For many decades, Democrats concerned with their party’s reputation for weakness were eager to recruit politicians who had proved their willingness to use the power of the state to smite the (ostensibly) wicked. Sometimes that involved highly symbolic acts, like Bill Clinton’s decision as governor of Arkansas to administer the death penalty to a mentally disabled African-American cop killer. But more generally it meant the Donkey Party prized ex-prosecutors and military veterans as candidates for office. This was doubly true for women, who, thanks to sexist stereotypes, had an additional need to show “toughness” in a world full of danger.
So it’s not entirely surprising that not one but two women with backgrounds as prosecutors are in the 2020 Democratic presidential field. Kamala Harris has already gotten significant flak from progressives and civil libertarians for her record as both district attorney of San Francisco and attorney general of California. Even in that famously liberal city and state, Harris felt it necessary to depict herself as “tough on crime,” and embraced policies that are no longer fashionable (or in some cases even acceptable) among Democrats focused on the tragic phenomenon of mass incarceration and the abject failure of the war on drugs.
Now it’s Amy Klobuchar’s turn for scrutiny of her record during two terms as Hennepin County (Minneapolis) Attorney from 1999 until her election to the Senate in 2006. A Washington Post report focused on her unwillingness to prosecute police officers who killed African-Americans, but found other concerns as well now that Klobuchar is running a national campaign in a party whose electorate is increasingly diverse and less interested in “tough on crime” rhetoric:
When the 38-year-old corporate lawyer launched her 1998 campaign, the Twin Cities were recovering from a long wave of violent crime, and many communities were demanding help. Minneapolis had earned the nickname “Murderapolis” in 1995, when its homicide rate peaked. At the time, the ratio of African Americans to whites in state prison was among the worst in the country.
During her campaign, Klobuchar vowed a zero-tolerance approach toward nonviolent crimes by young people, including petty theft and vandalism …
After beating her opponent by less than 1 percent, the new county attorney followed through on her campaign promises, adopting an aggressive approach to felony and juvenile prosecutions across dozens of police jurisdictions in and around Minneapolis.
Her advocacy of the “broken windows” anti-crime strategy associated most prominently with New York’s Rudy Giuliani and Bill Bratton was just part of a pattern of prosecutorial behavior that some Minnesota civil-rights activists still recall with bitterness:
“We even saw Hillary Clinton apologize for the use of the term ‘super-predators,’” said [Nekima Levy] Armstrong, the former Minneapolis NAACP president. “We’ve not seen Amy Klobuchar take the same steps to apologize or reach out to our community to make amends.”
With racially motivated police misconduct now becoming an object of considerable attention, the fact that Klobuchar “declined to bring charges in more than two dozen cases where people were killed in encounters with police” is a serious problem for her, particularly as she campaigns in places like South Carolina and California, with their huge minority populations.
Unlike Kamala Harris, of course, Klobuchar cannot fall back on her own racial identity as a signal that whatever she said and did for political reasons back in the day, she now “gets it.” The Minnesotan has touted her co-sponsorship of the First Step Act, the 2018 law that represented a small but significant criminal-justice-reform initiative. But there’s only so much mileage you can get from Democrats for backing a law Donald Trump supported as well. And Klobuchar can’t take too many compensatory positions to assuage critics of her record on racial issues so long as her narrow path to the Democratic nomination depends on a reputation as a “moderate” who is resisting the leftward wind blowing through her party.
It’s probably not a situation that would have occurred to Amy Klobuchar when she ran that first “tough on crime” campaign in 1998. Thanks to her very success, though, it’s a problem for her now, and it doesn’t help that she’s under heavy criticism for “tough” treatment of her own employees over the years — which sometimes sounds pretty brutal.
Meanwhile, Kamala Harris is probably relieved that she’s not the only ex-prosecutor in the race experiencing fresh scrutiny.