Kamala Harris: Democrat tells voters she can take on Trump in 2020

The California senator travels to South Carolina to pitch for support ahead of primary

Senator Kamala Harris, Democrat of California, is joining the race for the White House. Ms. Harris becomes the fourth woman currently serving in Congress to announce her presidential ambitions. Video: The New York Times

 

It’s just after lunchtime on a rainy Saturday afternoon, and more than an hour before her scheduled appearance at the Brookland Health and Wellness Center in Columbia, lines of people are queuing to meet Kamala Harris.

The 54 year-old US senator from California is one of several Democrats to have announced a presidential run, launching her official 2020 campaign in Oakland, California, last month.

Like many, she is also making South Carolina a priority. The southern state is one of the first to hold its Democratic primary. Significantly, South Carolina has the highest percentage of African-American Democratic voters of all the early-voting states, with the result that it holds an outsized role in the Democratic primary campaign.

Supporters wait to meet Kamala Harris in North Charleston, South Carolina. Photograph: Reuters/Elijah Nouvelage
Supporters wait to meet Kamala Harris in North Charleston, South Carolina. Photograph: Reuters/Elijah Nouvelage

Though the South Carolina primary is still more than a year away, Harris and other candidates – such as Cory Booker and Elizabeth Warren – have already visited the state, hoping that an early win here could help secure their path to the Democratic nomination.

As she strides onto the stage in front of a giant American flag she makes apologies for her late arrival. She had been busy meeting local business owners on nearby Lady Street, a shopping thoroughfare in the city dominated by businesses run by women.

As the race to take on Donald Trump in 2020 heats up, Harris is one of four female US senators who have already declared, a powerful sign of the times in the wake of a mid-term elections cycle that returned a record number of women to Congress. While some competitors, such as Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, have put gender and women’s issues to the forefront of their campaign, Harris has instead highlighted her experience as a no-nonsense former prosecutor in California, arguing she has the skills necessary to take on Trump. Asked by one audience member what she offered over other candidates, she replied: “at this moment of time…we need fighters on the stage who know how to fight – I do.”

While Harris, who is still a first-term senator, rose to national prominence as a member of the Senate judiciary committee after her deft questioning of former attorney general Jeff Sessions and supreme court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, Columbia voters want her views on bread-and-butter issues.

As with all presidential candidates, she presents a compelling and quintessentially American personal story of hope, hard work and perseverance.

Within minutes she recalls how her parents, both immigrants, met through the civil-rights movement in the 1960s and how she and her sister were raised in a family where there was lots of “marching and shouting about this thing called justice”. From an early age she wanted to be a lawyer, she tells the crowd. “The heroes to many of us were the lawyers,” namechecking some of the famous lawyers of the civil-rights movement. From here she pivots to what is perhaps her major policy priority – reform of the criminal justice system.

Since announcing a presidential run last month, her record as attorney general for California and district attorney of San Francisco has come under intense scrutiny, with some on the left arguing she was more punitive in her approach than the progressive prosecutor she has claimed to be. Harris tackles the criticism she has received head-on, dismissing the “false choice” used by those who talk about criminal justice policy in labelling people as either “soft on crime or tough on crime”. “Instead, we must be smart on crime,” she says to sustained applause. While she supports “severe consequences” for those convicted of serious crime, she also talks of the power of redemption, and allowing people “a way to earn their way back”. She cites her “back on track” initiative in California which helped young low-level offenders reintegrate in society.

While Harris is on familiar territory when it comes to themes of justice, sentencing reform and mass incarceration, she feels less at home when it comes to other mainstream policy issues such as health.

Her surprise announcement last month that she backs Medicare for all signalled an embrace of a leftist position within the Democratic field that some analysts believe will ultimately alienate middle-ground and swing voters. Harris confirmed early in her campaign that her policy of extending healthcare to all citizens envisions the eventual abolition of health insurance. It’s a position viewed as risky. Polls show that most Americans who have health insurance like the policy they have, albeit while also being unhappy with the country’s overall approach to healthcare.

Kamala Harris cites her record as a prosecutor as proof she can ‘fight’ Trump. Pictured in North Charleston in South Carolina. Photograph: Travis Dove/The New York Time
Kamala Harris cites her record as a prosecutor as proof she can ‘fight’ Trump. Pictured in North Charleston in South Carolina. Photograph: Travis Dove/The New York Time

Questioned by an audience member on how she plans to pay for Medicare for all, given the United States’ $22 trillion national debt, Harris evades any concrete policy answer, and gives a vague suggestion that last year’s Republican tax cut could be reversed. Harris then embarks on a lengthy recollection of her own family’s experience when her mother died after having cancer. “It should not be that people should go through a system like this, and have to worry about whether they have the money to be able to take care of their loved ones,” she says, while declining to give any specifics on how a reform of this system could be achieved.

As the townhall meeting wraps up – prematurely due to the late start – audience members queue up to meet Harris.

Around the hall the mood is buoyant as local residents take photos and chat about the meeting.

Trent Jackson and his wife Geneva from Columbia were won over by Harris. “I think she’d make a great president,” says Trent. “She’s tough and got what it takes.” His wife is a little more circumspect: “She’s impressive, no doubt, but it’s still early days.”

Sarah, a paralegal in her late 50s from Columbia, was also impressed by Harris’s performance, but raises some concerns. “There is no doubt she is an intelligent, highly competent politician, but I did wonder about some of her answers about how she plans to do all these things,” she says. “The Republicans are going to kill her on that.”

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