OAKLAND, Calif. — Kamala Harris officially launched her 2020 presidential campaign Sunday in her birthplace of Oakland, promising to be a fighter “for the people” and stating that it is time to restore what she views as the loss of American values under President Donald Trump.
“We are here because the American Dream and our American democracy are under attack and on the line like never before,” the California senator said. “We are here at this moment in time because we must answer a fundamental question. Who are we? Who are we as Americans? So, let’s answer that question to the world and each other right here and right now. America: we are better than this.”
In an allusion to Trump’s xenophobic rhetoric, his policies at the border, and his decision to shut down the government in a failed attempt to get his wall, Harris said that “people in power are trying to convince us that the villain in our American story is each other.”
“But that is not our story. That is not who we are. That is not our America,” Harris said without mentioning Trump’s name. “The United States of America is not about us versus them … I’m running to be a President of the people, by the people, for all the people.”
“If I have the honor of being your president, I will tell you this: I am not perfect. Lord knows, I am not perfect,” she said. “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.”
She did not dwell on her own potential for a history-making candidacy with her background as a black woman seeking the Democratic nomination.
Instead she focused on the need for unity at a time when the nation is deeply polarized, arguing that while Americans have differences in ideology, race, and ethnicity, they should unite to tackle their common challenges.
Speaking before a giant American flag in front of Oakland’s City Hall, Harris was surrounded by giant screens that alternated images of the crowd with a picture of her campaign logo—”Kamala Harris for the People”—and a request that supporters text “Fearless” to a campaign number in order to show their support.
“My heart is full right now,” she said as she came on stage. “I am so proud to be a daughter of Oakland California,” she said referencing the Civil Rights activism of her parents — immigrants from India and Jamaica who came in “pursuit of a dream.” “The fight for justice is everyone’s responsibility.”
Harris’ campaign held the rally at Frank H. Ogawa Plaza. Harris spent her childhood with her mother and sister in Berkeley. The family moved in her middle and high school years to Montreal after her mother got a medical research job there, but many of the speakers made allusions to her Oakland roots.
Among them was Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf, who said she decided to endorse the California senator because “she has the most incredible strong character.”
In an interview with CNN before the rally, Schaaf, who shares the same political consultants as the California senator, called Harris “the right candidate for this moment in American history.”
“Oakland is a place that definitely tests people,” Schaaf said. “But it also has the right values, values that honor diversity… When you come up in Oakland, you’re a fighter, and you’re a fighter for the right things.”
Early in her speech Sunday, Harris directly addressed some of the criticism she has faced from progressives about her record as district attorney of San Francisco and later attorney general of California.
As she did on her book tour in early January, Harris sought to introduce her record to voters as that of a “progressive prosecutor,” one who decided that she could do more to fix injustices, particularly against people of color, from within the system.
A week after facing a brutal dissembling of her record in a New York Times op-ed piece by University of San Francisco associate law professor Lara Bazelon, who is the former director of the Loyola Law School Project for the Innocent, Harris renewed her efforts to frame herself as someone who tried to fight for a “more fair criminal justice system” from within.
Harris noted that she began her career as a young prosecutor blocks from the spot where she was announcing her presidential campaign (and that it was there, at the Alameda County Courthouse, where she first spoke the words — “Kamala Harris, for the people” — words that are now her 2020 slogan).
“I knew our criminal justice system was deeply flawed,” she said. “I knew that the people in our society who are most often targeted by predators are also most often the voiceless and vulnerable. And I believed then as I do now, that no one should be left to fight alone.”
Despite recent passage of criminal justice reform legislation, she said the changes have come too slowly.
“Let’s speak the truth that too many unarmed black men and women are killed in America. Too many black and brown Americans are locked up. From mass incarceration to cash bail to policing, our criminal justice system needs drastic repair.”
In the wake of the #MeToo movement, she also said that she prosecuted sexual assault cases as “a fight not just against predators, but a fight against silence and stigma.”
Referencing her work on recidivism, she said that “at a time when prevention and redemption were not in the vocabulary or mindset of most district attorneys. We created an initiative to get skills and job training instead of jail time for young people arrested for drugs.”
After Harris became attorney general of California, many criminal justice advocates in the state were disappointed that she did not take a more active role to advocate for ballot measures and legislation changing California’s three strikes law, even though she had been a strong critic of the harsh sentencing penalties before she was elected. She also took heat for saying that she would defend California’s death penalty even though she was personally opposed to it.
Earlier in her career in 2004, Harris faced a strong blowback when she decided not to seek the death penalty for the killer of San Francisco police officer Isaac Espinoza.
While focusing on her plans for middle class tax credits and Medicare-for-All on Sunday, Harris was sharply critical of the Trump administration’s record in terms of helping average Americans and people of color.
“When American families are barely living paycheck to paycheck, what is this administration’s response?” the California senator asked. “Their response is to try to take away health care from millions of families. Their response is to give away a trillion dollars to the biggest corporations in this country. And their response is to blame immigrants as the source of all our problems.”
She added that there is a whole generation of Americans “living with the sinking fear that they won’t do as well as their parents.”