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A historic candidacy

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FEBRUARY 01, 2019

On a sun-soaked afternoon in late January, a crowd of more than 20,000 gathered at the Frank H. Ogawa Plaza in Oakland for the official launch of Sen. Kamala Harris’ (D-CA) campaign to become the next president of the United States.

As early as 6 a.m., eager supporters began filing along Broadway in anticipation of Harris’ historic announcement at noon. Harris’ candidacy comes nearly 50 years after Representative Shirley Chisholm — the first Black American and the first woman to seek the Democratic Party’s nomination — ran for president in 1972. It comes a little more than two years after another woman, Hillary Clinton, made history by winning that nomination in Philadelphia.

“She’s a rock star!” I heard an attendee belt across the crowd, pointing at her jacket’s campaign button etched with Harris’ name. The woman’s voice echoed alongside a steady beat of drums, locals’ small talk, chattering students, cheers of little girls perched atop their parents’ shoulders and the buzz of sisters from Alpha Kappa Alpha, the nation’s oldest Black sorority, who came to support Harris — a sister of their own.

For Democrats, recent victories in the 2018 midterm elections — the flipping of 40 seats in the House of Representatives, a 116th Congress more diverse than any in American history, and the return of the speaker’s gavel to the most powerful woman in U.S. politics, Nancy Pelosi — demonstrated the party’s burgeoning grassroots infrastructure and readiness for change after several years in the minority. On both sides of the aisle, the 2018 midterms brought record voter turnout, with 49 percent of the voting-eligible population showing up at the polls. Democrats, however, won the popular vote by a wide margin.

Harris’ candidacy comes nearly 50 years after Representative Shirley Chisholm — the first Black American and the first woman to seek the Democratic Party’s nomination…

Further political victories for the Democrats, such as passing a short-term spending bill to reopen the government through Feb. 15 (one that does not include any border wall funding) earns them trust with voters, as reported by public opinion polls. Democrats’ House majority, too, now allows them to spearhead oversight investigations into allegations of corruption and collusion with Russia by the president and others in his orbit. This serves as a potent opportunity for the House to act as a check on executive power and for House Democrats to pursue other long-desired agenda items such as acquiring Donald Trump’s tax returns and bank statements, an action that Maxine Waters, chair of the Financial Services Committee, has vowed to do via subpoena.

Likely encouraged by these Democratic upswings, many prominent voices from within the party have set their sights on ousting President Trump in 2020. As more than a dozen potential 2020 Democratic candidates continue to mull over the prospect of running, six— most recently Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ)— have already committed to the presidential race, two are pursuing exploratory committees and several others are embarking on “listening tours” across the country.

And so, more than a year and a half before election day 2020, the season of Iowa steak fries and county fairs, mapped checkerboards of New Hampshire counties, pitches and promises, platforms and press, marquee dinners, rope lines and debates over “progress” has officially begun.

The president comes to town

Far west of both Beltway power and swing states in the Heartland, the Bay Area rarely draws presidential spectacle. As a liberal bastion (the 1956 election was the last in which a Republican candidate, incumbent Dwight D. Eisenhower, won Alameda and San Francisco counties), the Bay’s role in presidential campaigns is often more centered on party fundraising and the cultivation of state and national political talent than it is on Democratic candidates’ scramble for votes beyond the primaries or high-profile candidates’ personal attachments to the region.

With California’s primary election scheduled for Super Tuesday on March 3, 2020, however, this year, Californians could have more influence on the upcoming primary. Moving the date forward gives California voters the chance to pump their values — and delegates — into the Democratic primaries earlier than they’ve been able to since 2008. While this potentially offers home-state candidates an advantage, it also runs the risk of alienating lesser-known or weaker-funded candidates who struggle to keep up with the scope of campaigning required to earn a high proportion of the hundreds of delegates that states as large as California or Texas, whose primary has also been moved to Super Tuesday, have to offer.

…pitches and promises, platforms and press, marquee dinners, rope lines and debates over “progress” have officially begun.

From time to time, though, the tide pulls a sitting president to town. In 1948, then-president Truman visited UC Berkeley for a commencement speech. In 1962, incumbent John F. Kennedy came to UC Berkeley for the anniversary of the university’s Charter Day, where, standing before the crowd in an overflowing California Memorial Stadium, he deliberated the Cold War and mused over the essentiality of academic freedom and Berkeley’s contributions to the “New Frontier.”

Other times, a convention rolls through. In 1984, the Democratic National Convention was hosted at San Francisco’s Moscone Center. The convention, one that nominated a ticket that would go on to lose by a landslide to incumbent president Ronald Reagan that year, was contentious. Nonetheless, it was historic: former vice president Walter Mondale ran alongside Geraldine Ferraro, the first female vice presidential candidate for a major party. Out of that convention, too, came one of the most poignant speeches in recent political memory: then-New York governor Mario Cuomo’s “A Tale of Two Cities.” In it, Cuomo highlights how intensifying partisan divisions and mounting inequality in income and opportunity create a dual America:

“A shining city is perhaps all the president sees from the portico of the White House … where everyone seems to be doing well. … But there’s another city; there’s another part to the shining city; the part where some people can’t pay their mortgages, and most young people can’t afford one; where students can’t afford the education they need, and middle-class parents watch the dreams they hold for their children evaporate…

Maybe, Mr. President, if you stopped in at a shelter in Chicago and spoke to the homeless there; maybe, Mr. President, if you asked a woman who had been denied the help she needed to feed her children because you said you needed the money for a tax break for a millionaire or for a missile we couldn’t afford to use….

We must make … the American people hear our ‘Tale of Two Cities.’ We must convince them that we don’t have to settle for two cities, that we can have one city, indivisible, shining for all of its people.”

Now, more than 30 years later, Cuomo’s words remain eerily perennial. Yet, this election season, the Bay Area is not merely a pit stop — for a president, a candidate or a convention. This time, the Bay is central to one presidential aspirant’s story.

A daughter of Oakland

Kamala Harris was born at the Oakland Kaiser Permanente — “just up the road” from the plaza where she chose to launch her presidential bid, she told the crowd at her rally. A proud, self-proclaimed “daughter of Oakland,” Harris’ affinity for the city, its cultural diversity and its sense of community is abundantly clear. After attending Howard University, Harris came back to the Bay to attend the UC Hastings College of the Law before serving as deputy district attorney for Alameda County, district attorney of San Francisco in 2004, California attorney general in 2010 (and again in 2014) and U.S. senator for California in 2016.

Harris’ parents — Shyamala Gopalan, from India, and Donald J. Harris, from Jamaica — met as graduate students at UC Berkeley, where they were deeply engaged in the civil rights movement. Harris attended public schools, and her 1968 class was the second in Berkeley — and among the first in the nation’s big cities — to promote the full integration of Black and white students through a busing program that balanced student populations. It was from her parents’ work, and during her own formative school years, that Harris began to learn the language of activism and empathize with communities that are targeted and marginalized.

“We must convince them that we don’t have to settle for two cities, that we can have one city, indivisible, shining for all of its people.” — Mario Cuomo, 1984

“Racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, transphobia are real in this country,” she told the crowd. “They are age-old forms of hate with new fuel. And we need to speak that truth so we can deal with it.”

At a CNN town hall in Iowa just last Monday, she further reflected on her developmental years: “I am the daughter of parents who met when they were active in the civil rights movement. Nobody had to teach me about the disparities in the criminal justice system. I was born knowing what they are.”

Harris’ elementary school, Thousand Oaks Elementary in Berkeley, recently revealed a mural featuring Harris alongside prominent women in history — from Anne Frank to Dolores Huerta to Malala Yousafzai — suggesting how strong some in the East Bay see her as a symbol for the community’s values.

Speaking truth “for the people”

At her launch rally, one word that I heard Harris repeat was “truth.” Harris presented “truth” as both a cornerstone for her policy positions and a framework for moral and honest leadership. Harris conceded to voters that, while she is “not perfect,” throughout the campaign she would “speak with decency … lead with integrity … and speak the truth.”

Some forms of “truth-telling,” by her account, are about grounding policy in hard facts and evidence. Truths like this are climate change — the planet is warming, sea levels are rising, and anthropogenic emissions prove largely responsible. “We’re gonna act based on science fact, not science fiction,” she told the crowd. Truth-telling is also about admitting uncomfortable realities, like America’s public health crisis of gun violence — a crisis that kills 40,000 Americans every year and is on the rise, according to a Centers for Disease Control and prevention report. Harris’ policy prescriptions — support for a Green New Deal” and a strong assault weapons ban — sketch an outline of where her future policy platforms might lie.

For Harris, another form of truth-telling seems to be about unapologetically presenting one’s true (not poll-tested) beliefs — be it through speech or voting practices. “Health care is a right,” Harris has said on multiple occasions. At CNN’s Iowa town hall last Monday, she took this sentiment further by endorsing “Medicare for all.” While ambitious and sure to appeal to progressives, her early embrace of the plan is risky in a presidential race, and some, including the Washington Post’s editorial board, have presented the practical challenges that Harris’ healthcare vision might entail. Yet, her endorsement seems to suggest that Harris is willing in 2020 to champion what she feels is morally right. And it is consistent with her progressive policy record in the Senate (she co-sponsored Bernie Sanders’ Medicare for All bill among a range of other more modest health care reforms that aspire for a more universal system).

“We’re gonna act based on science fact, not science fiction.” — Kamala Harris

Some critics, however, see Harris’ alignment with bold left-wing policies as suspicious within the broader context of her career. Her record as a district attorney and attorney general of California have come under increased scrutiny, particularly from far-left voters and activists who see discrepancies between her “truth-telling” as a candidate and her stances as a prosecutor. Critics point to some of Harris’ past cases, particularly with regard to her inaction on wrongful convictions or her 2015 appeal on California’s death penalty. They say that Harris’ self-proclaimed strategy of “progressive prosecution” at times looked more like “tough on crime” — a practice generally opposed by those on the left. Despite Harris’ longstanding advocacy for criminal justice reform and disdain for capital punishment, Harris’ contradictory record will likely continue to be a topic of debate.


Though Harris has now outlined her campaign values for a national audience, it is still far too early to predict how the 2020 race will play out. A slew of contenders have yet to enter, and those who have are still probing the media landscape, developing more detailed platforms and warming up for the 21 months ahead.

One thing is clear: In Harris, the field has gained a promising candidate who is energizing voters and directly propelling the Bay Area into the national spotlight. Her run, made possible by the activist movements that came before her, captures the essence of the American dream. It will be “for the people” — as her slogan goes — to decide whether her truths speak to them.

Clarifications: A previous version of this article may have implied that the Democratic party was the minority party in both chambers of Congress for two years. In fact, the Democratic party was the minority party in both chambers of Congress since 2015, until it won a new majority in the House in the 2018 midterm elections.
Contact Danielle Miller at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @dmillercal.

FEBRUARY 12, 2019