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“You Owe Them an Apology”: Tulsi Gabbard Slams Kamala Harris on Her Record as California AG

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During Wednesday’s debate, Hawaii Congressmember Tulsi Gabbard confronted California Senator Kamala Harris about her record as California attorney general. Gabbard accused Harris of blocking evidence that would have freed an innocent man from death row—until the courts forced her to do so. Harris defended her record, saying she significantly reformed the criminal justice system. We speak to Dolores Huerta and Cornel West.

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: As we continue to cover last night’s Democratic debate, let’s go to Hawaii Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard confronting California Senator Kamala Harris about her record as California attorney general.

REP. TULSI GABBARD: I want to bring the conversation back to the broken criminal justice system, that is disproportionately negatively impacting black and brown people all across this country today. Now, Senator Harris says she’s proud of her record as a prosecutor and that she’ll be a prosecutor president. But I’m deeply concerned about this record. There are too many examples to cite, but she put over 1,500 people in jail for marijuana violations and then laughed about it when she was asked if she ever smoked marijuana. She blocked evidence—she blocked evidence that would have freed an innocent man from death row, until the courts forced her to do so. She kept people in prison beyond their sentences, to use them as cheap labor for the state of California. And she fought to keep—

JAKE TAPPER: Thank you, Congresswoman.

REP. TULSI GABBARD: —cash bail system in place, that impacts poor people in the worst kind of way.

JAKE TAPPER: Thank you, Congresswoman. Senator Harris, your response?

SEN. KAMALA HARRIS: As the elected attorney general of California, I did the work of significantly reforming the criminal justice system of a state of 40 million people, which became a national model for the work that needs to be done. And I am proud of that work. And I am proud of making a decision to not just give fancy speeches or be in a legislative body and give speeches on a floor, but actually doing the work of being in the position to use the power that I had to reform a system that is badly in need of reform.

REP. TULSI GABBARD: The bottom line is, Senator Harris, when you were in a position to make a difference and an impact in these people’s lives, you did not. And worse yet, in the case of those who are on death row, innocent people, you actually blocked evidence from being revealed that would have freed them, until you were forced to do so. There is no excuse for that. And the people who suffered under your reign as prosecutor, you owe them an apology.

JAKE TAPPER: Senator Harris?

SEN. KAMALA HARRIS: My entire career, I have been opposed, personally opposed, to the death penalty. And that has never changed.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: So, that was Tulsi Gabbard questioning Kamala Harris on her record. Dr. Cornel West, can you respond to what she said, how Kamala Harris defended herself, and also the fact that, subsequently, Kamala Harris entirely dismissed what Tulsi Gabbard said, by saying that she’s essentially an apologist for Assad and, therefore, can’t be taken seriously?

CORNEL WEST: No, I think there’s no doubt that when you actually look closely at the record of Sister Harris, she emerges at a moment in which all elected officials who were successful were, quote-unquote, “tough on crime.” And so, when she, for example, engages in the criminalizing of parents whose children were truant, that’s part of a deeply conservative orientation that moved through the Democratic Party. You saw it with Biden’s 1994 crime bill, goes all the way back to the ’84 crime bill. You see it with Democratic politicians across the board.

But keep in mind that you’ve got Mnuchin, who is now in the Cabinet of the Trump administration, who should have also gone to jail under Sister Harris, Senator Harris. She ends up pulling back on him. He contributes to her campaign. Meaning what? Tough on crime in America, in its neoliberal mode, has always meanttough on crime for poor and vulnerable people, but when it comes to Wall Street executives and when it comes to corporate elites, it’s not tough on crime at all.

And so, I think Sister Gabbard was just beginning to unravel some of the records, of not just Sister Harris, but Biden and so many of the other neoliberals and centrists. And I think that this is one of the reasons why Brother Bernie, one of the reasons why Sister Warren have the kind of vitality and vibrancy which is the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party, the progressive wing, as opposed to the corporate wing, as opposed to the wing tied to the oligarchs and plutocrats.

AMY GOODMAN: You know, we should say that we are having a kind of rematch right now, because back in 2016 we had our very guests on. We had Dr. Cornel West, who was endorsing Bernie Sanders, and we had Dolores Huerta, who at the time was endorsing Hillary Clinton. Now, again, Cornel West is continuing to endorse Senator Sanders for president, and Dolores Huerta is co-chair of Kamala Harris’s campaign, the senator from California. Dolores, if you could start by talking about why you chose to endorse Kamala Harris? And respond to Tulsi Gabbard’s attack on the record of Senator Harris when she was both DA and the attorney general of California.

DOLORES HUERTA: Well, I have to say that, unfortunately, Ms. Gabbard does not really know all of Kamala Harris’s record. As a citizen here in the state of California, I have to say that Kamala Harris did a lot to reform the District Attorney’s Office when she was in the District Attorney’s Office. One of the first things that she did, that there were a couple of hundred people who had been arrested for protesting—these were union workers. And one of the first things she did is she said, “Bring me those files, and we’re going to make sure that all of these charges are dismissed against these workers.” In California, as attorney general, she actually instituted, into her whole work that she did, making sure that we had a civil rights division to address some of the issues of racism in the schools and the discrimination against young people of color.

Actually, in the state of California, she’s very well respected. I think that Ms. Gabbard did not really portray Kamala Harris as the person that she is. And she is very, very committed to criminal justice reform, as—when you talk about keeping people in prison, we know that there are mandated sentences. And then, she said, very clearly, she has always been against the death penalty. And in California, as you may know, we now have a moratorium on the death penalty. So, Kamala Harris—and this is why I endorsed her when she ran for the Senate and when she ran for attorney general. So, I think her record has been really misconstrued by the attacks on her record.

CORNEL WEST: But, Sister Dolores, you would admit that Sister Harris was wrong when it came to Mnuchin?

DOLORES HUERTA: Well, you know, I really didn’t know about that, Brother West, so I really can’t comment on that.

CORNEL WEST: Oh, OK. No, no, I hear you. OK, yes, yes.

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