Terrell Jermaine Starr

LOS ANGELES—As Kamala Harris worked her way through a Mexican restaurant packed with people anticipating her arrival, a little black girl stood patiently among a thicket of onlookers outside. When Harris got close, the girl asked if she would sign a campaign poster.

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“Yes, of course,” Harris replied.

Her face beamed more brightly than I had seen all day. We were in Long Beach, and this was her fourth campaign stop. More than all the hands Harris shook and all the selfies she snapped, the encounter with the child captured the aspiration of her candidacy: a black woman campaigning for history and the little black girl who wanted a memento of it.

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Days later, on Tuesday, Harris, the 51-year-old Democratic attorney general of California, won the primary for California's open U.S. Senate seat, sending her into a November runoff, possibly with Rep. Loretta Sanchez, another Democrat. If Harris wins, she will become arguably the most important woman in American politics not named Hillary Clinton.

She would also be only the second black woman ever to serve in the Senate. (The first was Carol Moseley Braun of Illinois, who served a single term in the 1990s.) When I asked Harris about the possibility, she reflected on being the first woman of color elected district attorney in California, in San Francisco in 2003, and now the first woman of color to be the state’s top law enforcement officer.

“I’ve had the honor and unfortunate experience of being the first in every elected office I’ve had,” she told me. “I say unfortunate because it is unfortunate that we’re still doing firsts.”

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She continued: “There is a lot of work to be done to make sure our leaders reflect people they are supposed to represent. And until we achieve full representation, I think we all should understand we are falling short of the ideals of the country and the ideals of our democracy.”

“Full representation” means a lot of things for a lot of people who voted for her in California, and for those who watched from outside the state. Harris is a black woman achieving political success during the era of Black Lives Matter, which means she will get fewer passes on addressing police brutality and structural racism than President Barack Obama and the politicians of a decade ago.

Clergy praying over Harris at Faith Presbyterian Church in Long Beach.
Terrell Jermaine Starr

Police brutality was not a talking point in 2008; sending a black man to the White House for the first time was. Even though black men and women were being shot and killed by police officers across the country then, Twitter and other forms of social media were either in their infancy or not yet born. In 2016 it’s different, which is why black voters in California and elsewhere may look on Harris’ political ascent with more caution.

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Simply put: What will this black woman do for black people?

When I asked how she might use her Senate seat to lead on the issue of making police more accountable to the public, Harris pointed out that her office has created training that is supposed to help officers become aware of their biases whenever they arrest or detain. Thing is, though, her response sounded like how most politicians try to address dealing with cops who abuse their power. Black communities don’t want more training; they want to see cops who shoot and kill unarmed black people prosecuted and jailed.

Activists and members of California’s Legislative Black Caucus have accused Harris of being too slow to launch investigations into police shootings and holding offers accountable. She does not support legislation that would require her office to independently investigate police shootings. When I asked her about removing local prosecutors who may have cozy relationships with cops accused of abusing their power, Harris replied cautiously.

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“My office is actively monitoring a number of cases and departments, including the federal review of the San Francisco Police Department,” she wrote in an email to a follow up question on the subject. “If federal investigators face resistance and the implementation of reforms fall short in San Francisco, I intend to launch a civil pattern and practice investigation. While I believe elected prosecutors are in the best position to be held accountable by the people they represent, as Attorney General, I stand ready to hold law enforcement agencies accountable where there are clear cases of misconduct or abuse of discretion.”

It sounded like well-crafted legalese; she said a lot without saying much of anything. But I got it: She’s the top lawyer in the state of California. Of course she wouldn’t articulate an answer that could jeopardize the integrity of her office or admit that the criminal justice system in her state is severely flawed.

Harris has also been criticized for not coming down hard on prosecutorial misconduct. Federal judges have said there is an “epidemic” of it in California, including a prosecutor who a state court found had knowingly corroborated the false testimony of a jailhouse informant during a murder trial.

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When I asked Harris to respond, she again spoke cautiously.

“As a lifelong prosecutor, I take allegations of prosecutorial misconduct very seriously,” she told me. “My office evaluates each case based on the facts and the evidence. Justice and fairness can only be served when those who serve in the justice system hold themselves to the highest ethical and legal standards.”

Harris speaking to an audience at Faith Presbyterian Church.
Terrell Jermaine Starr

But if she goes on to win a Senate seat, Harris will be under intense scrutiny to address police brutality, the most important criminal justice issue of the Black Lives Matter era.

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To be fair, she is not a darling of law enforcement either. When Harris first ran for San Francisco district attorney, in 2003, she didn’t have a single endorsement from local police. Some of that has to do with her opposition to the death penalty. One high-profile case that put her at odds with law enforcement was in 2004, when she prosecuted a case in which a man was accused of shooting and killing a San Francisco police officer. Harris had the option of pursuing the death penalty, but refused.

“It’s not a foolproof system,” she said. “DNA has shown that people have been sentenced to death who are actually and factually innocent. We know there is a disproportionate death penalty against people of color and poor people. We know that we are housing a bunch of octogenarians on death row and it would actually just be cheaper to put them in general population, and I prefer that extra money goes to putting more cops on the streets to solve homicides.”

While some of her critics may feel concerned with the “putting more cops on the streets” part of her answer, Harris does have a promising point on her resume. In 2005, she started a re-entry program called  “Back on Track,” which defers sentences upon completion of an 18-to-24-month program that exposes defendants to job training skills, mental health services, and other life learning experiences designed to minimize their chances of recidivism.

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In 2015, Harris launched a similar program at Pitchess Detention Center, in Los Angeles. The pilot program trains inmates with job skills such as welding and dog grooming. They also get cognitive behavioral training to help them adjust to life outside of jail. Many jails already have their own re-entry programs; “Back on Track” gives inmates more curriculum options that address their individual needs.

“It is actually smarter and cheaper to work on prevention than to focus on reaction,” she said about the program.

Angela D. Alsobrooks, the state’s attorney for Prince George’s County, Maryland, was in town to support Harris on Saturday. Alsobrooks told me she has implemented her own version of “Back on Track” in her county and said it is showing signs of promise.

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“It decreases recidivism,” she told me. “That’s the primary objective, to make sure the participants in the program are not returning to lives of crime because we’ve failed to do our part in providing alternatives after they have served whatever their sentences are.”

Angela D. Alsobrooks, the state’s attorney for Prince George’s County, Maryland, was in L.A. to support Harris’ U.S. Senate run.
Terrell Jermaine Starr

On Saturday, three days before the primary, Harris’ most substantive conversation took place at Faith Presbyterian Church, in Long Beach, where she addressed a mostly black and Latino audience. There, she was more intimate and much less guarded than during our short interview earlier in the day. Harris shared her philosophy on tackling crime, and it had little to do with how many cops were on the streets.

Instead, she cited a state study she commissioned that analyzed the correlation between school truancy and kids ending up in jail. She told the audience that high truancy rates at the elementary school level directly correlate with high school dropout rates.

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“Eighty-two percent of people in prison are high school dropouts,” she told the audience. Everyone in the room nodded their heads mm-hmm in agreement.

Then she went on to explain that kids are truant not because their parents are bad caregivers; it’s because the federal minimum wage is $7.25 per hour and doesn’t afford hardworking parents any flexibility to deal with the rigors of raising a family.

“What I have seen countless times is that it is often the case that that parent will come home and look at their 7-year-old and say, ‘Sweetheart, I need you to stay home for the next week because your 2-old-brother is sick.’ Why is that parent doing that?,” she asked the audience. “Well, because, for that minimum wage job, if they don’t show up for work, they don’t get paid. And we have no national commitment to paid family leave. No national commitment to affordable childcare, much less universal Pre-K and where do we think those children end up?”

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Listening to her make that point, it was hard to view her as someone who doesn’t “get it” or is insensitive to what leads a young person down a road of crime. Will her outlook lead to better national legislation that addresses the economic disparities that lead to crime? If she wins a U.S. Senate seat, will she be one of the few social justice-minded members of the chamber who will address criminal justice inequality from an economic standpoint at the federal level? That remains to be seen.

If she does, though, that may be a lot.

As a U.S. senator, there is little she could do to force states to adopt police reforms she thinks are appropriate for their municipalities. We live in a federalist system where states and cities and towns govern their own reforms.

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There is no telling how Harris will respond to the next Sandra Bland or Tamir Rice. But she does show signs that she would be a senator who at least understands the structural problems that lead to crime and will use her national position to address them—even if it doesn’t lead to a single bad cop being jailed. Perhaps that is all we will get from a Senator Harris.

But that just may be enough.

Terrell Jermaine Starr is National Political Correspondent for Fusion. You can follow him on Twitter @Russian_Starr.