Block after block, thousands queued to enter Oakland’s Frank H. Ogawa Plaza to hear Sen. Kamala Harris announce her campaign for president. As police and security fielded anxious questions – ‘Will we get in? Will we see her?’ – the guard by me repeated: ‘I’m not sure, but don’t lose hope’.
Hope was in the air. It was an atmosphere of a home crowd waiting to see a hometown team: here, the junior senator from California, a ‘daughter of Oakland,’ raised by immigrants in the East Bay, who served as District Attorney and California’s Attorney-General before becoming the second black female senator and first Indian American senator.
As I spoke to people on the rope line, they told me why they came. She’s tough, she’s empathetic, she’s for the people, she understands us. It’s time for a woman president, a woman of color. ‘She has pizzaz, the it-factor,’ one lady explained. ‘She’s got major ovaries,’ said another. The recurrent refrain was of Harris’s toughness and inspiration, of her ‘grace and will.’
Inside the rally, purple and yellow campaign signs flashed against the red, white, and blue flags draped down Oakland’s City Hall – a reminder of a campaign at once traditional but different.
That symbolism was pervasive. As an interfaith gospel choir sang the national anthem, as a pastor sought God’s blessing on the senator, and a young black girl led the pledge of allegiance, there was a sense of reclaiming America’s symbols from their recent distortion into icons of partisan warfare – of patriotism for all.
Kamala Harris has an x-factor hard to convey. She entered to a roar from the crowd, greeting them with a happy dazzle of tears and the laugh of the recipient of a wonderful surprise party, something – cynics say – that seems well-practiced.
If Kamala Harris is an act, she performs it well, delivering a politically shrewd but soaring oration that sounded bipartisan, unifying, and hopeful, while attacking the Trump administration and delivering a liberal policy wish-list to assuage left-wing criticisms of her past as a prosecutor. Republicans would be foolish to dismiss the threat she poses in 2020.
Harris’s law enforcement heritage was deftly handled, adapted as her campaign slogan, ‘Kamala Harris, For The People’: a prosecutor’s introduction in Court. Drawing on that history, Harris committed to fight for all Americans, particularly those who feel invisible: ‘I’m running,’ she said, ‘to be president, of the people, by the people, and for all people.’
Framed as a call to reclaim America’s promise, Harris critiqued the Trump administration without saying ‘Trump,’ ‘Republican,’ or ‘Democrat.’ Rather, she argued that ‘We are at an inflection point in the history of our nation. We are here because the American dream and our American democracy are under attack.’ Harris delivered to her base, attacking the president’s border wall as a ‘medieval vanity project’ and referencing ‘foreign powers infecting the White House like malware,’ but she couched her criticisms in a broader appeal to national unity: ‘People in power are trying to convince us that the villain in our American story is each other. But that is not our story…Our United States of America is not about us versus them. It’s about We the people!’
With repeated cadences of ‘let’s speak the truth’ – summoning Dr King’s ‘I have a dream’ and the Declaration of Independence – Harris set out her campaign’s focuses: an economy that works for all, fixing the gender pay gap, criminal justice reform, tackling climate change and opioid addiction, and addressing racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, and transphobia head-on.
Harris’s solution is a policy platform that ticks every liberal box, including Medicare-for-all, debt-free college, and the ‘largest working and middle-class tax cut in a generation,’ paid for by reversing President Trump’s trillion dollar tax cut. It seems an intentional move to silence left-wing critics, who protested her speech but were drowned out by chants of ‘KAMA-LA!’
Harris’s call for genuine unity and action to deliver ‘a country with equal treatment, collective purpose and freedom for all’ sounds good. But America needs more than rhetoric: leadership with a steel spine and the stomach to ask tough questions about the country’s future. In Harris, the Democrats may have that – a candidate whose background could unite the party and whose campaign began with a promise to be president for all. ‘I am not perfect,’ Harris concluded. ‘But I will always speak with decency and moral clarity and treat all people with dignity and respect. I will lead with integrity. And I will speak the truth.’ Those are qualities that Americans feel their country needs, now more than ever. They simply want to believe in a leader who espouses them. Kamala Harris might just be that leader.