When we fact-checked their big clash on debate night, we found that Sen. Kamala D. Harris was mostly right about former vice president Joe Biden’s record on school busing.
But Harris (D-Calif.) described her own record selectively at other points in her campaign, usually by leaving out the unflattering parts. Harris also got Pinocchios for misleading claims about Republican tax cuts and other issues.
Readers may be interested in those fact checks now that Harris, a former prosecutor who was attorney general of California, is Biden’s running mate on the Democratic presidential ticket.
Here’s a roundup of what Harris said and what we found during her presidential run in 2019. (Months before announcing her candidacy, Harris earned Four Pinocchios for tweeting a deceptively edited video of Brett M. Kavanaugh’s remarks about abortion.)
“You also worked … to oppose busing. And, you know, there was a little girl in California who was part of the second class to integrate her public schools, and she was bused to school every day. And that little girl was me.”
— Harris, at a Democratic presidential candidate debate, Miami, June 28, 2019
“I did not oppose busing in America. What I opposed is busing ordered by the Department of Education. That’s what I opposed.”
In the first debate of the Democratic primary, Harris and Biden clashed over the government’s use of mandatory busing to integrate schools in the 1970s.
Biden was in his early days as a senator representing Delaware when he opposed forced busing, calling it a racist and “asinine concept” that would “insure mediocrity.” In his 2007 autobiography, “Promises to Keep,” Biden called busing “a liberal train wreck.”
“The new integration plans being offered are really just quota systems to assure a certain number of blacks, Chicanos, or whatever in each school. That, to me, is the most racist concept you can come up with,” Biden said in a 1975 interview with a Newark, Del., publication known as the People Paper that was entered into the congressional record. “What it says is, ‘In order for your child with curly black hair, brown eyes, and dark skin to be able to learn anything, he needs to sit next to my blond-haired, blue-eyed son.’ That’s racist!”
Harris was a young girl in California in the 1970s. The daughter of immigrants — a Black father and an Indian mother — she was bused to school in an affluent and predominantly White area. At the debate, Harris challenged Biden to say he was wrong to oppose busing. The Supreme Court in 1954 ruled to desegregate public schools in Brown v. Board of Education, but segregated schools were still a fact of life in the 1970s, Harris said. The government had to step in, and sometimes that meant forced busing, she said.
“I do not believe you are a racist,” Harris said to Biden at the debate. But then, she said Biden had worked with White segregationist senators to oppose busing measures. “And, you know, there was a little girl in California who was part of the second class to integrate her public schools, and she was bused to school every day. And that little girl was me,” she said.
Harris enrolled in the Berkeley public school system in 1969 and was part of the second class of students to participate in a busing program to integrate Thousand Oaks Elementary School.
The Berkeley Unified School District had enrolled Black students as early as 1963, a year before Harris was born. That year, the 15 “Negro” students at Thousand Oaks represented 2.5 percent of the school population, whereas “Caucasian” students made up 95 percent, according to CNN.
By 1969, when Harris enrolled, the racial composition had changed dramatically. “Negro” students were 40 percent of the total at Thousand Oaks, while the share of “Caucasian” students had declined to 53 percent, according to CNN.
Biden defended himself from Harris’s attack by saying he had supported some kinds of busing and opposed others. “I did not oppose busing in America,” Biden said. “What I opposed is busing ordered by the Department of Education. That’s what I opposed.”
But his statements in the 1970s, and decades later, were not so carefully hedged. His criticism of busing to integrate schools was broad and unqualified.
“I did not oppose the bill.”
— Harris, in a CNN town hall event in Des Moines, Jan. 28, 2019
Harris was California’s attorney general, the top law enforcement officer in the state, from 2011 to 2017. The Black Lives Matter movement emerged during this time, just as police shootings of unarmed African Americans across the country, and the disproportionate use of force against minorities, became major issues receiving widespread coverage.
At a town hall event that drew nearly 2 million viewers, CNN host Jake Tapper asked why Harris had “opposed” a bill to ensure independent investigations when police use fatal force. Several states say such investigations are a best practice, and a task force established by President Barack Obama in 2015 recommended policies that “mandate the use of external and independent prosecutors in cases of police use of force resulting in death, officer-involved shootings resulting in injury or death, or in-custody deaths.”
In response, Harris told Tapper that she never took a position on any bill or ballot initiative, because of her duties as attorney general. But that wasn’t accurate. A Harris aide told The Fact Checker that she misheard Tapper’s question and misspoke in response.
In fact, Harris took positions on a range of pending bills and at least one proposed ballot initiative, according to archived news releases from her time as attorney general. (We found more than a dozen examples.)
At issue here was a bill to require an independent investigation after any use of fatal force by police in California, which would have relieved local district attorneys of handling such cases. State legislator Kevin McCarty, a Sacramento Democrat, introduced the bill in January 2015 and said in an interview that he asked Harris to support it at the time. Instead, she signaled concerns in public remarks while her office technically remained neutral on the bill.
The concern McCarty had was that district attorneys work closely with the same local police officers who could come under scrutiny. “There are flaws and perceived conflicts of interest,” McCarty said. After amendments, his 2015 bill would have required the attorney general to appoint a special prosecutor in cases when police use of force results in death.
The bill eventually expired in the legislature. Some law enforcement groups opposed to it were supporters of Harris’s campaign for the U.S. Senate in 2016, according to the Los Angeles Times.
For our fact check, a Harris adviser told us that Harris did not take a position on McCarty’s bill, because “she was concerned about taking away authority from locally elected DAs (of which she is a former one) who are held accountable by their constituents.” That answer was consistent with Harris’s contemporaneous comments.
“I don’t think it would be good public policy to take the discretion from elected district attorneys,” Harris told the San Francisco Chronicle in late 2014. “I don’t think there’s an inherent conflict. … Where there are abuses, we have designed the system to address them.”
But McCarty said he was “very pleased” that Harris, who won praise for establishing a police use-of-force database and requiring implicit-bias training as attorney general, later came around to his thinking. “The next year … she actually came out with a recommendation on this,” McCarty said. He described it as three teams covering California “that would be able to step in and assist with independent investigations.”
In September 2016, Harris’s office said she had “advocated to the governor, the speaker of the Assembly, and the Senate president pro tem for the necessary resources to create new teams within the attorney general’s office to conduct criminal investigations of officer-involved shootings.”
“Michael Brown’s murder forever changed Ferguson and America. His tragic death sparked a desperately needed conversation and a nationwide movement. We must fight for stronger accountability and racial equity in our justice system.”
— Harris, in a tweet, Aug. 9, 2019
In 2014, a White police officer in Ferguson, Mo., Darren Wilson, fatally shot Michael Brown, who was Black, unarmed and 18 years old.
The legal definition of murder varies according to jurisdiction, but generally it means killing someone with malice aforethought. In November 2014, a grand jury decided not to indict Wilson after finding that witness reports did not match with evidence. On March 4, 2015, the Obama administration’s Justice Department issued an 86-page investigative report on the shooting, based on testimony from 40 witnesses and a review of forensic evidence, that concluded “there is no credible evidence that Wilson willfully shot Brown as he was attempting to surrender or was otherwise not posing a threat.”
The same day, the Justice Department also published the results of its investigation of the Ferguson Police Department, which highlighted systemic exploitation and racial profiling of Black residents in Ferguson, including racial disparities in traffic stops even though Black drivers were less likely to be found with contraband.
Harris and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who was also seeking the Democratic presidential nomination at the time, both tweeted on the fifth anniversary of Brown’s death and called it murder. They appeared to accept the results of one report and not the other. The Justice Department found that the popular narrative was wrong about Brown’s death, citing witnesses deemed to be credible, some of whom testified reluctantly because of fear of reprisal. The senators earned Four Pinocchios.
Two other presidential contenders, Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), said Brown was “killed” in their anniversary tweets. The definition of murder goes beyond that because it implies malice, ill intent or premeditation.
“When I did it, I knew I was going to take a political hit. And the people around me said, ‘Don’t do it, because you are going to pay a price for this in terms of whatever future you want in politics.’ And I said: ‘Look, I’m prepared to play the bad guy on this. I do not intend to put any parent in jail.’ And no parent went to jail. But the school district, society, this community, everyone, including our business community, others, have got to take seriously the education of these children and give the parents the resources that they deserve and need. And that’s what ended up happening. We improved attendance by over 30 percent and not a parent went to jail.”
— Harris, in an interview with the Root, March 29, 2019
When she was the San Francisco district attorney, Harris took it upon herself to boost school attendance rates. She did this by threatening to prosecute parents whose children missed too many school days without good reason.
“I believe a child going without an education is tantamount to a crime, so I decided I was going to start prosecuting parents for truancy,” Harris said in a 2010 speech.
On the presidential campaign trail last year, Harris struck a softer tone when she was asked about her “anti-truancy” initiative. She noted that school attendance rates improved and that no parents were jailed in San Francisco, where she was district attorney from 2004 to 2011.
“As a result of our initiative, which never resulted in any parent going to jail — never — because that was never the goal, we improved attendance by over 30 percent,” Harris told NPR and other outlets, such as the Root.
But that’s only part of the story. After San Francisco, Harris went on to be the state attorney general. She took her anti-truancy initiative statewide. Some parents were jailed as a result (though not in San Francisco).
Harris would send yearly letters to all parents in the San Francisco school district, warning that having regular unexcused absences was against the law. Prosecutors from her office would hold mediation sessions with parents and truant students. If that failed, Harris’s office would prosecute parents in a specialized truancy court. It was an extreme measure, Harris indicated, and penalties included a fine of up to $2,500 or up to one year in jail.
No parents have been jailed through this program in San Francisco, which is still running. “We definitely have not jailed any parents for truancy in San Francisco,” said Katherine Weinstein Miller, who worked as a prosecutor under Harris and is now chief of alternative programs and initiatives for the San Francisco district attorney’s office. “I can’t speak for other counties, but I can confirm that for my jurisdiction.”
When she was running for state attorney general, Harris championed a bill to take her anti-truancy program statewide. State lawmakers and then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) approved the proposal, and the new law took effect in 2011, just as Harris took office.
The California law’s harshest penalties allow for jailing parents up to one year if their children have unexcused absences for at least 10 percent of school days, along with fines up to $2,000.
Six parents were booked at the Orange County jail in 2013 under California’s truancy law, KPCC radio reported. In Kings County, a mother was sentenced to 180 days in jail in 2012 after “pleading guilty to allowing her kids to miss more than 10 percent of the school year,” KMPH-TV reported. Another Kings County mother was arrested in 2011 for child truancy issues, among other cases.
We gave Two Pinocchios to Harris for her assertion that “no parents were jailed” as a result of her policy. She later said she regretted that some parents had been jailed by some district attorneys outside San Francisco.
“The average tax refund is down about $170 compared to last year. Let’s call the President’s tax cut what it is: a middle-class tax hike to line the pockets of already wealthy corporations and the 1%.”
— Harris, in a tweet, Feb. 11, 2019
This was a case of mixing apples and oranges; the size of a refund tells you nothing about a person’s tax bill.
“Change in refunds does not equate to change in tax liability, since withholding amounts were adjusted” by the Republican tax cuts in late 2017, said Joseph Rosenberg, senior research associate at the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center.
When both the Joint Committee on Taxation and the Tax Policy Center looked at the impact of the tax bill, they concluded that in 2018, most people would see an overall reduction in taxes. The Tax Policy Center found that 80.4 percent of all taxpayers would see a reduction on their bill, compared with about 5 percent experiencing a tax increase.
A Harris spokesman said the senator was referring to the “long-term effect” of the tax cut. That wasn’t clear in her tweet, which received Four Pinocchios.
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