- Sen. Kamala Harris and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard went at it on and off the debate stage in Detroit on Wednesday.
- Gabbard went after Harris’s record as a prosecutor, challenging her progressive credentials.
- Meanwhile, Harris after the debate criticized Gabbard for her refusal to condemn Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as a war criminal; his regime has used chemical weapons and torture in his country’s civil war.
- At the end of the day, they both made valid points about their respective records, highlighting problems they could face along the campaign trail.
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They both made strong criticisms about each others’ records and the ways in which they could cause problems for both along the campaign trail.
At the debate, Gabbard ripped into Harris over her time as attorney general of California.
The senator has sought to brand herself as a progressive prosecutor, despite often resisting criminal justice reforms as the attorney general for the country’s most populous state. Harris, for example, in 2014 appealed a federal judge’s decision that declared California’s enforcement of the death penalty as unconstitutional. It also took Harris a relatively long time to come around on the issue of marijuana legalization.
"I’m concerned about this record of Senator Harris. She put over 1,500 people in jail for marijuana violations and laughed about it when she was asked if she ever smoked marijuana," Gabbard said on Wednesday night.
Gabbard’s claim about 1,500 people being put behind bars for marijuana violations under Harris’s watch appears to be from an article written by the conservative website Free Beacon, and is difficult to verify. But Harris is on the record laughing at a reporter asking her if she’d support marijuana legalization back in 2014.
Harris in an interview earlier this year admitted to smoking marijuana while in college, and she now supports ending the federal prohibition on marijuana.
Gabbard also attacked Harris on the death penalty.
"She blocked evidence that would have freed an innocent man from death row. She kept people in prison beyond their sentences to use them as cheap labor for the state of California, and she fought to keep cash bail system in place that impacts poor people in the worst kind of way," Gabbard added.
Lara Bazelon, former director of the Loyola Law School Project for the Innocent, excoriated Harris over similar issues in a New York Times op-ed earlier this year.
"Harris fought tooth and nail to uphold wrongful convictions that had been secured through official misconduct that included evidence tampering, false testimony and the suppression of crucial information by prosecutors," Bazelon wrote.
Bazelon cited the case of Kevin Cooper, whom she described as "the death row inmate whose trial was infected by racism and corruption." Cooper requested advanced DNA evidence in an effort to prove his innocence, but Harris’s office wouldn’t allow it.
After becoming a senator, Harris expressed support for the DNA testing in Cooper’s case and it was eventually approved by California Gov. Gavin Newsom this past February.
Harris defended her record against Gabbard’s criticism. "I did the work of significantly reforming the criminal justice system of the state of 40 million people which became a national model for the work that needs to be done," Harris said. "And I am proud of that work."
But Gabbard was unrelenting, and added, "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, you blocked evidence from being revealed that would have freed them until you were forced to do so."
Gabbard said Harris has "no excuse for that and the people who suffered under your reign as a prosecutor, you owe them an apology."
Cooper has used up his appeals and his case now is being reviewed by the staff of Gov. Gavin Newsom, who has approved more DNA testing. Cooper remains on death row and the DNA tests have not proved his innocence to date.
A campaign spokesman for Harris told The Washington Post on Thursday morning that Harris was not directly involved in the decision to deny Cooper’s petition in 2016.
After the debate, rather than responding to the substance of Gabbard’s attacks, Harris took the opportunity to dig into the Hawaii lawmaker’s controversial record on foreign policy, especially her comments about Syrian President Bashar al Assad.
"This, coming from someone who has been an apologist for an individual, Assad, who has murdered the people of his country like cockroaches," Harris said of Gabbard. "She who has embraced and been an apologist for him in a way that she refuses to call him a war criminal. I can only take what she says and her opinion so seriously and so I’m prepared to move on."
Gabbard has repeatedly refused to forcefully criticize or condemn Syria’s Assad, who has ruthlessly waged a civil war that’s led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands in his country.
Assad has sought to crush dissent via hellish prisons where people are tortured and there’s substantial evidence he’s repeatedly used chemical weapons on his own people. The Syrian leader is widely regarded as a war criminal, a designation that Gabbard has not embraced. The lawmaker met with Assad on a 2017 trip to Syria and later raised questions about reports that Assad had used chemical weapons.
Gabbard once again dodged questions about Assad while being interviewed by CNN’s Anderson Cooper after the debate.
When Cooper asked Gabbard what her take on Assad is, she replied, "My take is one of a soldier, where I’ve seen the cost of war firsthand. In Iraq, serving in a medical unit, every single day confronted with that high human cost of war."
Gabbard is a major in the Hawaii National Guard and deployed to Iraq in 2004.
"I will never apologize for doing all that I can to prevent more of my brothers and sisters from being sent into harm’s way, to fight counter-productive regime-change wars that make our country less safe, that take more lives, and that cost taxpayers trillions more dollars. So if that means meeting with a dictator, or meeting with an adversary, absolutely. I would do it. This is about the national security of our country," Gabbard said.
Asked if she considers Assad a torturer and murderer, she replied, "That’s not what this is about. I don’t defend or apologize or have anything to do with what he has done to his own people."
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