In Her First Race, Kamala Harris Campaigned as Tough on Crime — and Unseated the Country’s Most Progressive Prosecutor

Kamala Harris won her first election the old-fashioned way: big money, police endorsements, and fearmongering about crime.

Senator Kamala Harris, a Democrat from California, speaks during an event to launch presidential campaign in Oakland, California, U.S., on Sunday, Jan. 27, 2019. Harris's likely path to the Democratic nomination runs through black voters, who made up a quarter of the primary electorate in 2016 and were critical to nominating Hillary Clinton, as well as to electing Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012. Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Sen. Kamala Harris, a Democrat from California, speaks during an event to launch her presidential campaign in Oakland, Calif., on Jan. 27, 2019. Photo: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The 1990s were among the most punishing decades in the recent history of American justice. Zealous prosecutors competed to put the most people behind bars, and politicians were eager to pass new laws to extend sentences. In San Francisco, Terence Hallinan was one of the only prosecutors in America bucking the trend.

A legendary civil rights activist, defense attorney, former city supervisor, and an outspoken advocate for marijuana legalization, Hallinan rode a wave of discontent and squeaked by in his election to become San Francisco district attorney in 1995. He swiftly fired senior prosecutors in order to hire more minorities and reformists. He instructed his deputies to avoid the practice of objecting to a proposed juror for a criminal trial — an unusual stance that weakened the hand of the DA’s office — to avoid empaneling all-white juries.

Sex work, said Hallinan, was a public health problem — not a criminal offense. He quickly made waves by claiming that he would fight for nonviolent offenders to receive social services over jail time and called drug use a victimless crime, an argument that invited contempt from law enforcement officials.

Yet Hallinan — considered one of the “most left-wing politicians in the country” — was expelled in 2003 after just two terms in office, despite San Francisco’s notorious liberal bent. An up-and-coming young career prosecutor named Kamala Harris, running in her first bid for public office, unseated him.

Many in San Francisco view the campaign as a defining moment for Harris, who carefully cultivated a base of support among police officers, domestic violence advocates, wealthy donors, and a diverse range of local officials and community leaders who had bristled at Hallinan’s leftist politics and abrasive style.

Despite starting the race as a relatively unknown candidate against an incumbent viewed as a radical icon, Harris vaulted over Hallinan and easily won a runoff election. The race launched Harris’s political career, which culminated in her announcement last month at a rally in Oakland to seek the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination.

Far from the “smart on crime” mantra she touted later, Harris’s first campaign reflected familiar tactics in an era of booming mass incarceration.

The 2003 race stands apart from the image she has projected in more recent years. Far from the “smart on crime” mantra she touted in her successful bid to become California’s attorney general or promoting her efforts to hold corporations accountable when she ran for the U.S. Senate, Harris’s first campaign reflected familiar tactics in an era of booming mass incarceration.

The Intercept reviewed debate records, news clips, and original campaign materials from the race between Harris, Hallinan, and Bill Fazio, another former prosecutor who ran for the seat. (Harris’s presidential campaign did not respond to a request for comment, nor did Hallinan.)

The 2003 race for San Francisco district attorney showcased a campaign strategy that has become a familiar and at times unseemly dynamic of America’s criminal justice system. Throughout much of the campaign, Harris attacked Hallinan as too weak and ineffective to keep communities safe from dangerous criminals. In contrast, Harris promised to get tough.

In the years leading up to the election, the DA’s office under Hallinan had the lowest felony conviction rates of any county in California. In 2001, the felony conviction rate in San Francisco was as low as 29 percent, far below the state average of 67.5 percent. Hallinan, defending his record, pointed out that his office expanded rehabilitative justice initiatives, diverting drug crimes into alternatives rather than turning to incarceration.

“We have 3,000 people who are in diversion,” Hallinan told the San Francisco Chronicle. “That’s hell on your conviction rate.”

Cases that are diverted to rehabilitation programs in order to avoid criminal penalties count as a dismissal, resulting in a prosecution loss, the newspaper noted. Moreover, San Francisco’s jury pool is notoriously liberal, Hallinan argued, making convictions even for violent crimes difficult. His office also avoided “three strikes” prosecutions in many cases, to get out of having to seek mandatory life imprisonment for defendants.

If the conviction rate had been measured by actual cases pursued, rather than all cases referred by police, Hallinan said, his office would have had a conviction rate that was relatively similar to Los Angeles and other major cities.

And Hallinan was getting results. Overall, crime rates were plummeting. Violent crime had gone down close to 60 percent in San Francisco since Hallinan took office.

Still, the low conviction rate resulted in headline after headline about San Francisco’s permissive attitude toward crime, a media environment harnessed by the Harris campaign.

In one election flyer sent by the Harris campaign to mailboxes across the city, a tattooed and shirtless man, presumably Latino, is seen gripping a pistol and flashing a gang sign. “Enough Is Enough!” reads the title. Inside the flyer, the Harris campaign argued that Hallinan had failed to keep communities safe from surging gang violence, pointing to his low conviction rate.


Kamala Harris for District Attorney mailer. (Click here to see the full mailer.)

Photo: Lee Fang/The Intercept

“Each one of those cases, those violent cases, represents a victim who deserves to have a district attorney’s office that is competent and that is professional,” Harris argued during a debate on the San Francisco public radio station KQED, sharply critiquing her opponent’s conviction rate record. “And let’s be clear. I’m not running for public defender. We need in our city to have a district attorney who recognizes her responsibility for making sure the consequences occur for serious and violent crime.”

In campaign events across the city, Harris stoked anger at the lack of criminal convictions. In the Mission District, SF Weekly reported on a scene in which Harris sharply criticized Hallinan for failure to prosecute anti-war protesters for property destruction. “It is not progressive to be soft on crime,” Harris said.

“Terence Hallinan is lying to us about his domestic violence record, and women are dying because of it.”

Outside the Hall of Justice, the city’s criminal courthouse, Harris campaigned with the mother of Claire Tempongko, a woman slain by her estranged boyfriend. Tempongko, Harris said, had filed police reports that her boyfriend had abused her in violation of his parole. The failure of the DA’s office to act had left Tempongko defenseless, Harris argued.

“Terence Hallinan is lying to us about his domestic violence record,” she said at the event, “and women are dying because of it.”

Hallinan’s supporters, however, charged that Harris was exploiting the tragedy. The prosecutor who handled the domestic violence unit at the time said that she never saw a crucial police report filed by the victim because police had incorrectly labeled it as a drunk-in-public offense, rather than an incident of domestic violence.

Nonetheless, more tough-on-crime campaign advertisements flooded mailboxes around the city.


Kamala Harris for District Attorney flyer. (Click here to see the full mailer.)

Photo: Lee Fang/The Intercept

Inside another mailer, the Harris campaign produced a chart showing Hallinan’s low conviction rate and a list of lenient plea bargains struck by the district attorney. The outside of the mailer included a glossy image of a murder chalk outline, along with the message: “An Outline for Disaster. Which District Attorney has ranked last in convictions for the last eight years?”

The Harris campaign’s message got out to voters in part because she had gained the trust of much San Francisco’s political and donor class, including Vanessa Getty, one of the city’s wealthiest philanthropists. Early in the campaign, the San Francisco Ethics Commission, a city body that oversees local elections, handed Harris the largest fine in its history for breaking fundraising limits. She apologized for the error, but little could stop her fundraising machine.

As SF Weekly noted, Harris’s cash advantage came “from the city’s social and legal elites, people with power and money, people who respond well to Harris’ message that Hallinan is erratic, divisive, and soft on crime.” The Golden Gate Restaurant Association, a lobby group for the dining industry, backed Harris with independent campaign advertisements, and major real estate and professional societies donated to her campaign.

In the end, Harris built a campaign war chest of over $600,000 — twice the amount raised by Hallinan.

Harris also had the benefit of support from the outgoing San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown. Brown donated to Harris’s 2003 campaign and — without her consent — had worked his connections to raise money for her.

The other two candidates in the race seized on the issue. Though they had once been political allies, the relationship between Hallinan and Brown had soured. Hallinan had begun investigating City Hall officials for corruption, landing cases of graft between municipal officials and developers. Though Hallinan endorsed Brown for re-election in 1999, he showed up at a rally that year for Tom Ammiano, appearing to lend his support to the mayoral challenger.

Brown retaliated by openly mocking Hallinan. He asked California Attorney General Bill Lockyer to step in and prosecute drug dealers, claiming that Hallinan refused to do his job. In an interview, Brown called Hallinan a “son of a bitch [who] should have been recalled” over refusing to prosecute homeless people for public intoxication and defecating in the streets.

In his advocacy for a new approach to homelessness, Hallinan went so far as to hand out soup to homeless people alongside volunteers from Food Not Bombs.

Hallinan had indeed taken a liberal policy toward crimes related to homelessness. He notably reversed longstanding city policy around arresting and charging panhandlers. He also sought to clear charges brought against volunteers who had been cited for feeding homeless people, an illegal offense at the time. In his advocacy for a new approach to homelessness, Hallinan went so far as to hand out soup to homeless people alongside volunteers from Food Not Bombs — one of the criminalized groups — outside City Hall. After winning the election as the city’s top prosecutor, he dropped the charges against the volunteers. “This district attorney and this city intend to grapple in a different way with the homeless problem,” Hallinan said.

The Hallinan campaign trumpeted Harris’s ties to Brown, warning that she would not prosecute lingering corruption in the Brown administration. For many, this accusation reeked of sexism. Brown had briefly dated Harris, and she had left him shortly after he won his first mayoral race in 1995. The Fazio campaign hit a similar note, mailing a flyer to San Francisco residents stating that “Kamala accepted two appointments from Willie Brown to high-paying, part-time state boards — including one she had no training for — while being paid $100,000-year as a full-time county employee.”

Brown was known to reward friends and allies. He gave Harris a brand-new BMW and also appointed her to two commissions in state government where, according to SF Weekly, she was paid $400,000 over five years. One of the positions, an appointment to the California Medical Assistance Commission, paid a $99,000 annual salary for attending two meetings a month.

Harris largely brushed off the criticism. “Willie Brown is not going to be around. He’s gone — hello people, move on. If there is corruption, it will be prosecuted. It’s a no-brainer, but let’s please move on,” she said in one interview. “His career is over; I will be alive and kicking for the next 40 years. I do not owe him a thing.”

As soon as Hallinan won his seat in 1995, he was viewed as a fox in the henhouse by the San Francisco Police Department.

Hallinan was the city’s most unusual occupant in the DA’s office in its modern history. At age 22, he was charged with felony assault, though later acquitted. He was born to a famous left-wing family. His father, Vincent Hallinan, had defended union leaders over Red Scare-related charges and ran for president on the Progressive Party ticket in 1952. Terence Hallinan began his life as an amateur boxer and eventually gravitated to the practice of law.

He participated in civil disobedience protests over racial discrimination at the Palace Hotel and Bank of America, as well as at restaurants and businesses across San Francisco. In 1963, he spent the summer organizing African-American voters in Mississippi. Archival footage of the most iconic 1960s-era protests in the city are filled with appearances by Hallinan, who frequently served as counsel to striking workers, student sit-ins, and anti-war demonstrators. Later in life, he served as a criminal defense attorney to a range of clients, including drug dealers and accused murderers.

For nearly 40 years, it was Hallinan representing clients against San Francisco law enforcement. In at least one occasion, he was the victim of police assault. Now the shoe was on the other foot.

(Original Caption) 5/22/1968-San Francisco, CA- Attorney Terence Hallinan, his face bloody from a gash in his head, confronts the police officer he claims laid his head open while he was trying to help a girl to safety, away from the police. The incident took place after police arrested some 27 demonstrators who were conducting a sit-in in the Administration Building at San Francisco State College late 5/21.

Terence Hallinan confronts the police officer he claims beat his head open while he was trying to help a girl to safety away from the police during a sit-in at San Francisco State College, Calif., on May, 22, 1968.

Photo: Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

During his first campaign for district attorney, Hallinan pledged to crack down on police misconduct. “I will not hesitate to treat them like any other citizen and prosecute them,” he said of the city’s police department after his victory.

In 2002, three off-duty police officers beat two San Francisco men over a bag of fajitas. The incident sparked outrage and Hallinan indicted not only the officers, but also the police department’s top brass, alleging a conspiracy to cover up the crime. The case led to the creation of Proposition H, a successful city ballot measure, crafted in part by Hallinan, to expand oversight over the police department. The case against the police, however, fell apart, with a judge dismissing the charges.

The incident further strained relations between police and the DA’s office. Behind the scenes, Harris courted law enforcement officials, earning the endorsements of the Deputy Sheriffs’ Association, the incumbent sheriff, and a host of former prosecutors. In a recent Politico piece examining the history of the race, Gary Delagnes, a former police union official, remembered Harris coming up to him at a party, poking him in the chest and demanding, “You better endorse me, you better endorse me. You get it?”

The San Francisco police union’s 32-member board voted unanimously to endorse Harris after she advanced to the runoff election. “We should be working together, and she’s committed to that,” announced Chris Cunnie, the Police Officers Association president. “When the district attorney indicts 10 officers in one year, that’s a problem.”

In debates and events following the endorsement, Harris touted the law enforcement support. “We have, at best, a hostile relationship between the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office and the San Francisco Police Department,” Harris said during a debate with Hallinan on KQED. She stressed her ability to repair relations with the police.

The conservative-leaning editorial board of the San Francisco Chronicle cited support from the police and Hallinan’s low conviction rate in its endorsement of Harris. “Harris, for law and order,” the editorial’s headline blared.

Harris carried the runoff election by nearly 13 percent. Though she repeatedly slammed her opponent as soft on crime on the campaign trail, Harris struck a new approach at her inauguration, one that would later define her balanced approach to criminal justice. “Let’s put an end right here to the question about whether we are tough on crime or soft on crime,” she said. “Let’s be smart on crime.”

After taking office, Hallinan’s legacy could be seen throughout Harris’s work in many ways. As DA, her office extended the light-touch approach to most medical marijuana dispensaries and promoted drug-diversion programs. Harris repaired relations with the police department but faced backlash from law enforcement when she declined to seek the death penalty for a gang member convicted of murdering San Francisco police Officer Isaac Espinoza in 2004.

There was also sustained pressure to increase conviction rates and obtain longer sentences. SF Weekly interviewed a number of former prosecutors who said that Harris adopted inflexible charging procedures to look tough on crime in preparation for running for statewide office one day. In her re-election campaign four years later, she was touting a new felony conviction rate record, 67 percent, and a new focus on cracking down on drug dealers, quality of life crimes, and other criminals.

More recently, the landscape for criminal justice reform has changed drastically, with a wave of district attorneys embracing an approach resembling Hallinan’s. Newly elected district attorneys across the country — from St. Louis County’s Wesley Bell to Philadelphia’s Larry Krasner — are now promising to prioritize social justice over doling out brutal sentences and garnering higher conviction rates. There’s even a growing backlash against election season fearmongering on crime. An increasing number of liberals now view electoral penal populism as a factor that contributes to the country’s mass incarceration crisis.

On the campaign trail in 2019, Harris has been recast as an insurgent reformer who spent her entire career fighting against draconian criminal justice enforcement. At her presidential campaign announcement rally, Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf opened the event by declaring, “When it was still popular to be ‘tough on crime,’ she was smart on crime.” The crowd cheered and clapped. The history, however, is a little more complicated.

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