Kamala Harris Draws on Her Childhood to Create a Breakout 2020 Moment
(Bloomberg) -- Kamala Harris created a breakout moment for her campaign Thursday night by reaching deep into her past.
The California senator has pitched herself to Democratic voters as a steely prosecutor well equipped to take on the fight against President Donald Trump next year. But it was her personal story of being a little girl bused to integrate an elementary school that may propel her into a top contender for the Democratic nomination.
Harris forcefully attacked former Vice President Joe Biden for his record on race and segregation, describing in starkly personal terms how a position he took in the 1970s on busing and desegregation of schools would have deprived her of opportunity when she was a child. The comments left Biden flat-footed as he tried to parry her searing attacks.
Biden, who is leading a field of more than 20 presidential Democratic candidates, said the comments were a “mischaracterization” of his record, but he struggled to articulate his position on the policy.
“I heard and I respect Senator Harris,” Biden said at Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow PUSH Coalition convention in Chicago on Friday. “But we all know that the 30- or 60-seconds of a campaign debate exchange cannot do justice to a lifetime commitment to civil rights.”
The exchange on Thursday night was widely viewed as the key moment of the much-anticipated first Democratic debates of the 2020 election. For much of her campaign, which launched in January with a 20,000-person rally in Oakland, California, Harris appeared reluctant to unfurl her backstory even as voters have made clear they’re interested in knowing more from the woman they saw on TV pointedly questioning Brett Kavanaugh and William Barr in Senate confirmation hearings.
In the past, however, Harris hasn’t been able to keep the momentum of those breakout moments alive for long. Her performances at the Senate hearings went viral, but then fizzled. Her challenge in coming days will be to sustain her burst of energy from the debate and ascend in the polls, where she is generally in fourth place, behind Biden, and Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.
“She has this high interest quotient,” Jim Margolis, the former Obama ad maker who is now advising Harris, said after the debate. “We see that when you fill in the story a little bit it actually works.”
And Harris worked in recent months to make that happen, inching into getting more personal when she’s on the stump, especially about the obstacles she’s faced because of her race and gender. In talking about her decision to become a prosecutor, for example, Harris said it was the profiling and discrimination that she and her black friends and family had faced that motivated her to want to fix the criminal justice system from the inside.
“Shockingly, the more she started to do it and gets the feedback that people are responding, the more she’s been able to do it,” Margolis said.
Harris is trying to cut into Biden’s broad support among black voters, a key constituency in Democratic politics.
Following the debate, Harris’s campaign also rolled out a slew of endorsements in the critical early states of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. The campaign also announced endorsements from 25 more elected officials in her home state of California.
On Friday morning, Harris’s first stop was a migrant detention facility in Homestead, Florida, where she lambasted the Trump administration’s immigration policies.
“What is happening with the detention of these children, the circumstances by which they arrived, is a human rights abuse being committed by the United States government,” she said. “And so, we are here to stand up and say that we are not going to allow this to happen. Not on our watch.”
Harris was joined by four other Democratic candidates. The detention center has been a frequent stop for the candidates who traveled to Miami for the debates.
Back to Washington
Harris said Friday afternoon in Washington that she was looking forward to the next round of debates at the end of July.
She told reporters Biden “said what he felt” at Thursday’s forum.
Biden used his appearance in Chicago on Friday, his first post-debate event, to defend his longstanding record on civil rights.
“I know and you know, I fought my heart out to ensure that civil rights and voting rights, equal rights are enforced everywhere,” Biden said.
The Thursday debate attracted a bigger television audience than one held the night before, which featured 10 other Democratic candidates.
Despite the effusive praise Harris garnered, the debate wasn’t a pitch perfect performance, as she was tripped up on a question about health care. Before heading to Homestead, Harris appeared on MSNBC and CBS where she sought to clarify her stance on health insurance.
During the debate, she raised her hand when asked if she supported eliminating private health insurance. On Friday, she said she misheard the question and thought the moderators had asked if she would personally give up her health insurance for Medicare. She said she supports a Medicare for all policy that allows for private insurance for supplemental coverage.
Harris was in Washington on Friday afternoon for Senate votes and will spend the weekend at home in San Francisco to participate in a gay pride parade. There, she’ll have a hometown crowd to cheer her on, and she will undoubtedly be surrounded by a larger media swarm than a mediocre debate performance would have drawn.
--With assistance from Mario Parker and Daniel Flatley.
To contact the reporters on this story: Tyler Pager in Miami at email@example.com;Jennifer Epstein in Miami at firstname.lastname@example.org
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