Kamala Harris, a California lawmaker and longtime prosecutor, just announced that she’s running for the Democratic nomination for president, becoming the third sitting senator to make her 2020 ambitions official.
“I’m running for president of the United States and I’m very excited about it,” she said during an appearance on ABC’s Good Morning America, timing her announcement with Martin Luther King Jr. Day in a nod to the civil rights movement. “I’m honored to be able to make my announcement on the day that we commemorate” Dr. King.
Harris would be the first African-American woman and the first Asian-American woman to be a major-party nominee for president if she ultimately secures the Democratic nomination. With her announcement, she joins trailblazers including Shirley Chisholm and Carol Moseley Braun, two African-American women who previously vied for the Democratic ticket.
Harris noted that she would bring a wide-ranging set of qualifications to the position, when GMA’s Robin Roberts pressed her about fellow California Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s support of former Vice President Joe Biden. Harris said that Feinstein and Biden have a “longstanding” relationship, which she respects.
“I have the unique experience of having been a leader in local government, state government, and federal government,” she said regarding her credentials. “The American public wants a fighter … and I’m prepared to do that.”
Harris, 54, plans to launch her campaign during a rally in Oakland, California, on January 27. She’s expected to highlight her time as a state attorney general and her work on criminal justice and immigration reform as key tenets of the campaign, all centered on the core theme “For the People.”
Harris has a long record of public service. She served as California attorney general and San Francisco district attorney for a combined 12 years before she was elected to the Senate in 2016. As only the second African-American woman to serve in the Senate, she’s emerged as a prominent champion for racial equality, though some have questioned her past approach to criminal justice.
Buzz about Harris’s potential presidential run has been building ever since she was elected to the Senate: Her legal chops, telegenic appeal, and barrier-breaking track record have made her a social media darling. According to a recent analysis published by Axios, Harris far and away leads the 2020 pack when it comes to Twitter engagement.
During her time in the Senate, Harris has also impressed a crucial contingent of immigration advocates, many of whom have praised her willingness to stake out an unflinchingly aggressive opposition to the White House. She was the first senator to say that she wouldn’t vote for a spending package if Congress didn’t enshrine protections for DREAMers and before that spent time as attorney general confronting the child migrant crisis. She was also the first to call for Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen to resign in the wake of the Trump administration’s implementation of family separation immigration policies.
“The government should be in the business of keeping families together, not tearing them apart,” she said at the time.
She has taken some hits on her prosecutorial past, however. While she’s championed reforms and likes to describe herself as a “progressive prosecutor,” she’s bound to face scrutiny for her record on criminal justice, which has been criticized for its seemingly conflicting approaches to issues including the death penalty and incarceration.
She touched on the issue during the GMA appearance. “It is a false choice to suggest that communities don’t want law enforcement. Most communities do. They don’t want excessive force, they don’t want racial profiling,” she said. “People want to know that their law enforcement is going to conduct themselves without a system of bias.”
It’s one key subject Harris will likely have to reckon with as competition intensifies in the Democratic field. So far, however, her candidacy is off to a strong start. She’s been in the top tier of early Democratic primary polling and has already made recent trips to Iowa and South Carolina.
Harris’s candidacy is groundbreaking
Born in Oakland to Indian and Jamaican immigrants, Harris is a groundbreaking candidate by all measures. She was the first African-American woman to become California attorney general, the first African-American senator California has ever elected, and the second African-American woman to sit on the Senate’s powerful Judiciary Committee.
As her star has risen, she’s also made it a point to advise and promote other candidates of color, including women and first-time candidates, New York magazine reports. “My mother used to tell me, ‘Kamala, you may be the first to do many things. Make sure you are not the last,’” she said. During the 2018 elections, Harris offered counsel and endorsements to several successful Democrats including Jahana Hayes, London Breed, and Lucy McBath.
While she’s served in the Senate, Harris has also been at the forefront of efforts to address racial discrimination, slamming now-Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh for using racist dog whistles in a past op-ed and opposing other judicial nominees like Thomas Farr because of his past ties to voter suppression efforts. Harris has repeatedly emphasized that such fights are not only important but exceedingly personal.
“Almost two decades after the Supreme Court’s landmark ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, I was part of only the second class to integrate the Berkeley, California, public schools,” Harris said as part of a statement during Kavanaugh’s confirmation. “If that Court had not issued that unanimous opinion led by Chief Justice Earl Warren in that case argued by Thurgood Marshall, I likely would not have become a lawyer, or a prosecutor, or been elected district attorney or the attorney general of California.”
Harris has also established herself as a chief defender of immigrant rights, especially as the Trump administration has attempted a wholesale overhaul of many of them. She has introduced multiple bills targeting the treatment of migrant children and families by border patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Harris’s history on criminal justice has prompted questions about her progressive bona fides
Much of the scrutiny on Harris has centered on the time she spent as a prosecutor in California, with many progressives wondering how exactly certain “smart on crime” stances align with her current policy positions.
It’s a record that’s filled with apparent contradictions, which speaks to a balancing act she’s had to strike over the years.
She pushed for programs that helped people find jobs instead of putting them in prison, but also fought to keep people in prison in certain cases that included evidence of wrongful conviction. She refused to pursue the death penalty against a man who killed a police officer (and personally opposes the penalty), but also defended California’s death penalty system in court. She implemented training programs to address police officers’ racial biases but also resisted calls to get her office to investigate individual police shootings.
Her supporters acknowledge her shortcomings but also say she’s fought for key reforms that were often ahead of the rest of the country.
“Kamala Harris has spent her career fighting for reforms in the criminal justice system and pushing the envelope to keep everyone safer by bringing fairness and accountability,” Lily Adams, a spokesperson for Harris, said.
Harris’s website, meanwhile, notes that her work as California attorney general was integral to defending the Affordable Care Act, advancing marriage equality, and obtaining a $20 billion settlement that helped state residents who were hurt by foreclosures during the financial crisis.
But even this could be treacherous territory in a party renewing its attention to economic populism; a piece by Phil Wilton in the Los Angeles Times had a more critical reading of her response to the mortgage lenders, noting that it fell short of some of Harris’s earlier promises including sending the bankers responsible to jail. And a piece in Jacobin, a publication that characterizes itself as a “leading voice of the American left,” took Harris to task for how it ultimately left some with underwater mortgages with little actual financial relief.
Harris has noted that the $20 billion she ultimately secured was widely heralded as a win — and a huge increase from the $2 billion to $4 billion figure the banks originally wanted to settle for — even though it didn’t ultimately provide as much of a safety net as it could have for some homeowners. “There were homeowners that were, at that moment and each day, holding on by the fingernails trying to keep their homes,” Harris said at the time, noting that this urgency drove her approach to negotiations.
While Harris has established one of the most liberal voting records as a senator, she’ll likely face critiques about her prosecutorial record as the campaign gets underway. Such questions of economic and social justice are complex, she notes in her recently published book.
“We cannot solve our most intractable problems unless we are honest about what they are, unless we are willing to have difficult conversations and accept what facts make plain,” Harris writes in her new memoir, The Truths We Hold. “We cannot build an economy that gives dignity and decency to American workers unless we first speak truth. … And I intend to do just that.”