Harris' record as prosecutor could complicate effort to replace Biden as Dem nominee

Vice President Kamala Harris' record as attorney general and a prosecutor in California took center stage in her 2020 campaign for president

As calls for President Biden to be replaced in the 2024 race for the White House strengthen, some lawmakers and liberal pundits believe Vice President Kamala Harris has what it takes to challenge former President Donald Trump in November — despite the questionable positions she took during her own 2020 presidential campaign.

"The reality is if you’re even going to have a conversation about who’s next, if Kamala Harris, the sitting vice president, is not the first and last name out of your mouth, then tell me how you’re going to get Black voters to engage when you change the rules to accommodate somebody other than her," political strategist Basil Smikle said during a recent appearance on "MSNBC Reports."

The possibility of Harris replacing Biden, however, has led to questions about how successful she would be in a general election matchup against Trump, who Biden has suggested is "determined to destroy American democracy."

During her 2020 presidential campaign, which launched in January 2019, Harris faced intense criticism and scrutiny for her record as a prosecutor and as attorney general of California.


Vice President Kamala Harris at podium

Vice President Kamala Harris delivers remarks on the campus of the University of Maryland in College Park, Maryland, on June 24. (Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)

Lara Bazelon, a University of San Francisco associate law professor, suggested at the time that efforts to paint Harris as a "progressive prosecutor" didn't match her actions as district attorney of San Francisco and then California’s attorney general.

"Time after time, when progressives urged her to embrace criminal justice reforms as a district attorney and then the state’s attorney general, Ms. Harris opposed them or stayed silent," Bazelon wrote for The New York Times amid Harris' 2020 campaign launch.

"Most troubling, Ms. Harris fought tooth and nail to uphold wrongful convictions that had been secured through official misconduct that included evidence tampering, false testimony and the suppression of crucial information by prosecutors," she added.

Bazelon also listed multiple instances at the time when the then-Democratic senator for the Golden State failed to embrace criminal justice reforms — either opposing them or declining to state an opinion.

Harris' record as a prosecutor, which failed to resonate with many voters in her party, also took center stage at a Democratic presidential primary debate in July 2019.

During the debate, then-presidential candidate and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, took aim at Harris and said she was "deeply concerned" about her record.

"Senator Harris says she's proud of her record as a prosecutor and that she'll be a prosecutor president, but I'm deeply concerned about this record," Gabbard, now an independent, said at the time. "There are too many examples to cite, but she put over 1,500 people in jail for marijuana violations and then laughed about it when she was asked if she ever smoked marijuana."


Gabbard added, "She blocked evidence that would have freed an innocent man from death row until the courts forced her to do so. She kept people in prison beyond their sentences to use them as cheap labor for the state of California. And she fought to keep cash bail system in place that impacts poor people in the worst kind of way."

Joe Biden, Kamala Harris

President Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris are seen on the Truman Balcony of the White House in Washington, D.C., on Thursday. (Tierney L. Cross/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Defending her record as attorney general, Harris said she was "proud of that work" and insisted at the time that she "did the work of significantly reforming the criminal justice system of a state of 40 million people, which became a national model for the work that needs to be done."

Responding to Harris, Gabbard said: "The bottom line is, Senator Harris, when you were in a position to make a difference and an impact in these people's lives, you did not."

Should the hypothetical of Harris replacing Biden become a reality for Democrats, it is unclear how the positions she once held, some of which weren't popular with members of her own party, will come into play in the election.

Harris raised eyebrows during her 2020 campaign when it came to her health care plan, which she told CNN's Anderson Cooper would result in the removal of Americans from their private plans offered by employers.

Among the many other positions she took during her campaign, which ended in December 2019, Harris signaled her support for a ban on fracking and plastic straws. She also insisted she would "get rid of the filibuster to pass a Green New Deal" and that there would be a "carbon fee" if she were elected president.


Vice President Kamala Harris speaks during an event at Discovery World

During her 2020 presidential campaign, Harris insisted she would "get rid of the filibuster to pass a Green New Deal" and that there would be a "carbon fee" if she were elected. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)

During her campaign, Harris also pushed for a repeal of the tax cuts offered during Trump's tenure in the White House and insisted "we've got to increase the corporate tax rate."

Additionally, Harris said during her campaign that estate taxes "have to go up."

Though many high-profile Democrats have been evasive since the president's disastrous debate performance last week, a few House Democrats have voiced support for Harris stepping in to lead the party in the presidential contest.

"If our president decides this is not a pathway forward for him, we have to move very quickly. There’s not going to be time for a primary. That time is past," Rep. Summer Lee, D-Pa., a member of the House's progressive "Squad," said during a recent radio interview. "The vice president is the obvious choice. She’s sitting right there."

Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., similarly told "MSNBC Reports" recently: "I want this ticket to continue to be Biden-Harris. This party should not, in any way, do anything to work around Ms. Harris. We should do everything we can to bolster her, whether she's in second place or at the top of the ticket."

The potential move has also received support from former Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, who challenged Biden for the 2020 presidential nomination. Ryan's recent op-ed for Newsweek was headlined, "Kamala Harris Should Be the Democratic Nominee for President in 2024."

President Biden in doorway at White House

President Biden arrives for a news conference at the White House in Washington, D.C., on Monday. (Andrew Harnik/Getty Images)

On Independence Day, Biden told a crowd of supporters that he has no plans to drop out of the election, despite continued struggles and gaffes during unscripted events.

Democrats will officially nominate a candidate for president and vice president at next month's Democratic National Convention, which is slated to take place in Chicago from Aug. 19-22.


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