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Kamala Harris is a different kind of prosecutor

The Democratic candidate for state attorney general opposes the death penalty and has stressed prevention as well as punishment while San Francisco's district attorney. But convictions have increased dramatically in her office.

October 20, 2010|By Phil Willon, Los Angeles Times
  • Kamala Harris responds to a question during a debate with Republican challenger Steve Cooley at UC Davis.
Kamala Harris responds to a question during a debate with Republican challenger… (Rich Pedroncelli / Associated…)

San Francisco Dist. Atty. Kamala Harris stood at the pulpit and spoke of redemption and second chances, the first of many clues that she is a different kind of prosecutor.

The Democratic candidate for California attorney general was on a recent campaign swing through Long Beach churches, and blamed California's lock-'em-up law enforcement policies for creating a "broken system'' of overcrowded, revolving-door prisons that do little to make neighborhoods safer.

"Everybody will make mistakes, and for some that mistake will rise to the level of being a crime,'' Harris, 46 on Wednesday, said to the congregation at the Greater Open Door Church of God in Christ. "Yes, there will be consequence and accountability, but after that … isn't it a just society that says we are going to create a role and opportunity for folks to earn their way back among us?"

Harris' Republican opponent in the race, Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley, seizes on comments like that to cast Harris as a far-left liberal, a "radical" too concerned about the welfare and rights of criminals whom many California voters would rather leave behind bars.

There's no doubt Harris has vulnerabilities. An opponent of capital punishment, she refused to seek the politically popular death penalty for a cop killer in 2004, and again last year for an illegal immigrant accused of gunning down a father and his two sons. In May, her office was chastised by a San Francisco judge for failing to disclose information about a police drug-lab scandal.

But Harris, the first African American woman elected as a district attorney in California, doesn't appear worried. The near-decade she spent in courtrooms convicting murderers, rapists and child molesters shows she's tough on crime, Harris argues, and she campaigns relentlessly on her office's increased conviction rates, crackdown on gun-related offenses, and emphasis on environmental and financial crimes.

Beneath Harris' disarming ability to connect with people of widely different backgrounds is the thick skin of a San Francisco politician who has flourished in a city known for gleefully devouring its elected leaders. No one opposed her when Harris ran for reelection in 2007.

Harris' interest in politics and public service was cultivated at an early age. She talks of "marching for civil rights in a stroller'' in the 1960s in Oakland and Berkeley, nudged along by two politically active professors, a Jamaican father and a mother from India.

Her parents divorced when Harris was a toddler and her mother, a breast cancer researcher at the University of California, raised Kamala and her sister Maya to be proud African American women during a tumultuous time in the United States. (Her sister is a Ford Foundation vice president and is married to Tony West, head of the Department of Justice's Civil Division). Harris was a member of the second class to integrate Berkeley's public schools.

"My mother had a saying: 'Kamala, you may be the first to do many things, but make sure you're not the last,' '' Harris recalls.

Harris worked for Walter Mondale's presidential campaign while at Howard University in Washington, D.C., and within years of returning to the West Coast to attend UC Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco she immersed herself in California Democratic politics. (She's also backed Barack Obama since he was an Illinois Senate candidate). The prosecutor's decision to hop across the bay in 2000, leaving the respected Alameda County district attorney's office after eight years for the dysfunctional, yet higher profile one in San Francisco, was perceived by some as a political maneuver.

At age 39, Harris won a bruising campaign in 2003 to unseat two-term incumbent San Francisco Dist. Atty. Terence Hallinan. Harris had briefly worked for him before she became disillusioned with his leadership and left for the San Francisco city attorney's office. Hallinan attacked Harris as a cog in the political machine of her mentor and one-time boyfriend Willie Brown, the former Assembly speaker and the city's mayor at the time.

Under Hallinan, a rigid liberal, conviction rates hovered around 50%, by far the lowest in the state. Prosecutors lacked simple necessities such as e-mail accounts. And Hallinan had infuriated the Police Department by filing corruption charges against the command staff, a case that was quickly tossed out of court.

"She inherited all that mess,'' said defense attorney Bill Fazio, a former prosecutor who ran against Harris and Hallinan in 2003. "And I must say, even though she's had some problems, she cleaned up a lot of it.''

Under Harris, San Francisco's conviction rate has risen above 70%, state Department of Criminal Justice records show, still below the 83% state average but enough of an improvement to become a centerpiece of her campaign.

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