WEST COLUMBIA, S.C. — Before a largely African American audience, Sen. Kamala D. Harris on Saturday defended her legacy as a prosecutor, a major element of the California Democrat’s rise to the U.S. Senate but one that has complicated her presidential candidacy.
Harris said she tried to combat injustice and racial bias. But she dodged some of the more controversial parts of her record. She cited her pioneering reentry initiative for convicts, talked about mothers of gun-violence victims arriving at her office asking only for “Kamala,” and briefly spoke about her controversial policy to address truancy.
She did not talk about the criminal prosecutions of parents that resulted from her truancy policy, nor did she take on the death penalty and other matters on which she has been criticized.
“My mother used to say, you don’t let people tell you who you are. You tell them who you are,” said Harris, who is seeking to become the first woman of African American and Asian descent to win the presidency. She took a swipe at “self-appointed political commentators” who, she said, “do not get to define who we are and what we believe.”
Harris’s campaign has made no secret of the importance of South Carolina — where 60 percent of the Democratic electorate is African American — to her bid for the Democratic nomination. Campaign aides point to former vice president Joe Biden as her biggest concern here, because of his decades-long ties to African American voters here and around the country, ties that grew stronger when he served the first black president. Minority voters, while not always approving of his record, are familiar with it.
But Harris, some voters here say, is still an unknown. . Her campaign sees that as an advantage: The less voters know about her, aides say, the more room she has to build support if she can make her résumé and proposals better known.
If anything threatens Harris’s ongoing introduction to black voters, it is that record as a public prosecutor, first as district attorney of San Francisco, then as attorney general of California.
Harris said little that was new in her remarks Saturday night, though an energetic and supportive crowd didn’t seem to mind.
One issue she did broach in limited fashion was her truancy policy, for which she has taken frequent hits. To stem truancy, which statistics showed led to dropping out and victimization, Harris as district attorney threatened criminal charges against parents of truant students. Harris says that she never sent any parents to jail under the policy and that the initiative decreased truancy rates dramatically.
When Harris pushed the policy statewide after being elected attorney general, however, some jurisdictions sent parents to jail while enforcing it. Harris has called those jailings “unintended consequences,” though the threat of jail time was the central incentive of the effort to stem truancy. She did not address those consequences Saturday.
“I refused to stand by while the system failed them,” Harris said. “So I held the system accountable and got those kids back in school — not by sending people to jail, but by getting families the resources they needed. Those children deserved justice.”
Harris also did not address instances when, critics say, she had a chance to get justice for minority groups but did not do so.
As attorney general, Harris preserved local authority when it came to the use of police body cameras and investigating police shootings. While she did support the use of body cameras — which she mentioned Saturday — she did not implement statewide standards for the use of those cameras, and she opposed a bill that would have required the attorney general’s office to investigate police shootings. Critics say Harris had the power to improve police accountability statewide but squandered it by deferring to local prosecutors.
“I made the state law enforcement agency under my supervision wear body cameras to increase accountability to the community,” Harris said. “I launched investigations into acts of discrimination by law enforcement agencies. All because the people deserved justice.”
Likewise, she did not delve into her stance on the death penalty. Harris is personally opposed to capital punishment, and as district attorney she opposed it. She refused in San Francisco to prosecute death penalty cases — even in a high-profile case involving the killing of a police officer, a decision that drew the ire of local police unions.
But as attorney general she also appealed a California court ruling that declared the death penalty unconstitutional, a ruling some think might have ended capital punishment in California years before Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) issued a moratorium earlier this year.
Harris’s supporters argue that she is not given credit for some liberal parts of her record, in part because many of those successful policies have become the norm across the country and no longer seem as forward-thinking as they were when she implemented them. She pioneered a plan to combat recidivism by offering job training to incarcerated first-time offenders, a plan since adopted around the country and one she mentioned Saturday.
She challenged California’s Three Strikes law, which allowed sentences of 25 years to life for a third felony conviction. When she was San Francisco’s chief prosecutor, Harris only enforced the sentences if the third offense was serious or violent. A half-dozen years after Harris began advocating against the law, voters overturned it.
In South Carolina, some in the audience said they appreciated Harris’s willingness to discuss her background.
“I was certainly swayed to support her more. I think she dug in a little more and sounded a little more definite in what she wants to do,” said the Rev. J.M. Flemming, president of the Greenville Branch of the NAACP, who said he will encourage voters to go to the polls for Harris.
“I think if she had not gone through those doors [as a prosecutor], if she had not shined some light, we’d be further in the dark,” he said.
Harris has visited South Carolina more than any other state since launching her campaign in January, and her campaign is organizing directors in areas around the state — the kind of operation many of her fellow candidates prioritized in Iowa and New Hampshire.
While Harris recently announced plans to expand her Iowa operation by a few dozen people, combating criticism that she was not expending much effort in the first voting state, success in South Carolina remains crucial to her bid for the Democratic nomination. So will convincing minority voters that she is a trustworthy and consistent advocate, a process she tried to expedite Saturday night.
“We’ve got a president of the United States, a man who took an oath to defend the Constitution, who violates that sworn promise,” Harris said, earning the most vigorous ovation of the evening. “We’ve got to hold this guy accountable by prosecuting the case in front of the American people against four more years of this administration. And I’ve prosecuted a lot of cases. But rarely one with this much evidence.”