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Inside Kamala Harris’ 2020 campaign plan

Politically, Sen. Kamala Harris’ past legal work has helped her far more than it has hurt. | Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

2020 Elections

Running as a career prosecutor isn’t a natural fit in today’s Democratic Party. Here’s how she intends to pull it off.

Kamala Harris’ Democratic opponents are already telegraphing that they plan to make her law-and-order background an enormous vulnerability with voters on the left.

But the California senator, who announced her bid for the White House on Monday amid an early wave of scrutiny of her career as a prosecutor, thinks she can turn the criticism on its head.

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According to interviews with a half-dozen of her confidants and strategists, Harris will court voters wary of law enforcement by presenting herself as a kinder and gentler prosecutor — a “progressive” attorney who advocated for the vulnerable and served the public interest. At the same time, they believe leaning into her background will allow her to project toughness against Donald Trump, and contrast what they call her evidence-based approach to law and politics with the president’s carelessness with facts and legal troubles with the special prosecutor.

“In the face of a lawless president and a lawless administration, Americans are going to be looking for somebody who represents and stands for the rule of law,” one Harris adviser said.

But it will be a tough balancing act, and it’s an open question whether Harris has the political dexterity to pull it off. A scathing New York Times op-ed by a California law professor last week gave a taste of what the Californian is in for: It argued that Harris was overzealous against defendants in a slew of cases she or her office handled. Her critics and opponents quickly circulated the article.

The former San Francisco district attorney and California attorney general will focus on her earlier work protecting woman and children who suffered from sexual violence, students who were taken advantage of by for-profit colleges, homeowners hurt by the foreclosure crisis and families choked by serial polluters, as well as her office’s role in advancing the marriage equality movement.

The something-for-everyone approach is designed to position her as a potential voice for progressives and moderates, from millennial women who supported Bernie Sanders to Democrats who voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016.

She also will try to claim the mantle as an avatar of honesty at a time when many Democrats want reconciliation and healing. She addresses society’s biggest challenges with an opening watchword derived from her legal training: To tackle the issues, Harris argues, people need to first hear the truth —about everything from racism and sexism to the fact that the vast majority of Americans descend from people who weren’t born here.

But embracing her prosecutorial brand and ethos is not without risk in the modern Democratic Party. Some criminal justice advocates, based on early dissections of her record, view her as overly cautious amid calls to reform the system. They argue that she aligned herself too closely with law enforcement during her political ascent – when they wanted her to be more of an activist while holding the powerful positions.

The author of the Times op-ed, law professor Lara Bazelon, argued that Harris “stayed silent” over much of her early career.

“Most troubling,” she wrote, “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.”

Other pointed to Harris’ decision as California attorney general to not bring state foreclosure law actions against Steve Mnuchin when he was head of the California-based OneWest Bank. Harris aides maintain there wasn’t enough evidence to support a conviction against Mnuchin, now Trump’s treasury secretary.

Opponents seized on the attack and suggested it will be central to their effort to discredit Harris among primary voters.

On the broader critique, which comes against the backdrop of the Black Lives Matter movement, Harris has long maintained that it’s a “false choice” to side with either law enforcement or those demanding more oversight of police and prosecutors. Harris, who developed anti-recidivism programs and introduced a bail reform bill in the Senate to tackle high rates of incarceration and discrimination in the justice system, addresses the issue in her new book, “The Truths We Hold.”

Sen. Kamala Harris

“You can want the police to stop crime in your neighborhood and also want them to stop using excessive force,” she writes. “You can want them to hunt down a killer on your streets and also want them to stop using racial profiling. You can believe in the need for consequence and accountability, especially for serious criminals, and also oppose unjust incarceration. I believed it was essential to weave all these varied strands together.”

Still, she’s long had to explain her decision not to go into another line of work — or at least another part of the law. The daughter of an Indian-born mother and Jamaican-born father who were active in the Civil Rights movement, Harris had to defend her career choice to family and friends like one would a thesis.

She describes some of them as incredulous. And in the book, she dives into the nation’s “deep and dark history of people using the power of the prosecutor as an instrument of injustice.”

But history told another story, too, she added.

“I knew the history of brave prosecutors who went after the Ku Klux Klan in the South. I knew the stories of prosecutors who went after corrupt politicians and corporate polluters. I knew the legacy of Robert Kennedy, who, as U.S. attorney general, sent Department of Justice officials to protect the Freedom Riders in 1961, and sent the U.S. Marshals to protect James Meredith when he enrolled at Ole Miss the next year.”

Long before the presidential race, Harris has pitched herself as a different kind of prosecutor. In her first race for San Francisco district attorney, the 38-year-old trudged around town with a makeshift standing desk made from an ironing board that bore the sign “Kamala Harris, a voice for justice.”

Lateefah Simon, who worked with Harris for five years in San Francisco, met when Simon advocated for girls on the streets who were being trafficked or engaging in sex work. She said it’s impossible to separate Harris’ early career from the candidate she is today: “I think that she brings that grit.”

“I think she’s going to use that skill, but also that [prosecutorial approach] to go hard” on her opponents, Simon said.

In 2010, when Harris ran for attorney general, she urged voters to be not hard or soft on crime, but “smart on crime.” It became the title of her first book on the subject. Six years later, the TV ads for her Senate campaign placed Harris in a courtroom, adding a keyword to the line she would tell judges before a case could get started: “Kamala Harris, fearless for the people.”

The video Harris’ campaign released Monday announcing her presidential run and teasing her first big speech Sunday in Oakland introduced a new variation on the theme: “For The People.”

Politically, Harris’ past legal work has helped her far more than it has hurt.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand

Mary Hughes, a Democratic strategist who has worked with female candidates for more than three decades, said those running for executive offices must persuade people that they have the mettle and resolve to make hard decisions. One of the ways women are meeting those demands is by featuring backgrounds that have been historically held by men, such as prosecutorial and military roles.

“We have had women who are excellent lawyers for a long time, but that lacked the quality of fierceness that we expect in our ultimate leader,” Hughes said. “In a frightening world, we know we need people of great strength.”

Hughes cautioned that this is not the only way women ascend to executive positions – others in recent years, primarily gubernatorial candidates, have shown that they have stared down powerful people and interests.

Harris is planning to combine both — pointing to her pulling out of talks to settle charges that banks wrongfully foreclosed on homeowners because the proposed settlement, $ 2 billion to $ 4 billion, represented “crumbs on the table.” Harris soon settled for $ 18 billion, which grew to $ 20 billion.

In the Senate, her high-profile turns in the media have been prosecutorial in nature: She grilled Trump cabinet members and appointees on the Judiciary Committee, creating a viral moment when she was interrupted by her male Republican colleagues, one of whom admonished her for not being more courteous. And in her early tussling so far with the Trump administration, when a White House twitter account called out Harris for “supporting the animals of MS-13,” she swung the debate back to her time as a top cop.

“As a career prosecutor, I actually went after gangs and transnational criminal organizations,” Harris responded in a tweet of her own. “That’s being a leader on public safety. What is not, is ripping babies from their mothers.”

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