As a woman of color and champion for ‘smart on crime’ reforms, the California senator and her centrist platform could be the party’s solution to its identity crisis
This article titled “Could Kamala Harris revive the fractured Democratic party for the 2020 election?” was written by Lois Beckett in Washington, for theguardian.com on Saturday 22nd July 2017 12.00 UTC
In early July, Kamala Harris, California’s new senator, visited Chowchilla state prison, often called the largest women’s prison in the world.
Harris, the second black woman in history to be elected to the US Senate, toured the facility and sat down with incarcerated women to hear their stories. She later called the women “extraordinary”, and praised their optimism in finding a new life after prison. But the moment that she dwelled on most was a visit to the silkscreening room, where inmates were cutting rectangles of fabric and pushing paint through the material. The imprisoned women were manufacturing American flags.
Later, in front out of an audience of criminal justice reform advocates in Washington DC, Harris would share that story. She gestured out the window to the American flags flying above the nation’s capital, some of which, she suggested, may have been made in Chowchilla.
“Isn’t it part of who we are in America that we believe in second chances?” she asked.
Six months into the presidency of Donald Trump, Republicans are flailing amid efforts to erase health insurance for tens of millions of Americans. Democrats are already looking eagerly forward to the 2020 presidential race – and a new candidate to lead them.
However, the Democratic party, too, is riven with disagreement. Does its salvation lie in maintaining a centrist position, or taking strong shift left, toward Bernie Sanders’s unapologetic embrace of universal healthcare, a higher minimum wage, and tuition-free college? The party faces frustration from voters who feel it is too beholden to corporate interests.
Harris is seeing increasing presidential buzz, making headlines for her tough questioning of the attorney general, Jeff Sessions, during a Senate hearing, and then reportedly wowing big Democratic donors at an event in the Hamptons this month.
In an America of emboldened racism, where the white supremacist Ku Klux Klan recently held a rally in a college town and was confronted with more than a thousand furious counter-protesters, the Democratic party is also still negotiating its own racial politics. The party is caught between those who are moving to woo back white working-class voters who defected to Trump, and those who argue that it would be a smarter investment to focus on mobilizing African American voters, whose reported turnout dropped in 2016.
There’s a long list of potential 2020 contenders, many of them, including Harris, making the obligatory claims that they are focused on their current jobs and not thinking ahead to the White House. Sanders, 75, still has enthusiastic backers, and has been touring the country, as has Senator Elizabeth Warren, the progressive firebrand from Massachusetts. Warren has long been enough of a challenge to Trump that he gave her a demeaning nickname during his campaign: Pocahontas, a reference to her reported Native American descent.
The former vice-president Joe Biden, who chose not to run for president in 2016, has a new book out, Promise Me Dad, about the year after his son Beau’s death. He has been blunt in his frustration at what he sees as the Democrats’ failure to channel the economic anxieties of the middle-class: “You didn’t hear a single solitary sentence in the last campaign about that guy working on the assembly line making $60,000 a year and a wife making $32,000 as a hostess in restaurant.”
Harris is a comparative unknown on the national stage – one recent poll found that 53% of voters had never heard of her. But she offers an interesting solution to the problem facing the Democratic party.
Harris is a leader whose success inspires young women of color, who see themselves in her. At the same time, her rhetoric and positions are often scrupulously centrist. She likes to talk about how her civil rights activist family was appalled when she decided to become a prosecutor. Rather than try to challenge America’s continuing love of law and order politics, which fueled mass incarceration and helped Trump win the White House, Harris is trying to reshape that instinct, pivoting from “tough on crime” to “smart on crime”, the title of her 2009 book.
At Women Unshackled, a criminal justice reform conference in Washington DC this week, Harris was treated like a star. The conference, which planned for 300 attendees, attracted double that number and she was mobbed in the hallway by enthusiastic young women. Vogue magazine’s website ran a photo of the senator surrounded by jubilant young faces, with women crowding around her, arms outstretched to get a photograph on their phones.
Outside in the hallway after her criminal justice speech, Harris told a reporter for Yahoo news that Democrats needed to have a message “much bigger” than resisting Donald Trump.
“The issues are not simple, so the message is not going to be simple,” she said, rejecting any “monosyllabic” slogan, “but essentially it’s about telling the American public we see them.”
Criminal justice reform, one of Harris’ key issues, is also one of the Democratic party’s failures. Clinton was attacked for her role in boosting the Democratic party’s harsh, pro-incarceration policies, part of a push toward mass incarceration that devastated black families and that many Americans now see as a shameful mistake.
Young activists confronted Clinton over comments made in 1996 interpreted as an attack on young African Americans. She described “the kinds of kids that are called ‘super-predators’, no conscience, no empathy. We can talk about why they ended up that way, but first we have to bring them to heel.”
Harris is pursuing criminal justice legislation focused on practical problems: encouraging states to reform their money bail systems, which trap low-income defendants in jail before their trials simply because of their inability to pay, and treating incarcerated women with more dignity, including providing them with free tampons and calls home to their children.
She and Senator Cory Booker, another potential 2020 contender, gave very different explanations of their approach to the same policies when they spoke at the conference.
Booker, another younger black Democrat and former high-profile New Jersey mayor, gave a high-toned speech studded with literary references to Ralph Ellison and Maya Angelou.
“How could this nation that professes freedom and liberty be the incarceration capital of the globe?” Booker asked, roaming around the small stage with his microphone.
Booker’s current response to the Trump slogan “Make America Great Again” was a loving lament: “I’m one of those people who tells you right now, ‘If your country hasn’t broken your heart, you don’t love her enough.’ We should all be broken by this system, hurting from it, we should not be comfortable.”
Harris’s speech was more relaxed and anecdotal, drawing on her time as a prosecutor and California attorney general. She also struck repeated notes that might appeal to a more conservative audience, noting: “I agree we must be talking about wasteful spending in our country … We must be talking about tax reform.”
Harris repeatedly emphasizing her willingness to lock up violent offenders and mixed moral and financial appeals for criminal justice reform. She highlighted her much-criticized approach to reduce truancy among children in San Francisco by “being the bad guy” and deciding “to start prosecuting parents for truancy”.
“I’m going to tell you, half the city threw tomatoes at me,” she said.
Harris made no fierce indictments of America’s racism, no attempts to grapple with the reasons America’s criminal justice system is so broken. Instead, she has directed tough jabs at Jeff Sessions, the attorney general with a southern drawl and a history of fierce opposition to criminal justice reform.
At one point, Harris referred to the attorney general as “this guy” and his policies as “crazy”, saying: “The war on drugs was an abject failure … with this guy talking about reviving the war on drugs, it’s crazy.”
Jamira Burley, a criminal justice reform advocate who worked on Clinton’s campaign efforts to turn out millennial voters, said that the young activists she trains enthusiastically share clips of Harris on social media. They appreciate her asking tough questions in public, and her simple presence in national office “allows women of color to dream bigger”.
“I would like her to talk more about the movement for black lives,” Burley said.
For some criminal justice reform advocates, Harris may not go far enough.
Andrea James, the founder of the National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls, praised Harris’ focus on “very important” issues, but said that no national candidate had yet embraced the idea of ending the incarceration of women in a fundamentally violent, damaging system.
Harris’ description of her visit to the women’s prison in Chowchilla made no mention of one issue affecting the women there now: a “massive uptick in suicides”, James said.
“We have to end incarceration of women and girls,” she said. “We have to move beyond making prisons ‘better’ for women.”
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