Courting Black Voters in South Carolina, Harris Defends Her Record
In a state that could be crucial to her presidential hopes, the California senator addressed her record as a prosecutor, which has been a source of criticism from the left
COLUMBIA, S.C.—Sen. Kamala Harris vigorously defended her record as a prosecutor, accusing critics of inaccurately trying to define her as she courted a state, and a constituency, that could be crucial to her hopes of winning the Democratic presidential nomination.
While Ms. Harris has talked extensively about her career, her speech Saturday night was a more forceful attempt to explain her work in the wake of criticism that minorities were negatively affected during her 2½ decades as a prosecutor, which included stints as San Francisco's district attorney, and later, California's attorney general before she was sworn into the U.S. Senate in 2017.
"In this election, regarding my background as a prosecutor, there have been those who have questioned my motivations, my beliefs and what I have done," Ms. Harris said to the mostly African-American crowd at a National Association for the Advancement of Colored People event in Columbia. The South Carolina NAACP is a nonpartisan organization and hasn't endorsed Ms. Harris's candidacy for the Democratic nomination.
"But my mother used to say, you don't let people tell you who you are. You tell them who you are," she said to applause. "Let me be clear, self-appointed political commentators do not get to define who we are and what we believe."
South Carolina is the fourth state on the Democratic primary calendar and the first with a significant African-American population. Ms. Harris—one of two African-Americans in the 2020 field, along with New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker—has been to the state more than half a dozen times, according to her campaign. A strong performance in South Carolina Feb. 29 would aid Ms. Harris's momentum heading into her home state's March 3 contest.
But polling in the state shows she trails former Vice President Joe Biden and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. In the most recent poll of the Democratic field by the Post and Courier, released last month, Mr. Biden earned 46%, compared with 15% for Mr. Sanders and 10% for Ms. Harris.
She changed the way I felt about it, she really did
—Comilla Sampson-Garrick, criminal justice chair for the Columbia branch of the NAACP, on her concerns over Ms. Harris's record as a prosecutor
As criminal justice reform has become a politically potent issue, particularly among liberal activists, critics have said some policies Ms. Harris championed, such as a push to end truancy, resulted in unfair incarceration of people of color. They have also accused her of failing to push for changes that would have helped decrease mass incarceration, such as decriminalizing marijuana.
Ms. Harris has called herself a "progressive prosecutor," touting her commitment to reform while also highlighting a law enforcement background that could be an asset with the broader, less liberal Democratic electorate and, if she makes it that far, in the general election.
Comilla Sampson-Garrick, the criminal justice chair for the Columbia branch of the NAACP, said she initially had "a lot of concerns" about Ms. Harris' record as a prosecutor.
"She changed the way I felt about it, she really did," Ms. Sampson-Garrick said after the speech, adding that she would vote for Ms. Harris. Ms. Sampson-Garrick said Ms. Harris's decision to get in front of the issue impressed her.
Palmer Allen, a teacher, said it was "very important" to hear Ms. Harris talk about her time as a prosecutor "because I was very aware of her record of putting [African-American] males in jail."
While Ms. Allen still wasn't convinced she'd vote for Ms. Harris over Mr. Biden, she said she had started to open to the California senator after hearing her talk about plans to keep black men from returning to prison after being released.
On Saturday, Ms. Harris cited the truancy program as a successful policy during her tenure.
"I held the system accountable to get those kids back in school—not by sending people to jail, but by getting families the resources they needed," she said.
Ms. Harris has also shifted some past stances, and has called for marijuana to be legalized.
"I think what's really important is Kamala Harris realizes that she made some, I don't want to call them mistakes, but she made some pretty poor decisions while she was the attorney general of California," James Dennis, a pastor who hasn't endorsed a candidate, said ahead of Ms. Harris' Saturday night speech. "I think what black and brown voters need to hear is there's a sense of regret with those issues."
Eliza Collins, Wall Street Journal, June 9, 2019
Here is Senator Harris, in South Carolina on Saturday.
My Record As A Prosecutor: Kamala Harris — NAACP www.youtube.com
June 10, 2019
Voices4America Post Script. Did you watch Kamala Harris defend her record as a prosecutor at the NAACP state conference in South Carolina? You should. Much is at stake. Share so others will watch this video too. #KamalaForThePeople