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Kamala Harris is hard to define politically, maybe that's the point

Astead W Herndon | NYT/ 12 Jan 19 | 11:13 PM

A file photo of Kamala Harris (Photo: Reuters)

If Senator Kamala Harris’s book tour is a preview of her likely presidential campaign, the early signs point to a catchall message meant for Democrats across the spectrum.

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Speaking Friday night at the 92nd Street Y on New York’s Upper East Side, Harris covered many bases: her origin story from Oakland to Capitol Hill, what drew her into public life and the importance of voters “seeing themselves" reflected in the nation’s array of leaders. She cited her work to reform the juvenile criminal justice system in California as one of her biggest policy accomplishments. She talked about the necessity for Democrats to work in a bipartisan fashion while standing strong against a White House that many of their voters view as corrupt.

It was a broad, biography-heavy message — not a rigid ideological mantra — meant to lay groundwork for a national profile as she prepares a next possible step: joining a growing field of Democrats who will compete to take on President Trump.

“Anything worth fighting for is a fight worth having," Harris said. “There is a democracy in place, and if we fight — maybe we won’t win all the time — but it will matter." But as some audience members noted after her remarks, and voters nationwide may learn soon, almost everything about Harris is more complex than it appears.

Though rated as one of the most liberal members of the Senate, Harris speaks less about Wall Street corruption and economic populism than do Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, two fellow senators who are also looking to a 2020 matchup against Trump. Harris has built a devoted following because of her Senate committee interrogations of Trump administration officials, but she remains disliked by some criminal justice activists who say her policies as California attorney general and San Francisco district attorney helped increase the state’s prison population.

Even her race and her life story — she is often described as one of two African-American women to have served in the Senate — are more textured in context: She has a Tamil Indian mother and a Jamaican father and spent some of her teenage years in Montreal.

Ava Leegant, a surgeon from San Francisco who came to the event skeptical of Harris’s presidential chances, said she left bullish about her appeal. “I didn’t think someone from California could speak to all parts of the country," Leegant said, “but I was impressed." “She’s my first choice to be my first choice," said Betsy Kagen, a 33-year-old film editor who attended the talk. The themes of Harris’s new book, The Truths We Hold: An American Journey, could help her stand out in a crowded Democratic presidential primary. More than a dozen candidates are expected to join the presidential race in the coming months, and as the party searches for its next iteration after two decades of dominance by the Clintons and Barack Obama, questions of policy, identity and tone in the campaign will be paramount.

Longtime strategists and admirers of Harris believe she is well positioned to create electoral coalitions among Democrats desperate to beat Trump, partly because she is not tethered to any one of the divergent and sometimes warring factions of the party. 

“Her message of unity, that’s the key," said Valoree Celona, a 50-year-old insurance executive who came to the 92nd Street Y with friends. “If she can get people to have that hope again, that’s what’s important. That’s what President Obama did."

© 2019 The New York Times News Service

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