Attorney General Kamala D. Harris (PHOTO CREDIT-MALCOLM ALI)
Clarence M. Mitchell, namesake of the memorial luncheon
California’s Attorney General, Kamala D. Harris, was the keynote speaker at the NAACP’s Clarence M. Mitchell luncheon
Acknowledging the work of the NAACP over the years which she attributed in part to her historic ascension to California’s top law enforcement position – the 32nd attorney general – the Honorable Kamala D. Harris paid a glowing tribute to those, as she put it, “on whose shoulders I stand,” she told a receptive audience how she continues to focus on being ‘smart on crime.’ Attorney General Harris was the keynote speaker at the Clarence M. Mitchell, Jr. memorial luncheon last Monday, a part of the NAACP annual convention in downtown Los Angeles.
In recalling some of the trailblazers that laid the legal pathway for her, Harris named the late Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, Thurgood Marshall; Charles Hamilton Houston who taught Marshall; Clarence M. Mitchell, Jr. whose name enshrined the memorial luncheon; and Constance Baker Motley, who helped with the Brown case and became the first Black woman federal court judge in the United States. These were some of the names that Harris honored as she began to how she does, what she does as the attorney general.
Traditionally, the mantra of a law enforcement official is ‘lock ’em up and throw away the key’…be tough on crime. But Harris said, “Law enforcement has the greatest impact on the most vulnerable among us and people must be treated with dignity. Read the front pages of the newspapers,” she said, “and hard working Americans are losing their homes, they’re losing their jobs” through no fault of their own.
Furthermore, the attorney general said that she is doing something about it; some call it a new paradigm, she calls it ‘smart on crime.’ She mention three main focuses: first is education, especially for African Americans and Latinos whose dropout rate tends to trend a drop-in rate into her second focus: the criminal justice system; and third, the foreclosure crisis of which mortgage fraud is an integral part.
Mortgage fraud … the sub-prime meltdown from which the nation’s economy is spinning out of control, as Harris put it, “a crime by brokers and financial institutions that should not go without consequences. Fifty percent of the foreclosures in the country are African Americans and Latinos,” she stated, “though only 20 percent of African Americans are homeowners.” She mentioned the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case, Shelley vs Kramer, which held that courts could not enforce racial (restrictive) covenants on real estate. (And one of the trailblazers who argued that case was attorney Thurgood Marshall). The result of the aforementioned, as the attorney general put it, is bringing about, “losing faith in the American dream.”
Then Harris spoke of the need for coalitions. “I was elected by coalitions of African Americans and Latinos.” And those who elected her need to stay vigilant; she urged, “We need our voices to be loud,” sustain the momentum that elected the first African American President and the first African American Attorney General in California. For as NAACP president, Ben Jealous stated prior to Harris’ speech that the momentum of her election triggered similar elected African American officials in parts of Texas and Philadelphia.
Finally, in connecting the dots between mortgage fraud, sub-prime lending and the restrictive convenant, Harris touched on the 14th Amendment primarily, but also the 13th and the 15th. The 14th, because it played a central role in the application of its Equal Protection Clause, in the Shelley v Kramer case, and now, most importantly she said, “There are people who are suggesting that the 14th Amendment should be amended. We must remember that’s what the first sentence in the Dred Scott was all about.”
After finishing her keynote address, Attorney General Harris spoke briefly with the Los Angeles Sentinel.
Los Angeles Sentinel (LAS): Do you feel a sense of comraderie with the NAACP because if they did not do what they were doing for over 100 years, you wouldn’t be where you are today?
Attorney General Harris (AGH): That’s right! I’m very clear that I stand on the shoulders of all of the leaders and everything behind the organization and the creation of the NAACP. I was honored to be asked to be the keynote speaker for the Clarence Mitchell luncheon; and looking at the work that he did as a trailblazer, as an advocate for the need for the civil rights act, the voting rights act, his creation of the leadership council … but were it not for his work, I would never have had the opportunity to become the first African American Attorney General of California. So there is a very direct connection.
LAS: One of the themes of your campaign was smart-on-crime … now when you were running for your second term as district attorney of San Francisco, many people made an awfully big deal about you not seeking the death penalty for someone who killed a police officer; do you find that is often used against you in your smart-on-crime thrust?
AGH: No, in fact it was a weak and a failing argument and that is why I was re-elected D.A. of San Francisco without opposition, and it was the first uncontested D.A.’s race in almost two decades.
LAS: We’ve been following your work… the raids you’re organizing against the gangs, the drug traffickers and all of the unsavory elements that prey on society, how does that play into smart-on-crime?
AGH: Smart on crime means doing whatever needs to be done in the smartest and most efficient way to realize public safety. Now there’s no question – and remember, I’m a career prosecutor – that after serious and violent crime happens there should be serious and severe consequences. So one of the realities is that we have an issue with transnational gangs and what they are doing in organizing and trafficking guns, drugs and human beings in California. So I have made a priority around that; I’ve put resources into investigations, into massive arrests of gang affiliated people who are bringing drugs and guns in California.
LAS: Do you find that there is much difference between the D.A. of San Francisco and the attorney general of the state in terms of responsibility and authority?
AGH: It’s very similar and it’s very different. Certainly, it makes for a lot more time on the road because California is such a big state; I’ve been down to Calexico, to El Centro, to Fresno, to Visalia to Del Norte County up and down the state many times. So that is different. And then there is the criminal justice system, it’s the work I did before but now it’s on a grander scale. There’s work around mortgage fraud, technology and the housing crisis
LAS: In terms of the three things you mentioned while you were speaking; education, the criminal justice system and mortgage fraud, tell us about mortgage fraud.”
AGH: We created a mortgage fraud strike force, a combination of some of the best and brightest lawyers … from the consumer fraud, the corporate fraud and from the criminal division … and then along with sworn investigators looking at everything from the activities surrounding the origination of the loans to the foreclosure to the modification, and making sure the consumers and the home owners are protected.
LAS Could you, as a former prosecutor foresee that there may come a time when you, as attorney general, will go into court and prosecute a case?
AGH: I would love that opportunity but I don’t know if my staff would let me. They want me to be on the road and attending meetings.
In a parting note the Attorney General wanted to say to the readers of the Sentinel, “THANK YOU”