US senator Kamala Harris announced her candidacy for president in 2020 in Oakland, California, two days after her colleague from across the bay in San Francisco, speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, backed US president Donald Trump into ending the government shutdown.
In an era in which Trump has weaponized political misogyny, are the women of California the answer to defeating him in the next election?
Pelosi, leader of the newly installed Democratic majority in the House of Representatives, became the first politician of any party (or gender) to knock Trump on his heels. And now Harris, with her extensive public service resume, fundraising prowess, and a life story reminiscent of Barack Obama, is instantly among the top contenders in a crowded primary field to challenge Trump next year.
“When we lift up the women of our country, we lift up the children of our country,” Harris argued in front of 20,000 at Oakland’s city hall. “We lift up the families of our country. And the whole of society benefits.”
Harris was introduced, and endorsed, by Oakland mayor Libby Schaaf. Oakland, historically home to a large black community and left-wing activists, has in recent decades come to look like a microcosm of the Democratic party, with growing Hispanic and Asian populations and wealthy techies spilling over from San Francisco and Silicon Valley. Just as in the party, clashes—over gentrification, economic inequality, and the intersection of both with race—are common.
Many Democrats look forward to their 2020 primary with trepidation because of the acrimony that burst out between former US secretary of state Hillary Clinton and US senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont in 2016. But perhaps the lesson of California is that intersectional leaders are better at building coalitions across these complex divides.
Asked what set Harris apart in a field of Democrats that includes Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren, New York senator Kirsten Gillibrand, and South Bend, Indiana, mayor Peter Buttigieg, one Harris supporter at the rally, Julia Martinez, told me, “She’s the only woman of color.”
Actually, the field also includes long-shot Tulsi Gabbard, an Indian-American congresswoman from Hawaii. She and Harris are the first women of color to credibly seek the Democratic presidential nomination since Carol Moseley Braun of Illinois in 2004.
Harris was born to two international graduate students at the University of California, Berkeley: a Jamaican man studying economics and an Indian woman whose research career focused on breast cancer. Her parents divorced when she was 12, and she moved with her mother to Montreal.
After high school in Canada, Harris attended Howard University, a historically black university in Washington DC, and then law school in California, where she began her legal career in 1990.
Her time as an Oakland-based prosecutor for the district attorney of Alameda County served as the foundation of her campaign-kickoff address. Harris told the crowd that at each court appearance, she’d stand before the judge to say, “Kamala Harris, for the people,” a phrase that is now her campaign slogan and which she says guides her “life’s work.”
Democrats like prosecutors a lot these days—just look at Bob Mueller. But Harris’ record, both as the DA for San Francisco City and County, and then as attorney general for California, has been a source of controversy.
Harris portrays herself as a reformer, and said that “at a time when prevention and redemption were not in the vocabulary or mindset of most district attorneys, we created an initiative to get skills and job training instead of jail time for young people arrested for drugs.” But criminal justice advocates say her record is at best mixed, some excoriating positions she took defending a crooked medical examiner and failing to examine wrongful convictions, or failing to take effective action when California prisoners were suffering from dramatic overcrowding.
Still, her criminal-justice record may make her the Democrat able to most credibly bring forward gun-safety legislation, as well as policies to stop law enforcement from discriminating against minorities.
A simple pledge to “speak with decency”
The conservative response to Harris’ candidacy tends to focus on her relationship nearly three decades ago with then California assembly speaker Willie Brown—”so what?” sez the legendary California pol—but it’s hard to imagine such attacks gaining traction in a race against an incumbent president who paid hush money to cover up his affairs during his own campaign.
Her backers are not worried about those or other attacks, because they say Harris is tough. An initial sign of her ambition among Washington watchers was her interrogation of US Supreme Court justice Brett Kavanaugh during his confirmation hearings.
At her campaign kickoff, she did not shy away from criticizing Trump, calling his wish for a wall at the US southern border a “medieval vanity project.” But her speech seemed more to target Americans who watch the news and feel baffled by the current White House’s insistence that all is well. A riff on “speaking truths” simply acknowledged the reality of economic inequality, of pharmaceutical companies’ complicity in the opioid crisis, of climate change, and of the country’s falling stature in the world.
It’s a testament to the political times that her simple promise to “speak with decency” was a major applause line. Her event, introduced by a boisterous gospel rendition of The Star Spangled Banner and a preacher who invoked “messages of joy instead of news of doom,” could not have been more different from Trump’s “Mexican rapists” entry onto the national stage in 2015.
Now is the US ready for a woman president?
Louise Renne, who in 1986 became the first woman to serve as city attorney of San Francisco, hired Harris to run her department’s child-services division for several years. I met Renne at her law firm’s office a few days before Harris’ announcement; her practice takes only public-interest clients and is currently suing Google over its sexual-harassment policies.
Renne backed Harris in her local and state-wide races, praising her as a talented and caring attorney. She recalls that Harris, amidst the pressures of dealing with a county’s worth of child-services problems, instituted a program to give small gifts to foster children to celebrate the completion of their adoption process.
The veteran of San Francisco’s political scene isn’t endorsing in the presidential primary just yet, confessing herself intrigued by the potential entry of former US vice president Joe Biden or Ohio senator Sherrod Brown. (She thinks Warren missed her window to win in 2016.)
But Renne backed Harris in her first race for DA in part because women were not thought of as law-and-order prosecutors and she wanted to fight that bias. I asked her if a woman can win the presidency in the United States.
“If the right woman comes along that really connects with the people, I think it’s possible,” she says. “One thing about Kamala, I know politicians say they care about people. I have probably a more realistic view of people in politics than most. I think Kamala really does.”