Kamala Harris kicks off campaign with Oakland rally, defends her record as a prosecutor

OAKLAND — Kamala Harris kicked off her 2020 presidential campaign Sunday with a massive hometown rally that put her Democratic presidential rivals on notice and sought to bolster her progressive credentials, despite her years as a prosecutor.

With a crowd estimated at over 20,000 exploding with applause as Harris took the stage at Frank H. Ogawa Plaza, the gravity of the moment seemed to momentarily overwhelm the senator.

“So, here we are, here we are,” she said with a broad smile. “Let me tell you, I am so proud to be a daughter of Oakland, California.

California Sen. Kamala Harris formally launched her campaign for president at a rally in her hometown Sunday. (Photo: Tony Avelar/AP)

“We were raised by a community with a deep belief in the promise of our country and a deep understanding of the parts of that promise that still remain unfulfilled,” Harris said before devoting most of her speech to those unfulfilled parts of the American experiment.

But first, Harris needed to address the elephant in the room: her former career in law enforcement. Since announcing her intention to run for president on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Harris has faced attacks from progressives who claim she didn’t work hard enough to reform the criminal justice system during her seven years as San Francisco’s district attorney and two terms as state attorney general.

Harris cited the Bob Marley lyric “don’t give up the fight” when talking about her career path.

In the speech, Harris defended her work as a prosecutor against the charge that she didn’t do enough to right wrongs in the criminal justice system. (Photo: Tony Avelar/AP)

“It is this deep-rooted belief that inspired me to become a lawyer and a prosecutor,” she said, the crowd going silent with discomfort at the mention of her background in criminal justice. “It was just a couple of blocks from this very spot, nearly 30 years ago as a young district attorney, I walked into the courtroom for the first time and said the five words that would guide my life’s work: Kamala Harris for the people.”

A populist reworking of courtroom language used by prosecutors introducing cases, the phrase constitutes her 2020 campaign slogan and could be seen on T-shirts, placards and electronic screens in the plaza, and it brought the crowd back to life.

“Now I knew that our criminal justice system was deeply flawed, but I also knew the profound impact law enforcement has on people’s lives and its responsibility to give them safety and dignity. I knew I wanted to protect people,” Harris said. She was interrupted by a heckler taking issue with her record.

In few cities in America could one find such a staunchly progressive electorate as Oakland’s. The last time so many people had gathered in this spot was in the fall of 2011, when Occupy Oakland demonstrations encamped in the plaza and their persistent rallies led to a general strike that closed the Port of Oakland on Nov. 2. On that day, thousands of people marched beneath a banner hung across 14th Street that read “Down with capitalism.” The rhetoric of the protests conflated the police, justice system and other agents of state power with the financial institutions that had caused the crisis.

The daughter of a Jamaican father and an Indian mother who met as graduate students at the nearby University of California, Berkeley, Harris lived in Oakland until she was 12 and attended Thousand Oaks Elementary School in Berkeley. She was raised going to protests in the East Bay during the Civil Rights era and is no stranger to Bay Area activism.

A mural at Thousand Oaks Elementary School in Berkeley, Calif., features former student Sen. Kamala Harris. (Photo: David Knowles/Yahoo News)

While Hillary Clinton beat Bernie Sanders in the 2016 Democratic primary in Alameda County (which includes Oakland) by 3.4 percentage points, the battle was especially fierce here. Clinton seemed to pour gasoline on that still smoldering fire in a 2017 interview in which she decried attacks against Harris made by some of Sanders’s supporters.

“It feeds into sexism and misogyny,” Clinton said. “She’s being attacked by the left. Enough. If you don’t support Democrats, go somewhere else.”

Oakland resident Tony Lewis, 60, a retiree, said he voted for Sanders in 2016 to send a progressive message but won’t vote for the Vermont senator if he runs in 2020.

Yahoo News reported Friday that Sanders had made a decision to enter the race, probably as early as this week.

“I wasn’t a strong supporter of Sanders last time around,” Lewis said. “My sense is he’s probably less viable this time around than he was four years ago.”

Instead, Lewis is choosing between Harris and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, viewing both as “on the progressive end of the scale.”

Many young people attended the rally in Oakland, a city with a staunchly progressive electorate. (Photo: Tony Avelar/AP)

A 53-year-old Oakland resident named Tiara, who described her profession as that of someone who “wears many hats,” said she was all in for Harris.

“I like her strength,” Tiara said. “I’m looking for something new. Something fresh. That’s why I’m here today, to feel empowered.”

The first big Democratic rally of the 2020 presidential campaign, the Oakland kickoff found its stride when Harris began going after President Trump.

While she warned the crowd that the U.S. needed to address the serious threat posed by international drug cartels, she was quick to add a disclaimer about Trump’s demand for a wall on the border with Mexico: “The president’s medieval vanity project is not going to stop them” received a rousing ovation.

In a section of her stump speech devoted to drawing a clear distinction between herself and Trump, Harris ticked off a list of items that fell under the rubric “not our America.

“When we have leaders who bully and attack a free press and undermine our democratic institutions, that’s not our America,” Harris said. “When white supremacists march and murder in Charlottesville or massacre innocent worshipers in a Pittsburgh synagogue, that’s not our America. When we have children in cages, crying for their mothers and fathers, don’t you dare call that border security, that’s a human rights abuse. And that’s not our America!”

Harris said she would run on a platform including universal pre-K and “debt-free college.” She said she hoped to restructure the tax code, giving middle-income earners a large break and and reversing the 2017 tax cut on corporations and the wealthy.

Democratic Sen. Kamala Harris, of California, formally launches her presidential campaign at a rally in her hometown of Oakland, Calif., Sunday, Jan. 27, 2019. (Photo: Tony Avelar/AP)

The media attention to her rally and her impressive fundraising haul in the first week of her campaign (she took in over $1.5 million in the first 24 hours after announcing her candidacy) suggest she is off to a fast start.

A Morning Consult/Politico poll of potential Democratic contenders taken Jan. 18 to Jan. 22 puts Harris in third place, behind former Vice President Joe Biden and Sanders. Warren was tied for fourth place with former Rep. Beto O’Rourke.

“She seems to be more in touch with the public, in what we want,” said Paula, a 33-year-old from Oakland who works in the financial industry and declined to give her last name. “She knows politics and that’s what we need, someone who can run the country competently.”

As the rally broke up, two young men held up signs. “Kamala chose not to release nonviolent drug offenders,” one sign read. Another read, “Kamala chose not to prosecute Mnuchin” — a reference to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, who made a large profit from his investment in failed California mortgage lender IndyMac, later called OneWest Bank. As attorney general, Harris resisted calls to bring charges against him; he later made a contribution to her Senate campaign. In her speech, Harris made a point of boasting that she had helped institute California’s tough law on home foreclosures. 

When asked if they were Sanders supporters, the men just smiled.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article misidentified the date of a Hillary Clinton quote about Bernie Sanders. We regret the error. 

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