When she stepped onto the debate stage in Miami last Thursday, Kamala Harris was running a presidential campaign that could best be described as “fine.” After entering the race with a huge rally in Oakland—and a strong $12 million raised in the first quarter—she largely receded to what’s been described as the contest’s “second tier.” Consistently hovering around fourth, but rarely higher, in the polls, she was overshadowed by the policy work being offered by Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, and Joe Biden’s persistent “frontrunner” status. Outside the launch and the fundraising numbers, though, there wasn’t much to note—aside from an embarrassing course correction on Medicare for All. Though far from an also-ran, she was, for many voters, an afterthought.
That appeared to change in Miami, when Harris took on Biden in a blistering assault on his opposition to busing in the early days of his Senate career. In an attack that the Harris campaign gleefully revealed had been scripted “months” before the debate—albeit one made more potent by Biden’s recent comments defending his work with segregationists—she tore into him.
“It was hurtful to hear you talk about the reputations of two United States senators who built their reputations and career on segregation of race in this country,” she said. “And it was not only that, but you also worked with them to oppose busing. And you know, there was a little girl in California who was part of the second class to integrate her public schools, and she was bused to school every day. And that little girl was me.” In response, Biden wilted, ending the exchange by practically begging the moderators to intercede.
The Harris campaign was ready for its big moment—T-shirts with photographs of a young Kamala with the caption “That Little Girl Was Me” were on sale within hours, and she spent the next few days highlighting the exchange on a prodigious tour of TV studios. It seems to be paying off. Biden’s poll numbers have shown a dip, while Harris’s have surged; her campaign took in $2 million in contributions in 24 hours, and garnered the attention of the president, who remarked that she’s “getting too much credit” for her debate performance. She was, by most accounts, the breakout star of the first two Democratic debates and is now being treated as a potential frontrunner.
But Harris’s biggest victory debate night wasn’t her attack on Biden’s record—it was that she didn’t have to defend her own. Biden was too rattled by Harris’s attack to articulately punch back; the other candidates on the stage had other angles prepped to pursue. That is likely to change, however, if Harris continues to surge in the polls.
But it’s not like the California Democrat’s record hasn’t been a source of controversy during the early stages of the race. Harris has persistently made the case on the campaign trail that she was a “progressive prosecutor,” arguing that she aggressively worked to reform America’s racist criminal justice system during her time as district attorney in San Francisco and as California’s attorney general. In her recent memoir, in which Harris goes to great lengths trying to thread the needle—she is both a clear-eyed cop with the strength to take on Donald Trump and a compassionate crusader—she defines “progressive prosecutor” like this:
For me, to be a progressive prosecutor is to understand—and act on—this dichotomy. It is to understand that when a person takes another’s life, or a child is molested, or a woman raped, the perpetrators deserve severe consequences. That is one imperative of justice. But it is also to understand that fairness is in short supply in a justice system that is supposed to guarantee it. The job of a progressive prosecutor is to look out for the overlooked, to speak up for those whose voices aren’t being heard, to see and address the causes of crime, not just their consequences, and to shine a light on the inequality and unfairness that lead to injustice. It is to recognize that not everyone needs punishment, that what many need, quite plainly, is help.
As Vox’s German Lopez wrote earlier this year, Harris’s record is complicated and full of contradictions. “She pushed for programs that helped people find jobs instead of putting them in prison, but also fought to keep people in prison even after they were proved innocent. She refused to pursue the death penalty against a man who killed a police officer, but also defended California’s death penalty system in court. She implemented training programs to address police officers’ racial biases, but also resisted calls to get her office to investigate certain police shootings.”
And there are other concerns. The felony conviction rate rose from 52 to 67 percent while she served as district attorney in San Francisco. As attorney general of California, she fought to slow the release of prisoners even after the Supreme Court ruled that the state’s prisons were so dangerously overcrowded they amounted to cruel and unusual punishment. Lawyers in her office argued against the release of nonviolent offenders, claiming that it would deplete the prison labor pool, which the state uses to fight forest fires. She implemented a school truancy program that arrested parents whose children missed class. In some instances her office argued against the release of prisoners who had been proven innocent, in one instance claiming that the inmate, who had been championed by the Innocence Project, had missed a clerical deadline. As a prosecutor, she aggressively targeted sex workers, and as senator has promoted anti-trafficking legislation critics say conflates trafficking with sex work and infringes on the First Amendment. Her records on civil asset forfeiture, solitary confinement, and the death penalty are also controversial.
Harris didn’t really talk about that record on Thursday—she didn’t have to. That will change now that she’s perceived as a frontrunner. And stakes are raised this year by her home state’s large delegate haul, now part of a very early “Super Tuesday” primary. In the coming weeks, she may try to ride out the bumps by positioning herself as a unity pick—someone who provides common ground for supporters of Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren. But that’s not an easy space to occupy. It wouldn’t be for any surging candidate. It may be particularly tough for someone with Harris’s record.