Kamala Harris: From district attorney to senator to historic VP running mate — here’s what you need to know

Kamala Harris’ political career led her from the California Attorney General’s Office to the halls of the U.S. Senate and then to a 2020 presidential run, before landing her on one of the most consequential presidential tickets in U.S. history as the nation’s first Black woman to compete as vice presidential candidate for a major party.

In choosing Harris, 2020 presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden is embracing a former rival from the Democratic primary who is familiar with the unique rigor of a national campaign. Harris, a 55-year-old first-term senator, is also one of the party’s most prominent figures and quickly became a top contender for the No. 2 spot after her own White House campaign ended.

Born in Oakland, California to a Jamaican father and Indian mother, Harris won her first election in 2003 when she became San Francisco’s district attorney. In the role, she created a reentry program for low-level drug offenders and cracked down on student truancy.

She worked as a deputy district attorney in Alameda County, California in the 1990s at a time when violent crime in Oakland was rising, according to The New York Times. She worked for the San Francisco city attorney before she was elected – twice – as the city’s district attorney.

She advocated for same-sex marriage 

Harris was elected as California’s attorney general in 2010, becoming the first woman and Black person to hold the job. She declined to defend the state’s Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriage and was later overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court.

“I declined to defend Proposition 8 because it violates the Constitution. The Supreme Court has described marriage as a fundamental right 14 times since 1888,” she said in a statement. The time has come for this right to be afforded to every citizen.”

The Supreme Court eventually ruled against Proposition 8. Harris officiated the wedding of Kris Perry and Sandy Stier, the first same-sex marriage in California.

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Opposition to the death penalty

Harris wrote in a 2018 Facebook post reiterating her stances against seeking capital punishment for various prisoners. 

“My career as a prosecutor was marked by fierce opposition to the death penalty while still upholding the law and a commitment to fixing a broken criminal justice system,” Harris said.

In 2004, as San Francisco’s district attorney, Harris declined to pursue the death penalty against David Hill, a gang member who fatally shot a police officer. He was sentenced to life without parole in 2007.

She again declined to seek the death penalty for Edwin Ramos, who murdered three people in 2009. He, too, was sentenced to life in prison.

When she campaigned to be San Francisco’s district attorney, she pledged not to advocate for capital punishment which reportedly helped solidify her win, the San Francisco Chronicle reported.

Despite her public stance against the death penalty, Harris has been criticized for her defense of capital punishment in court when in 2014, as California’s attorney general, she asked an appeals court to reverse an earlier decision declaring California’s death penalty unconstitutional, calling the ruling “fundamentally misguided.”

Higher aspirations

As her national profile grew, so too did her aspirations for higher positions of government, as Harris built a reputation around her work as a prosecutor.

She eventually became the second Black woman in U.S. history to secure a seat in the U.S. Senate in 2016, where she quickly gained attention for her assertive questioning of Trump administration officials during congressional hearings. In one memorable moment last year, Harris tripped up Attorney General William Barr when she repeatedly pressed him on whether Trump or other White House officials pressured him to investigate certain people.

Harris launched her presidential campaign in early 2019 with the slogan “Kamala Harris For the People,” a reference to her courtroom work. She was one of the highest-profile contenders in a crowded Democratic primary and attracted 20,000 people to her first campaign rally in Oakland.

But the early promise of her campaign eventually faded. Her law enforcement background prompted skepticism from some progressives, and she struggled to land on a consistent message that resonated with voters. Facing fundraising problems, Harris abruptly withdrew from the race in December 2019, two months before the first votes of the primary were cast.

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Harris’ approach to criminal justice reform

Harris’ record as California attorney general and district attorney in San Francisco have been heavily scrutinized during the 2020 Democratic primary and turned off some liberals and younger Black voters who saw her as out of step on issues of systemic racism in the legal system and police brutality. She tried to strike a balance on these issues, declaring herself a “progressive prosecutor” who backs law enforcement reforms.

Following several months of anti-racism protests that were sparked by the death of George Floyd on May 25, a Black man who was killed by a White Minneapolis police officer after the officer knelt on Floyd’s neck for nearly 9 minutes, Harris has been more vocal about police reform.

The senator expressed her disappointment in the Louisville Police Department’s handling of the three officers who shot and killed Breonna Taylor, a Black Kentucky woman and emergency medical technician who was fatally shot during a failed drug sting. 

“The officers who murdered Breonna Taylor nearly three months ago still have not been charged,” tweeted Harris in June. 

But Harris had been criticized for actions in 2014 in which she rejected pleas by civil rights groups to investigate a series of police shootings in San Francisco following the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., in an attempt to limit police use of force.

Some political experts have argued for Harris’ sake, stating that she was hard pressed to please both civil rights activists as well as powerful police unions who had overwhelmingly opposed her initial run for attorney general in 2010. 

“She had to walk a fine tightrope,” said Brian Marvel, a San Diego police officer and president of the Peace Officers Research Assn. of California, the state’s top police advocacy group, told the Los Angeles Times. 

“We always hope that because you look like us, you talk like us, you walk like us, you come from where we come from — that you’re not just reading about this in the news. You know there is a war being waged against black bodies,” said Cat Brooks, an Oakland activist who thought Harris fell short.

Harris’ attempt to appease both sides of the table have nearly hurt the political career that would eventually land her on the 2020 vice presidential ticket.

Her refusal to seek the death penalty for a man accused of killing a police officer in 2004 would later resurface to haunt her chances of securing a shot as the California attorney general in 2010, where she barely won by less than a single point against a police-backed Republican rival, Steve Cooley. 

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But since Floyd’s death, Harris has taken a tougher stand on policing. She co-sponsored legislation in June that would ban police from using chokeholds and no-knock warrants, set a national use-of-force standard and create a national police misconduct registry, among other things. It would also reform the qualified immunity system that shields officers from liability.

The list included practices Harris did not vocally fight to reform while leading California’s Department of Justice. Although she required DOJ officers to wear body cameras, she did not support legislation mandating it statewide. And while she now wants independent investigations of police shootings, she didn’t support a 2015 California bill that would have required her office to take on such cases.

“We made progress, but clearly we are not at the place yet as a country where we need to be and California is no exception,” she told The Associated Press recently. But the national focus on racial injustice now shows “there’s no reason that we have to continue to wait.”

Her stance on health care

During her presidential bid, Harris released a health care proposal in July of 2019 that sought to bridge the Democratic Party’s disparate factions. Instead, she drew criticism from rivals across the political spectrum.

At the time, progressives took issue with Harris for stopping short of the full-scale health care overhaul embodied by the “Medicare for All” legislation. Her more moderate rivals, meanwhile, said she was trying to have it all without taking a firm position on one of the most animating issues in the primary.

She had praised Medicare for All’s chief architect, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, for “making sure this is a front and center topic” even as she distanced herself from his strategy.

“I have a vision of what it should be, and the existing plans that are being offered did not express what I wanted,” the California senator told reporters.

Medicare for All became a central focus in the Democratic primary, with the most progressive candidates calling for a revolutionary approach to providing government insurance coverage for all Americans at a lower price than the private market.

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But Harris split from that approach on several fronts. She envisioned a role for private insurers as long as they followed the government’s rules. She said she would slow the transition to a so-called single-payer system to 10 years from the four Sanders proposed. And she ruled out tax increases on middle-income Americans.

During the Democratic primaries, Harris was repeatedly forced to clear up her stance on Medicare for All. She previously appeared to suggest that she supported abolishing private insurance, but later clarified that she does not.

Harris’ running mate, Biden, wants a “Medicare-like public option” to compete alongside private insurance markets for working-age Americans, while increasing premium subsidies that many working-class and middle-class workers use already under the Affordable Care Act. Biden estimates that would cost about $750 billion over 10 years. 

In adding Harris to his ticket, Biden can point to her relatively centrist record on issues such as health care and her background in law enforcement in the nation’s largest state.

FOX News and the Associated Press contributed to this story.