, Harris created an environmental-justice unit within her office to address environmental crimes that disproportionately affect poor communities of color.
Harris has expressed mixed messages on the issue of health care. She was one of the first prominent Democrats to co-sponsor Senator Bernie Sanders’s Medicare for All legislation in 2017. In February 2019, she faced criticism from moderates (and declining poll numbers) when she expressed her support for a single-payer health-care plan that would eliminate private insurance (“Let’s eliminate all that; let’s move on,” Harris said).
Then, in July 2019, Harris unveiled a different kind health-care platform, dubbed “KamalaCare,” that would expand Medicare without ending private insurance. The platform was widely regarded as splitting the difference between Sanders and Biden, the two front-runners for the nomination. Politico reported that the platform was slim on details, including the program’s cost, and that Harris has since “avoided weighing in on the coverage debate.”
On the campaign trail, Harris, who is the daughter of Jamaican and Indian immigrants, said that if elected she’d use her executive powers to reinstate and expand Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which gave 650,000 immigrants who came to the United States as children the legal right to live and work in the U.S. (The Trump administration announced in June that it would not accept new DACA applicants as it reviews the program, but has so far not been able to dismantle it completely). Harris also said she’d create a path to citizenship for people protected under DACA, known as “Dreamers.”
Two years ago, when the Trump administration cracked down on immigration with its cruel “zero-tolerance” policy, which included increased family separation, Harris joined protests at the border. In June 2018, she called for the resignation of Kirstjen Nielsen, who was head of Homeland Security at the time and oversaw family separation.
In the 2020 field, Harris was far from the most progressive candidate on the issue of student debt, proposing a convoluted student-loan-forgiveness plan that focused on helping entrepreneurs. The plan proposed canceling up to $20,000 in student loans for borrowers who started a business in a poor community and maintained it for three years, and was roundly mocked for being so limited.
During her campaign, Harris also put forth a proposal to raise teacher salaries to those of professionals with similar education backgrounds, amounting to a $13,500 raise on average.
Wall Street and Silicon Valley
When it comes to regulating big business, Harris’s positions align with centrist Democrats. As a senator, Harris has been critical of Silicon Valley and has advocated for regulations, but she stops short of calling for breaking up big tech companies. Harris’s big tax proposal focused on tax relief for the middle class rather than leveraging significantly higher taxes on the wealthy.
During her presidential bid, Harris accepted campaign contributions from an array of industries, including finance, real estate, film, and TV (she signed a pledge not to take money from oil and gas companies). Executives in the finance sector are reportedly pleased with Biden’s VP pick. Charles Myers, founder of the financial advisory group Signum Global, told CNBC that his clients were happy that Biden picked a centrist candidate. He shared a note that he sent to his clients just after the VP announcement, which reads, “Harris, who generally could be called a centrist, will not push Biden to the left or the right on major policy issues.”