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On a cool spring night in April, Kamala Harris strode into an oversized auditorium at the University of Iowa, dressed in her trademark dark trouser suit and pearls. “What’s up, Johnson County? How’s it going?” the 54-year-old junior senator from California and 2020 presidential candidate exclaimed, before launching into her stump speech.
“This is an inflection point,” she began, slowly pacing the stage. She recalled an anecdote about her mother, “who was almost five feet tall, but if you had ever met [her] you would have thought she was seven feet”, and who had always encouraged her to fix problems. Here were today’s problems as Harris saw them: racism. Sexism. Islamophobia. An American economy that was “not working for working people”. Active shooter drills in schools. An “immoral” healthcare system. Climate change.
The mood was sombre, and Harris acknowledged it. “There’s a funny thing about truth. Speaking truth can often make people quite uncomfortable,” she said. “And for those of us who are used to speaking behind the microphone or on the podium, there is an incentive that, when we speak, we make everyone feel happy. We’ll make everyone feel lovely, we will sprinkle lovely dust all over the room, and people will applaud.”
Harris’s own candour usually did not generate that kind of reaction, she acknowledged. “People may walk away from that conversation thinking, you know, ‘I don’t particularly like what [she’s] mentioned here.’ But they will also walk away from that conversation knowing it was an honest conversation.”
Harris has been viewed as a possible Democratic presidential contender since her 2010 election as California’s attorney-general, when she became the first woman and the first African-American to serve in that role. That victory propelled her on to the national stage, and into the US Senate six years later. At her campaign launch rally in her hometown of Oakland in January, an estimated 20,000 people showed up. In the first 24 hours of her campaign, Harris raised a respectable $1.5m; in the first quarter, $12m.
And yet, in the months since then, Harris has seemed to flounder, her name dipping out of the 2020 media narrative as competitors ranging from Beto O’Rourke, the former Texas congressman, to Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, gained an edge.
Her supporters have pointed to the stability of Harris’s numbers, which have held relatively steady percentage-wise as competitors have waxed or waned. The first Democratic debates, an arena they expect Harris to excel in, are on June 26 and June 27. There are still seven months to go until the Iowa caucuses — the first contest in the months-long primary.
Nevertheless, her struggle to rise in the polls has raised broader questions about the challenges facing the Democratic party and about gender politics, as strategists grapple with how best to take on Donald Trump and avoid a repeat of Hillary Clinton’s upset three years ago.
Of the 23 Democrats currently running for president, six are women — an all-time record for a party primary. Two of them, Harris and Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren, have gained traction: on June 16, the average of national polls compiled by RealClearPolitics put Harris in fifth place, with 6.8 per cent of likely primary voters, and Warren in third place, with 11.6 per cent.
Comfortably ahead of both, however, is former vice-president Joe Biden, followed by Vermont senator Bernie Sanders. It is notable that Harris’s rivals — particularly Biden, O’Rourke and to a certain extent Buttigieg — share a willingness to go off-script, at times to their detriment but often to their benefit. This quality seems all the more salient in the Trump era, with many 2016 voters drawn to the current president’s unpredictability and off-the-cuff remarks.
O’Rourke spent much of his early days on the campaign trail apologising for a remark about his wife staying at home to raise their children “sometimes with my help” and for a Vanity Fair cover story in which he declared he was “just born to be in it”.
Biden, meanwhile, who is embarking on his third presidential run, has spent much of his four-decade-plus career making gaffes — his Achilles heel in earlier White House races. In the current race, however, such gaffes have often been interpreted as a sign of authenticity — a trait Hillary Clinton was accused of lacking in 2016, and one that Harris’s cautiously scripted pronouncements have sometimes failed to convey.
The biggest question that faces the Democratic party as it enters the primary season is whether to look backwards and try to defeat Trump on the 2016 electoral map by enticing back former Obama voters who switched to Trump; or to try and win in 2020 by raising turnout among the Democratic base, specifically young people, women and minorities. For these groups, Harris could be a strong candidate.
“If you take the history of elections, you can sort of look at them in a way of what it tells us about America and what we’re trying to decide,” says Peter Hart, a Democratic pollster. “I think the challenge for both Sanders and Biden is to be about tomorrow and not about yesterday.”
Warren has recently enjoyed a surge in the polls, thanks to a policy-packed agenda that includes a tax on households that have a net worth above $50m, free childcare, the cancellation of student debt and breaking up Silicon Valley’s biggest tech companies. Unapologetically targeted at the Democratic base, all are policies that the former Harvard law professor has been advocating for years. “She has a lifetime of knowing what she’s fighting for,” Hart says.
Here Harris can seem out of step with the wider mood. She has run on a more moderate, middle-of-the-road platform that seems designed to appeal to the widest cross-section of voters, with policy proposals such as higher salaries for teachers, an end to the gender pay gap and a $15 minimum wage.
Though she presents a less rosy picture of the post-Trump future than some of the other Democratic candidates running to the centre, she has been accused of being too cautious and of trying to be too many things to too many people. At the same time, critics say she has avoided taking a definitive stand on some of the primary’s most vexing questions.
When asked recently whether incarcerated felons convicted of violent crimes deserved the right to vote, for example, Harris would say only that the issue deserved “a conversation”. On another occasion, when questioned about the future of the US medical system, she suggested that she was in favour of eliminating private health insurance as part of a plan to create federally funded universal healthcare, before her campaign backtracked the next day.
Jeff Adachi, the late San Francisco public defender, who frequently sparred with Harris when she was the city’s district attorney, characterised Harris as less of a policy wonk and more of a delegator when I met him in his office, shortly before his death in February. “She’s not an ideologue,” he said. “She’s very much a person who will compromise. She’s a very practical person. People have just described her as cautious. Yeah, that’s true. But, you know, you don’t get to where she is by being careless.”
Thad Kousser, professor of political science at the University of California San Diego, notes that much primary presidential campaigning relies on retail politicking — the small-scale interactions with voters that occur at local events. That skill might not come as naturally to Harris as to others, given that all her other campaigns have been in California. The West Coast state is so large that campaigning is mostly done via TV advertising or big rallies rather than meet-and-greet town halls. “In California, you never have to be a retail politician,” Kousser says. “Everyone knows her résumé. No one really knows her.”
Born in Oakland, California, Harris grew up attending civil rights protests with her mother — an extracurricular activity she says fostered her interest in politics and justice. Her mother was a cancer researcher from India, her father an economics professor from Jamaica. They divorced when she was young, and Harris and her younger sister, Maya, today her campaign chairwoman, were raised by their mother. She attended Howard University, a historically black college in Washington DC, then law school at University of California, Hastings.
After graduating from Hastings in 1989, Harris secured a job in the Alameda County district attorney’s office in Oakland, a job she immediately relished and stayed in for years. Paul Henderson, who worked for Harris when she was San Francisco’s district attorney, says his former boss was attracted to the law for some of the same reasons he was. Unlike some other professions, “at the end of the day, there’s an independent measurement of who was more successful”, says Henderson, who is now director of San Francisco’s department of police accountability.
Matthew Davis, a law-school classmate of Harris’s who later worked with her in the San Francisco city attorney’s office, tells me that Harris’s decision to serve on the side of the prosecution reflected her personality. “People who do criminal defence, they like to create chaos. They like to disrupt things,” Davis explains. “She’s not like that. She’s always been much more disciplined, organised.”
Harris’s emergence in the Bay Area political arena was kick-started when, at the age of 29, she began publicly dating Willie Brown, the then 60-year-old speaker of the California state assembly. Brown later went on to be elected mayor of San Francisco and, more than two decades later, remains one of the most influential political figures in the city.
Shortly after Harris’s announcement that she was running for president, Brown wrote a column acknowledging their previous romantic relationship and the fact that he had appointed her to two state commission boards when he was state assembly speaker. At the same time, he pointed out that he had “also helped the careers of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, [California governor] Gavin Newsom, Senator Dianne Feinstein and a host of other politicians”.
Harris’s friends have sought to play down the relationship, which ended more than 20 years ago, and argue that to focus on it is sexist. (Harris married Los Angeles-based entertainment lawyer Doug Emhoff in 2014, when she was attorney-general, and is now stepmother — or “Momala” as she calls herself — to his two university-aged children.)
“It was not a big issue here in San Francisco,” says a political strategist based in the city who knows both Harris and Brown. “He’s 80 going on 40 . . . He’s a charming, interesting guy who has dated all the beautiful women — and they all still like him.”
Regardless, soon after Harris began dating Brown, those around her noticed a metamorphosis. “She became much more glamorous in her thirties,” says Davis, Harris’s law-school classmate, who later worked with her in the San Francisco city attorney’s office. “Suddenly when we started working together, she looked more cosmopolitan . . . She got like this huge confidence injection. It wasn’t like she was a shrinking violet or anything in law school. But I just remember looking at her one day and thinking: where did she come from?”
After Oakland, Harris moved to the San Francisco district attorney’s office, then run by Terence Hallinan. By her own admission, she struggled to work with Hallinan, and felt the office was disorganised. She left to take a job with city attorney Louise Renne, where she worked for the family and children’s services division. “It was disparagingly called the ‘kiddie law section,’ ” Renne recalls.
But Harris, she says, made the job her own. Soon, Harris announced that she was running to become San Francisco district attorney, taking on two better-known competitors — including Hallinan, her ex-boss — while she herself had close to no name recognition.
“That race was such a steep climb,” Jim Stearns, her campaign manager at the time, says. “She was the massive underdog in that race. She was running against two men who had run twice before against each other . . . She had single-digit name recognition. She had to push her way up between these two men to get into the race and run.”
The race became a playbook for Harris’s future career in politics. “She developed a strategy that aimed at the middle and pushed the other candidates to the extreme,” says Stearns. The coalition of voters she built ranged from working-class African-Americans to the LGBT community in the city’s Castro district, to Asian-Americans, to rich white voters in Pacific Heights.
Harris also proved to be a prolific fundraiser, attending more than 100 house parties, and sending flowers to each of the hosts, Stearns recalls. “I remember I said to Kamala: ‘I don’t think we can have a $5,000 bill for flowers?’ ”
Nathan Ballard, a San Francisco political strategist, compares Harris’s networking prowess to that of George HW Bush’s: “His campaign persona was sort of ‘aw shucks’, but he had this Christmas card list starting in the 1940s that he turned into the most amazing database.” Harris, he says, has a similar vault of contacts, stretching back years: “Her Rolodex spans so many different groups. She goes from the international Davos set to the Martha’s Vineyard set to the Oakland set to the Hillary Clinton friends to the Obama friends. The overlapping circles are pretty amazing.”
Renne says Harris was comfortable hobnobbing with the Bay Area elites who served with her on the board of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, but “by the same token, you could put her with a bunch of taxi drivers and bus drivers and she’d get along with them”. In December 2003, Harris became San Francisco’s district attorney at the age of 39 — an underdog victory her campaign hopes she can pull off again on a national level.
Several months into the job, she had her first big test when a police officer, Isaac Espinoza, was shot on duty and Harris chose not to pursue the death penalty for the killer. In doing so, she remained true to her anti-capital-punishment campaign promises but also earned the ire of Dianne Feinstein, now her fellow California senator, who delivered an outspoken eulogy at Espinoza’s funeral. Harris stood her ground and weathered the controversy.
In 2010, six years into her tenure, she ran for attorney-general of California — a contest she narrowly won in yet another big upset against Steve Cooley, a Republican. Another six years later, she was elected to the US Senate after easily winning the race to succeed retiring senator Barbara Boxer.
For most of Harris’s 2020 campaign so far, the focus — and the main target for criticism from fellow Democrats — has been on her career as a self-described “progressive prosecutor”. For many liberals, Harris did not go far enough in pushing for broader criminal justice reforms. She has been criticised for supporting a programme that would have allowed the parents of repeatedly truant students to be prosecuted — a move critics say would have disproportionately affected people of colour.
Another source of discomfort is a 2010 scandal centring on her district attorney’s office, which failed to tell defence attorneys that a police-laboratory technician had allegedly tampered with drug samples, causing the collapse of hundreds of cases.
Harris’s defenders say such criticism of her record ignores the wider context. “I think part of what is missing in the conversation when we talk about Senator Harris’s full record is how very slow and how very heavy it was to move the boulder of reform in criminal justice,” says Phillip Atiba Goff, president of the Center for Policing Equity, a non-profit group that promotes police transparency and accountability. “Even in some of the most politically liberal places in the country, law enforcement has been a profoundly conservative space . . . It feels like the framing of it has been . . . at worst disingenuous and at best myopic.”
In her campaign, Harris has been criticised for choosing not to prosecute OneWest Bank for alleged foreclosure violations in 2013 when it was owned by Steven Mnuchin, the current US Treasury secretary. Her opponents argue that this was inconsistent with her hard-nosed approach to US banks the previous year, when she secured a $12bn debt reduction for homeowners who had been hit by the 2007-08 mortgage crisis. Harris has attributed the OneWest decision to her office, which she has said “followed the facts and the evidence” but ultimately decided not to pursue it.
Daniel Suvor, who worked for Harris when she was attorney-general, says the 2012 mortgage settlement, in which Harris initially walked away from the table in order to secure a better deal, exemplifies her canny sense of when to use soft power and when to drive a harder bargain: “For every instance where she used hard power . . . there were several instances where she could have initiated enforcement action against a company.”
Instead, Suvor says, she called up the chief executive, warned them the company was in the wrong, and told them to change their behaviour: “She understands government prosecutors have limited resources and was very good at prioritising.”
Says Ballard: “She’s from the Nancy Pelosi school of disagreement, where you still have a smile on your face and you end up getting your way.”
Some Democratic strategists say they have been impressed by Harris’s performance on the Senate intelligence and judiciary committees, where she has proved to be a skilled inquisitor.
William Barr, the US attorney-general, was unable to answer Harris’s question in a recent committee hearing as to whether the president or another White House official had attempted to “suggest” the attorney-general open a particular investigation; his predecessor, Jeff Sessions, appeared to cower under Harris’s quick-fire follow-up questions. “I’m not able to be rushed this fast,” he stammered. “It makes me nervous.”
The role of Senate prosecutor is one that appears to come naturally to Harris: the sceptical gaze; the pursed lips; the are-you-really-telling-me-what-I-think-you’re-telling-me reaction shot. It is of a piece with her recent pronouncement that if she were elected, her justice department would have “no choice” but to pursue obstruction of justice charges against Trump.
It is also one of the reasons so many Democratic consultants believed she was such a strong contender, particularly with her impressive out-of-the-gate launch. Yet if Barack Obama and Bill Clinton’s power as campaigners was to consistently over-perform and bring the magic, Harris’s performance has been more erratic, galvanising at moments but at other times underwhelming.
Asked at an event in New Hampshire whether she was sick of talk that she would be a good running mate — the implication being that she would not get the top job — Harris responded punchily: “I think Joe Biden would be a great running mate. As vice-president, he’s proven that he knows how to do the job.”
“You watch her in these hearings, her announcement, and you’re like: ‘Wow!’” says Mary Anne Marsh, a Boston-based Democratic strategist. “Other times, not so much.”
The morning after her Iowa City rally, Harris bounced into an Arts and Crafts house in Des Moines for an event to honour Emerge Iowa — a group that aims to get more women elected at every level of politics. Introduced by a mother who spoke about her relationship with her daughter, Harris started talking about her own mother. “My mother was all of five feet tall. You would have thought she was seven feet,” she said, repeating the line from the night before.
She also reiterated the anecdote about politicians’ incentive “to sprinkle lovely dust all over the room”. Yet in the light of the Des Moines day, it came across as less solemn and more optimistic. There was a sparkle in her voice.
After delivering her speech and greeting most of the guests, she took questions from a group of reporters. Asked about the economy, she responded with another line from the night before. Was she an Obama Democrat, one of the reporters wanted to know? “I’m Kamala,” she replied.
If the 2016 Democratic primary was as much about policy differences as about identity flag-planting — were you “With Her” or a “Bernie Bro”, and what did that say about you? — many of the Democratic primary and caucus voters I have spoken to are (so far at least) taking a more cautious approach to the 2020 race.
In the lead-up to the first big TV event pitting all the candidates against each other for the first time, most said they were taking a wait-and-see approach, carefully sizing up the candidates at town halls and house parties as they waited to see who emerged as a frontrunner. The goal, most emphasised, was to defeat Trump. There will be no hurt feelings this time.
A pair of young women in Iowa City told me they felt adamant that a woman should be the next nominee — either Harris or Warren, perhaps — but others were more circumspect, anxious not to repeat the mistakes of 2016. “We don’t want that huge fracture that happened last time between Bernie and Hillary,” said Emma Schulte, a Drake law student. “People are willing to concede overall.”
In the run-up to the 2020 campaign, some liberals, including Joan C Williams, a professor of law at Hastings, have publicly wondered whether the best candidate to defeat Trump might be another older white man. “When men feel threatened, the backlash against strong, assertive women gains strength,” Williams told the FT soon after Trump took office. “Sometimes the best way to help women is to shift the focus away from gender. What women need foremost is to avoid a Trump second term.”
With beating Trump seen as the primary goal, it is easy to see why the instinct of some candidates — Harris included — is to appeal to as broad a cross-section of the electorate as possible. Fewer candid, unscripted moments means fewer opportunities to alienate potential voters. Broad brushstroke campaign slogans and stump speeches offer a means of catching the broadest section of the electorate.
But it is also a strategy that risks leaving voters unenthused, or not sure exactly what they’re buying — and it backfired for Hillary Clinton in 2016.
When I spoke to Bob Shrum, a longtime California Democratic strategist, shortly after Harris declared her candidacy, he noted that her initial announcement video lacked a core message — a criticism that could now be extended to much of her campaign. “The tag line ‘For The People’ . . . people have to know what it means,” Shrum said, referring to her campaign slogan.
He contrasted it with Trump’s “Make America Great Again” catchphrase, which spoke to disaffected Americans and gave a “false but very simple explanation for what had happened to them . . . She obviously has great political talent. She obviously excited people when she announced.” But that alone, he added, will not be enough.
Courtney Weaver is the FT’s US political correspondent. Illustration by Anna Higgie
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