Harris, 54, has broken many barriers in her career, becoming the first African-American and woman to serve as California’s attorney general. And when she joined the Senate, she became the first South Asian-American and second black woman to join. In January 2019, Harris officially announced she would run for the Democratic nomination for president in 2020.
Harris graduated from Howard University, a historically black university, and received her law degree from the University of California, Hastings.
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 served as the district attorney from 2004 until 2011, when she became California’s attorney general. She was first elected to the Senate – where she serves on the Judiciary, Intelligence, Homeland Security and Budget Committees – in 2016.
Harris said she chose her career because she wanted to be “at the table where the decisions are made.”
Read on for a look at some of the decisions she made throughout her career.
She advocated for legalizing same-sex marriage
Before Obergefell v. Hodges, the 2015 landmark Supreme Court decision that legalized same-sex marriage, Harris was a champion for marriage equality.
As California’s attorney general, Harris refused to defend Proposition 8, a constitutional amendment passed by the state’s voters in 2008 which would have barred same-sex marriage.
“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 would officiate the wedding of Kris Perry and Sandy Stier, the first same-sex marriage in California.
She went after website Backpage.com
She filed multiple charges against the site’s CEO and shareholders, including money laundering, pimping and conspiracy to commit pimping.
“By creating an online brothel – a hotbed of illicit and exploitative activity – Carl Ferrer, Michael Lacey and James Larkin preyed on vulnerable victims, including children, and profited from their exploitation,” Harris said in 2016. “My office will not turn a blind eye to this criminal behavior simply because the defendants are exploiting and pimping victims on the Internet rather than on a street corner.”
Backpage let users create posts to sell items, seek a roommate, participate in forums, list upcoming events or post job openings. But the site also had listings for adult escorts and other sexual services, and authorities said advertising related to those services has been extremely lucrative.
Ferrer, the CEO, pleaded guilty last year to money laundering and conspiracy charges. The company pleaded guilty to human trafficking.
She’s against the death penalty – sort of
“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 a 2018 Facebook post.
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.
She reportedly campaigned for district attorney by pledging not to advocate for capital punishment which helped solidify her win, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.
But critics have noted that despite her refusal to seek the death penalty in multiple cases, Harris has defended capital punishment in court. In 2014, as California’s attorney general, Harris asked an appeals court to reverse an earlier decision declaring California’s death penalty unconstitutional, calling the ruling “fundamentally misguided.”
“California provides capital defendants with substantial opportunities to challenge their convictions – and resources for doing so – for the precise purpose of ensuring that the death penalty will not be ‘arbitrarily’ imposed,” she wrote.
She went after for-profit Corinthian Colleges
Harris won a $1.1 billion judgment against the controversial for-profit Corinthian Colleges in 2016. Harris accused the company, which shuttered in 2015, of predatory advertising practices and having “profited off the backs of poor people.”
She launched San Francisco’s program to reduce recidivism
On her Senate website, Harris lists the program she launched to reduce recidivism rates for non-violent drug offenders as one of her “achievements” as San Francisco’s district attorney.
Called “Back on Track,” the 2005 program aided the low-level drug offenders with education and job training to help them once they left jail, according to the Los Angeles Times.
The program was criticized, however, after it was revealed that it included undocumented immigrants, training them for jobs they couldn’t legally get. Harris later called the acceptance of undocumented immigrants into the program a “flaw in the design” and asked for it to be fixed, the Los Angeles Times reported.
Critics accused her of protecting Catholic clergy who abused children
Matt Smith, a writer for SF Weekly, derided Harris for refusing to turn over files related to clergy abuse within the San Francisco Archdiocese in 2010. At the time, Harris was campaigning to become attorney general.
“The records at issue may contain answers to a question of great public concern that has consumed international headlines during recent weeks: What did senior Catholic officials know, and what did they do behind the scenes, while priests accused of molesting children were shielded from punishment?” Smith wrote.
He noted while it’s important for district attorneys to not release information that could undermine a case or draw unwanted attention to victims, “Harris’ office seems to be going beyond these important principles to a blanket policy of secrecy.”
In a statement at the time, Harris’ office said: “District Attorney Harris focuses her efforts on putting child molesters in prison. We’re not interested in selling out our victims to look good in the paper.”
She was once accused of violating defendants’ rights
A judge accused Harris, then a district attorney, of having violated defendants’ rights by refusing to disclose problems regarding a police drug lab technician. In all, more than 600 cases were ultimately dismissed because of Deborah Madden, who was accused of stealing some of the cocaine she was supposed to analyze.
Harris’ office had a “duty to implement some type of procedure to secure and produce information relevant to Madden’s criminal history,” the judge ruled. By not disclosing information about Madden, Harris’ office was complicit in “the violation of the defendants’ constitutional rights,” the judge said.
She negotiated a massive mortgage settlement during the housing crisis
As California’s attorney general, Harris secured a massive settlement with big banks for her state in 2012. Out of the $25 billion deal she helped negotiate with other state attorney generals, California homeowners received nearly $20 billion in mortgage relief and assistance for people who had their homes foreclosed from Wells Fargo, Bank of America and JP Morgan Chase, according to her office.
The attorney generals accused the banks of using illegal practices to foreclose on homes nationwide.
Notably, Harris declined to charge Steven Mnuchin, now President Trump’s treasury secretary, for allegedly violating state foreclosure laws when he ran OneWest bank. Under his leadership, the bank foreclosed on more than 36,000 homes, according to The Hill.
Harris said her office “followed the facts and the evidence” and “pursued it just like any other case.”
She advocated for a law barring advertisements with photos of handguns
As attorney general, Harris defended an “archaic” law which banned firearms dealers from displaying advertisements visible from outside the stores that included a photo of a handgun. Notably, the law allowed for pictures of rifles to be visible.
“Those people, who otherwise might not enter the store, might respond on impulse to an advertisement in the store by entering and purchasing a handgun – indeed, that is the self-evident purpose of that kind of advertising, to draw people in and induce them to purchase a handgun,” Harris argued.
“The Supreme Court has long held that the government may restrict advertising in order to dampen demand, and thereby advance a substantial government interest,” she said.
Attorney Bradley Benbrook, who filed the lawsuit challenging the law, said Harris was suggesting “the right to free speech is OK except when it’s about guns because guns are bad.”
A federal judge struck down the law last year, saying it violated gun store owners’ First Amendment rights.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.