Story and photos by Emily Anderson
SAN DIEGO (CLAIREMONT) -- Kamala Harris, Democratic state attorney general candidate, visited the San Diego County Democratic headquarters in Claremont yesterday to speak about her candidacy and the importance of Democrats being elected at all levels of office.
Harris began her speech at 1 p.m. and addressed a couple of dozen Democratic volunteers who showed their approval by laughing, smiling and clapping. Harris, who is part African American and part Asian, would be the first woman and first African American elected to the state attorney general office position if she wins.
Dressed in a professional gray skirt suit, pantyhose and black high heels, Harris looked poised as she spoke for 20 minutes about the importance of health care, protecting the environment, and fixing the state’s broken criminal justice system, citing the Back on Track initiative she created to help reduce the first time non-violent drug crime rate of 18 –to -24-year olds.
Harris, who is the district attorney for San Francisco County, said that when President Obama was elected, his supporters elected a leader who was willing to reform health care and that California will be responsible for implementing the new health care laws. As a woman running for the California attorney general seat, she knows healthcare is important to everyone.
“We elected a leader saying that to be a female, to be a woman, should not be a pre-existing condition for the purposes of having access to health care,” she said. “We decided that it is just and right in … society that everyone, regardless of their economic status, will have access to affordable health care."
Harris said her Republican opponent - Steve Cooley - would, if elected, involve California in a lawsuit which was brought on by a southern state’s attorneys general regarding healthcare. She feels the lawsuit would be detrimental to California. She didn’t discuss this further.
Harris, 46, also spoke about the environment and related it to Proposition 23, which will appear on the November ballot and is allegedly funded by Texas oil companies. She gave background on how the proposition was created, saying that bill AB 32 (an assembly bill) would increase greenhouse gas emissions standards for the state of California. She said Gov. Schwarzenegger and Democrats championed the creation of AB 32, which would be undone if Proposition 23 passed.
“(All) Democrats and Republicans and Green Party members had this one thing in common, if not many things … We need to breathe air,” she said, as the audience chuckled.
“When California implements AB 32, it will be the beginning of a movement that will float throughout this country and they want to kill it before it begins,” she said, explaining that challenger Steve Cooley will not take a stance on Proposition 23.
Her second point was that as California’s next attorney general, she will help fix the broken criminal justice system. Harris is a prosecuting lawyer, who became a lawyer to help in the fight for justice.
“I am one of two daughters whose parents met when they were graduate students at UC Berkeley in the 1960s,” she said, while the audience laughed. “I grew up surrounded by adults who (went) full-time marching and shouting about this thing we call justice … The heroes, who are not known, were among many, the lawyers.... They were Thurgood Marshall and Charles Hamilton Houston and Constance Motley.
“They were those individuals who were using the skillet of this great profession to translate the passion from the streets to the courtrooms of our country. They reminded folks … of that promise we articulated in 1776, that we are all and should be treated as equals.”
She mentioned opponent Steve Cooley again and said he supports Proposition 8, while she does not, because it is too costly to defend what she considers an already unconstitutional law.
Regarding her stance on justice and fixing California’s broken system, she said that rather than assuming Democrats are soft on crime and that Republicans are tough on crime, we as a state need to think instead of how to be smart on crime.
For example, she created the Back on Track initiative which helped 18-24-year-olds who were first time, non-violent drug user offenders become productive adults. She said that this age group is a big population of people who are arrested who clog the system, while making it costly to keep them in the system.
She said that when college students are in college, they’re thought of as kids because it is the time of life in which schools help shape the future of these adults. Regarding the criminal justice system, she said that first time non-violent drug users who are 18 to 24-year-olds are considered adults who haven’t had guidance. Her Back on Track initiative, she said, was so successful that the U.S. Department of Justice told law enforcement agencies across the U.S. to implement steps to help this segment of the population get back on track. She said within a five year period, the re-offend rate dropped from 54 percent to less than 10 percent.
First, she worked to have them receive GEDs and then they enrolled in community colleges to learn apprenticeship skills, such as how to become plumbers or carpenters. She said that although these first time, non-violent drug user offenders are mostly parents and have the natural desire to parent their children, they didn’t necessarily have life skills to be a productive adult.
Aside from the Back on Track initiative, she also noted that about 120,000 California prisoners are released each year, but within three years of their release, 70 percent of them re-offend. The said California has the highest recidivism rate in the country, which is why she sees the justice system as broken. This re-offend rate is bad because not only does this equal a broken justice system, it means that it costs California between $10 billion and $25 billion. Secondly, she sees the system as broken because it costs citizens our public safety.
“There must be leadership in this state in what we have always known we are and can do, which is leadership around innovation, which is understanding that we don’t have to be burdened by defining success in a job based on blind adherence to tradition,” she said, referring to the fact that if elected as attorney general, she won’t fall into tradition; she will fix the justice system.
Regarding local justice, Harris is not familiar with Bridgette Hale, the Ramona mother who was killed early this year by a driver who only received a misdemeanor charge. Her family members wanted blood draws to occur to determine how under-the-influence of drugs the driver might have been when the driver caused a fatal crash. While Harris is not familiar with this case, is it possible she could support blood draws to be mandatory law that CHP officials must follow in the future? Blood draws, if law, could make drivers who cause fatal accidents have and keep a felony charge, rather than a misdemeanor charge.
“I’ve … talked with many juries about what our justice demands and dictates, that there will be serious and swift and sever accountability when one human being kills another human being, or when a woman is raped or a child is molested,” she said. “I have done that unfortunate work of having to stand in front of juries … to talk about why in a civil and just society there will be severe consequences when one human being harms another human being.”
Later she said she’d have to determine each case on a case-by-case basis, since she’s not familiar with the Hale case. She would balance privacy of the individual offender and the need to protect victims.
Harris said that being the attorney general is important because attorney generals title propositions and write proposition summaries. She said that it’s important to be fair and honest because voters will often only read the titles and summaries before voting. But, she also said that it’s important to look at how the office of Attorneys general can do better.
How would she do better?
“The one thing I have seen … is that our standards of living, whether in San Diego (County) or in Riverside (County) or in Orange County or Alameda (County), when I stand in living rooms of people who (have different political backgrounds), is that most people want to hear us (Democrats) talking about these kinds of issues,” she said. “They want us to talk with them about how we are going to fix broken systems.
“We talk about systems and how we can reform them,” she continued. ” We are prepared to not appeal to some malaise discussion about what it means to be American. I believe there are two definitions of what it means to be a patriot. I believe there is the definition that suggests if you defend your country, (you are one), and then there is the definition of what I believe is the kind of patriot I am, which is you fight for the ideals of your country. And in that way, we are all patriots. And we are all going to be fighting for many, many important ideals that we actually know we can achieve.”
She said that the attorney general election is more important than people realize, because who is elected will dictate what happens in the lives of citizens for the next eight years. (While she didn't mention why she said eight years, this is perhaps because attorney generals are elected for four year terms in the same election years as the governor and some other state offices positions. Since term limits were enacted in 1990, she could serve at most for two terms if elected and re-elected.) The California attorney general oversees the state's department of justice.
Aside from Democratic volunteer attendees, county Board of Supervisors candidate Stephen Whitburn and Calif. assemblywoman Lori Saldaña were in attendance.
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