Monday, January 28, 2019

Live, from Oaktown, Kamala Harris


AMERICA, WE are better than this!” Democratic Sen. Kamala Harris said Jan. 27 at a vibrant, raucous, genuinely multicultural rally before a crowd of 20,000, announcing her run for the presidency of the United States in a call for national unity from her town, Oakland, California, the heart of the country’s demographic breadbasket, a city that looks like America as much as any other city in America.

“We are at an inflection point in the history of our nation,” Harris told the crowd at Frank Ogawa Plaza. “We are here because the American Dream and our American democracy are under attack and on the line like never before. ...

“I believe we must acknowledge that the word ‘unity’; has often been used to shut people up or to preserve the status quo. After all let’s remember: when women fought for suffrage, those in power said they were dividing the sexes and disturbing the peace. ...

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“When we have true unity, no one will be subjugated for others. It’s about fighting for a country with equal treatment, collective purpose and freedom for all. That’s who we are.

“And so, I stand before you today, clear-eyed about the fight ahead and what has to be done — with faith in God, with fidelity to country, and with the fighting spirit I got from my mother. I stand before you today to announce my candidacy for President of the United States. ...

“We can achieve the dreams of our parents and grandparents. We can heal our nation. We can give our children the future they deserve.

“We can reclaim the American Dream for every single person in our country. We can restore America’s moral leadership on this planet. So let’s do this. And let’s do it together.

“And let's start now.”

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WHEN YOU embrace Oakland, by definition you embrace the underdog and the street. The city never got the brand advantage of San Francisco, its raffish, elegant, iconoclastic neighbor to the west.

But Oakland has always reveled in its own identity, sufficient unto itself, happy with its own reputation as a gritty working-class city and having shed any inferiority complexes some time ago, even as it wrestles with the pathologies of racism and gentrification. Jack London hailed from the city, likewise Oscar-winner Mahershala Ali. And Zendaya. And Daveed Diggs and Clint Eastwood. Gertrude Stein lost her beloved neighborhood there there. And popular culture and music are more than peppered with exponents of the Eastbay sound: Tower of Power, Too Short, Tony! Toni! Toné! were born there too.

I was one of the original editors at the Oakland Tribune under the stewardship of Robert Maynard, the fiercely enterprising former editor who rolled the dice and bought the Tribune from Gannett in 1983, creating the first management-led buyout in American newspaper history, and becoming the first African American owner of a major metropolitan daily. Walking into Tribune Tower every day, I felt a sense of mission, and a civic pride I’d rarely experienced before. “The Trib” was Oakland’s own.

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JUST LIKE KAMALA Harris is. She was born there, at Kaiser Hospital, of a Jamaican father and an Tamil Indian mother. Harris understands the value of relying on your roots at big moments in life. She follows the lead of Kirsten Gillibrand, the Democratic senator from New York and another presidential aspirant, who is basing her campaign in Troy, N.Y., where she grew up.

Born in Oakland, she was later raised in Berkeley, got her law degree from UCLA, and, ultimately, became district attorney of San Francisco. All in all, a solid power base from which to establish political bona fides. A place from which to develop a network of good friends.

Friends like Nancy Pelosi, who’s known her since at least early 2004, during Harris’ time as San Francisco District Attorney. Interesting how things turn out: Pelosi’s now the Speaker of the House, and Harris is the first undisputed major-league contender for the 2020 Democratic nomination. And they go back 15 years ...

Two great tastes that taste great together in 2020? Hey, relax. I’m just sayin’.

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Harris joins a field of Democratic contenders that’s hardly crowded, at this point. Only six are in so far, and more will formally join before long. One thing that may work to Harris’ advantage is the possibility that the field of contenders may not be as big, as philosophically wide open, as some Democrats fear (or as big as the Republicans may be hoping).

It’s way too soon to start throwing around the phrase “front runner” at this point. There are too many variables in the early going — matters of financing a presidential run, staffing up, building the brain trust, doing the polling, gauging the grassroots energy — to anoint anyone with that lofty title just yet. That’d be one good reason for the field to either remain small or (more likely) thin out in a hurry once the logistical and financial demands become clear.

But Harris has the momentum of the early start. She’s been priming the pump the right way (a recent memoir; appearances in high-profile Senate hearings that are, among other things, essentially free advertising).

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SHE’S GOT A thorough sense of history and of timing: Her splashy campaign rollout in her hometown capitalizes nicely on the official launch of her White House bid (via video) on Jan. 21, the MLK holiday.

She has a smart feel for her political room. Harris’ hometown is and has been for more than two generations a Democratic bastion, with consistent votes in presidential elections for Democrats that were never lower than 60 percent going back to 1964.

And not for nothing: Harris has raised a lot of money in a hurry. On Jan. 22, Slate reported that Harris “had raised $1.5 million from roughly 38,000 donors in the first 24 hours after she made her 2020 plans official” on MLK Day.

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HARRIS recognizes that a long-haul enterprise like running for the presidency requires a big haul of cash. “Harris’ insta-fundraising is more evidence that she’ll be able to compete in what is expected to be a deep primary field,” Slate reported.

“Other big-name Democrats like Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Kirsten Gillibrand have not released any fundraising numbers to date, though both are still technically in the exploratory phase of their bids,” Slate said. “That difference, though, could be a further boon to Harris, who will likely now enjoy a feedback loop of sorts, in which her rapid fundraising start earns her more attention, which in turn boosts her name recognition, which in turn earns her even more cash, and then more attention.”

She’s already been gaining name recognition, quickly. And it doesn’t hurt that she ticks the other boxes highly valuable to the Democratic party: previous elective experience, immigrant ancestry; a powerful rhetorical style, and a worthy command of the law — it all comes together in a candidate with many of the same populist-rhetorical qualities that helped propel another junior Democratic senator to the White House not too many years ago.

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There are, of course, some issues to be addressed, up front and immediately. In the days after her Jan. 21 announcement, Harris has faced down detractors who claimed that, as a prosecutor, she was overzealous in pursuing convictions and championing the California state penal system. Harris didn’t pull an okey-doke and start apologizing, or try to unmake her own history. She stood in the fire and defended her past decisions, offering regret for not doing more.

“I can tell you of the cases where I really regret that we were not able to charge somebody that molested a child but the evidence wasn’t there. There are cases ... where there were folks who made a decision in my office who did not consult with me and I wish they had. But again, I take full responsibility for those decisions,” Harris said Jan. 22 at Howard University, the HBCU that is her alma mater.

“There is a lot about what I did as a prosecutor that I’m proud of,” including the launch of a groundbreaking program offering first-time offenders a chance to have their charges dismissed if they completed a vocational training program.

If anyone had any doubt about her comfort zone with a prosecutorial past, Harris proves it in her campaign tagline: “Kamala Harris For the People” — both a nod to Shirley Chisholm and to her principal allegiance as San Francisco attorney general and California attorney general. “There are fundamental flaws in the criminal justice system and ... this criminal justice system needs to be reformed,” she said.

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NOTHING’S even really started in the 2020 race, and all the challengers will face scrutiny about their positions on the weightiest matters of the day. Ultimately the public will decide whose pedigree is for real.

But if all else fails as a reason to look on Kamala Harris favorably as presidential timber — her full-throated defense of civil liberties and support of progressive values, her emerging skill as an centrist Democratic politician of color unfazed by making tough decisions and unafraid to explain and defend them — make it just this:

One of her undeniable qualifications is her baseline demeanor, her true aspect visible in the photographs and videos of the contender, when her eyes twinkle above an incandescent smile, her laughter bubbling up from the diaphragm. It’s there in her ability to smile and laugh and impart that other quiet-as-kept thing a nation always wants, and which this nation needs now, desperately: a leader with a sense of humor.

Imagine that.

Image credits: Harris: Jose Carlos Fajardo/Bay Area News Group. Kamala Harris and Nancy Pelosi: public domain. Tribune Tower: ArielGlenn Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported (CC by SA 3.0). Oakland vote chart: Wikipedia.

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