The Controversy of Kamala Harris


Senator Kamala Harris rose to national prominence in June, when she grilled Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein during his senate hearing and was shut down by Senators Burr and McCain. She is seen as a rising star among Democrats. However, the “Bernie-Bros,” the left wing of the Democratic party, do not like or trust her. They claim that she has too many links to Wall Street and a “#problematic” background. Fans of Harris staunchly defend her and claim that the Bernie-Bros are being sexist and racist. In the past week the issue has inflamed parts of twitter. Even semi-public figures like Chelsea Manning have gotten involved.

The question remaining now is whether or not the criticism Harris is receiving is justified. So let us take an unbiased look at Harris’ record on the topics she has received the most criticism for: transgender rights, prison labor, and ties to Wall Street.

Transgender Rights

In 2015 a transgender inmate by the name of Michelle Lael-Norsworthy sued the State of California for a gender reassignment surgery. Michelle had been taking artificial hormones for fifteen years that were aggravating a pre-existing liver condition and causing serious damage. She could no longer take those hormones safely, rendering a gender reassignment surgery necessary to suit her psychological and physical needs.

A federal judge ruled that the state was failing to meet Michelle’s “serious medical need” and ordered the surgery to take place. At the time, Harris was the Attorney General of California, and she appealed on behalf of the California corrections department against the decision. Harris argued that the hormones she was taking made the surgery unnecessary, and that California would face security problems when housing a transitioned inmate. However, the side effects of the hormones were what made the surgery necessary. California was also already housing at least one transitioned inmate at the time.

Harris, otherwise, has a strong background on LGBT rights. In 2008 She refused to defend a ballot measure that would have banned gay marriage in California after it was struck down by a federal court. Her position on the issue was key to the Supreme Court striking the ban down. She also led California in joining lawsuits against North Carolina and Texas’s so called “bathroom bills” that kept transgender individuals from using the bathroom that best matched their gender identity. More recently she has spoken out against President Trump’s proposed ban on Transgender troops, and signed Sen. Gillibrand’s letter asking the Pentagon not to discharge any transgender service members until the Defense Department completes an ongoing review.

Prison Labor

In 2014 a federal court ruled that California’s prisons were unconstitutionally overcrowded, and that California had to expand a parole program to combat overcrowding. Lawyers who worked in then-Attorney General Harris’s office argued against expanding the parole program. They argued against the program because of concerns that it would deplete the state’s firefighting force. California uses inmates to combat the state’s rampant forest fires. Harris’ lawyers claimed the state couldn’t combat forest fires if the inmates were paroled.

When courts made allowances for the firefighting program, the lawyers argued that even expanding the parole program to the rest of the prisoners would harm firefighting efforts. The reasoning then was that there wouldn’t be enough prisoners to perform other jobs, and to make up for the labor shortage, prisoners in the firefighting program would have to be moved to perform those other jobs.

To provide some context federal court said that “an inmate in one of California’s prisons needlessly dies every six or seven days due to constitutional deficiencies.” The prisoners in question that worked in firefighting and other jobs were nonviolent inmates charged with lower level offenses. Out of all Californian prisoners, they were best suited to be released early. However, the State of California saved over a billion dollars through their prison labor firefighting program. California would have rather condemned their prison population to unconstitutional suffering then spend the extra money to pay to fight California’s forest fires.

Harris claimed that her lawyers used that argument without her knowledge. It doesn’t quite seem believable that Harris would leave her own lawyers unsupervised. Especially in a case as high-profile as this one, which went all the way to the Supreme Court. In Harris’s defense, she has since condemned her lawyer’s argument, and tried to distance herself from it.

Ties to Wall Street

In January 2017 a memo from California’s state attorney general’s office was leaked. The memo was from 2013 and revealed that OneWest Bank repeatedly broke California’s foreclosure laws. The state attorney general’s Consumer Law Section said they identified over a thousand legal violations. However then-A.G. Harris declined to press charges, even though she had a mountain of evidence to prosecute with. To this day she still has never offered a justification.

However, in 2010 OneWest donated the max amount to Harris’ Attorney General campaign. The donation and lack of justification just looks shady. It raises the question of whether or not Harris looked the other way to protect a donor.

Symbolic Gestures and No Follow Up

Senator Harris has a bad habit of making lots of symbolic gestures and then failing to back them up with hard action. Sure, she opposed California’s gay marriage ban. However, she didn’t oppose it until after the courts declared it unconstitutional and the governor opposed it. She only joined the lawsuits against North Carolina and Texas after several other states joined first. She tweeted in support of transgender soldiers and signed a letter with 45 other senators. However, when push came to shove and she was in a position to influence policy, she failed the transgender community.

She condemned her lawyer’s argument against the parole of inmates. However, she should have been on top of her lawyers. She should have made sure that their arguments for the State of California were on the up-and-up.

Harris has campaigned on a willingness to go after big banks, but has failed to prosecute banks that have committed thousands of violations.

The Conclusion

Recently there’s been a lot of opposition to people who are criticizing Kamala Harris. Former Hillary Clinton aide Peter Daou recently tweeted that “If you’re devoting a minute of your time to attacking Dems like @KamalaHarris and @CoryBooker in the Trump Era, you’re NOT ‘PROGRESSIVE.'” There’s something fundamentally wrong with that point of view. Kamala Harris has some legitimately controversial opinions, and she doesn’t get a pass just because Trump is more controversial.

If people criticize her, she will have to evolve her positions and become more proactive to keep her and grow her political base. Kamala Harris has some legitimately progressive viewpoints like coming out in support of single-payer health care$15 minimum wage, and tuition-free college (for students from families earning less than $140,000 a year). She is also an eloquent speaker and well liked by centrists. If she becomes more proactive and adjusts her views on transgender rights and prison labor she can be a powerful player in the progressive movement.


Image Credits: By Lonnie Tague for the Department of Justice [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons