Even for white men, being “soft on crime” was perilous in the early years of the 21st century. In 2004, Harris’s first year as San Francisco’s district attorney, John Kerry—a long-standing opponent of the death penalty—made an exception for cases of terrorism. This didn’t stop John Edwards from pummeling him—in the Democratic primary—for not supporting capital punishment in other cases as well. Politically, Edwards was on solid ground. Polling that year showed that more than two-thirds of Americans, and almost 60 percent of Democrats, backed the death penalty for murderers.
Perceived softness on crime was particularly perilous for black politicians, who, research suggests, pay a price with voters when they call out racism. In a debate during his 2004 campaign for the U.S. Senate, Obama boasted that in the state Senate he had “passed 150 pieces of legislation that toughened penalties for violent criminals.” In his 2006 book, The Audacity of Hope, he declared his support for the death penalty in cases of mass murder and the murder of children. Perceived softness on crime posed an even greater problem for black women candidates because, as a 2006 study by scholars at Rutgers University and the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee pointed out, women politicians were perceived as less capable of addressing crime than their male counterparts.
Harris’s own early career illustrates the peril. In 2004, when she refused to seek the death penalty for a man accused of killing a police officer, her fellow San Francisco Democrat, U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein, denounced the decision. The head of San Francisco’s police union said, “Our members never forgave Harris.”
As San Francisco district attorney, Harris was hardly soft on crime. In her 2009 book, Smart on Crime, she boasted, “We are sending three times as many offenders to state prison than we were in 2001, three years before I took office. We also increased conviction rates for drug sellers.” Still, when she ran for state attorney general in 2010, her death-penalty decision six years earlier almost cost her the election. Every other California Democrat running statewide that year won by double digits. Harris, running against a Republican who enjoyed overwhelming support from police groups and attacked her relentlessly for opposing capital punishment, won by less than 1 percentage point in what the Los Angeles Times called “one of the closest statewide elections in California history.”
Given that near-death political experience, it’s hardly surprising that Harris, as California attorney general, avoided contentious battles with the police over sentencing reform and even appealed a judge’s decision that ruled California’s death penalty unconstitutional. It worked. In 2014, she garnered the endorsements of almost 50 law-enforcement groups and won reelection by more than 13 points.