California Sen. Kamala Harris issued a forceful defense of her record as a prosecutor in a speech before a predominantly African American audience in South Carolina on Saturday, pushing back against critics on the left who have scrutinized her record as a district attorney.
"Let me be clear: self-appointed political commentators do not get to define who we are and what we believe," Harris said Saturday at the state's NAACP Freedom Fund celebration. "And they do not get to define what can be."
The California Democrat has come under fire for her tenure as district attorney of San Francisco from 2004 to 2011, withof having violated the rights of defendants and either staying silent or opposing criminal justice reforms.
The size of Saturday's audience in Columbia was estimated at about 700 people and included attorneys, elected officials, county party leaders and local business owners. South Carolina is one of the first four contests in the race for the 2020 presidential nomination and the first real test of candidates' support among black voters, a crucial bloc in the Democratic coalition. Harris' speech was greeted with multiple standing ovations, and NAACP members cheered when she discussed why she wanted to become a prosecutor in the first place.
"I was clear eyed that prosecutors were largely not people who looked like me, or my Uncle Sherman or the people who grew up in our neighborhood," Harris said.
She outlined several programs her office implemented to help black fathers, including one called "Back on Track," which was aimed at reducing recidivism and helping low-level drug offenders re-enter into society. That appealed to Palmer Allen, a 53-year-old teacher.
"Those kinds of issues that touch home with African Americans, those kinds of things are important to me and I don't usually hear that spoken in other areas," said Allen.
Harris' spirited defense of her time as a prosecutor also resonated with attendees like Derrick Quarles, a 31-year-old college professor.
"I know the senator's history as an attorney general in California," said Quarles. "I struggled with whether I was going to support her tonight – I mean, whether I was going to support her or not at all. And tonight, when she spoke to some of the things she's been working on in the Senate and some of the things she's going to work on as president, she swayed me tonight and she does have my support."
Others said it's still too early to decide on a candidate.
"My reaction is, 'I'm listening," said 70-year-old retired teacher, Linda Wilson. "Haven't made up my mind yet. She hit some really strong points in that, it's with the climate of what's going on in the country — and I am a product of the Jim Crow South, so a lot of that really hit home for me."
"What inspired me was where she came from, where she is now and how she is going to try to change some of the stuff that's negative about the presidency," said 65-year-old teacher, James Hill. "I'll vote Democrat. I don't know if it'll be for her or not."
Some of the loudest applause of the night came when Harris took aim at President Trump: "I've prosecuted a lot of cases, but rarely one with this much evidence."
In addition to criminal justice reform, many dinner attendees said education is one of their top priorities. South Carolina is home to the "Corridor of Shame," a rural area of decrepit and crumbling schools that was the subject of a documentary by the same name.
Harris is headed to Iowa on Sunday, where she will have deliver a speech at the Iowa Democratic Hall of Fame Awards, along with 18 other candidates vying for the party's nomination.