OAKLAND, Calif. – Kamala Harris’ background as a prosecutor has shaped her first two years in the U.S. Senate, and she plays off it in her campaign slogan, “For the people.’’
That theme was a frequent talking point during Sunday’s 35-minute address in her native Oakland, such as when the first female attorney general in California history said, “In my whole life I’ve only had one client, the people.’’
But as she launched her drive for the presidency with a rally in front of City Hall, Harris switched from district attorney mode to politician, firing up a crowd of several thousand people with inspired words she hopes will play well beyond her hometown.
Harris vowed to fight for Medicare for all, racial justice, universal pre-kindergarten education, women’s rights and a middle-class tax cut, which she said would be paid by reversing the giveaways granted to top earners by the Republican tax plan approved in December 2017.
And, of course, Harris took thinly veiled shots at President Donald Trump, whose name was not mentioned once in her speech but whose presence loomed like a giant blimp.
“We are here because the American dream and our American democracy are under attack and on the line like never before,’’ Harris said. “And 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.’’’
Without mentioning Trump, the California senator decried leaders who attack a free press and other democratic institutions while fanning the flames of division and discord. She referred to the deadly attack at a counter-demonstration against white nationalists in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017, and to last October’s massacre at a Pittsburgh synagogue as incongruous with the country’s values.
And addressing Trump’s immigration policies, including his desire for a border wall that she referred to as “the president’s medieval vanity project,’’ she said: “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.’’
When the applause calmed, Harris ran down some of her differences with the current administration, including foreign policy and its stance on climate change – “We’re going to act based on science fact, not science fiction’’ – and she mentioned a number of issues she would address as president.
Among them are the disparity in wages for the same work between men and women – especially steep for women of color – the uneven application of justice in the legal system and the need to secure future elections against foreign interference.
Harris, the first senator to co-sponsor Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ 2017 legislation calling for Medicare for all, got one of her biggest ovations of the day when she reiterated her support for that measure while calling health care a fundamental right.
And she drew another long round of applause when she culminated her remarks by saying, “With faith in God, with fidelity to country and with the fighting spirit I got from my mother, I stand before you today to announce my candidacy for president of the United States.’’
Harris, 54, actually announced her candidacy on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, both on national television and in a news conference at her alma mater, Howard University in Washington, D.C.
In the primaries, Harris will contend with a crowded field of Democratic candidates that already includes Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, former San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro and New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, with plenty more to come.
Though Harris will have the advantage of name recognition and a track record in the country’s most populous state, she will have to find a way to differentiate herself from a left-leaning pack if she hopes to gain momentum in the early primaries.
Her two years as a member of the minority party in the Senate haven’t provided much opportunity, other than the must-see-TV instances of Harris grilling nominees like now-Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh at hearings.
For those eager to welcome her back home Sunday, she stood out plenty. The crowd lined the streets around City Hall more than an hour before Harris spoke, and it reflected the Bay Area’s diversity.
Asian women in their 60s and 70s and college students from nearby Cal-Berkeley – where Harris’ immigrant parents met – blended with whites and African Americans of all ages, waiting to hear a message that ran counter to Trump’s often-divisive rhetoric.
“This is the second time in my life when something I never thought would happen has happened,’’ said Nadine LeBlanc, 79, a black activist from Los Angeles who moved to Oakland seven years ago. “First, Obama being a black president and now Kamala running for president. She’s so qualified.’’
Christopher Berry, a white personal trainer from the East Bay suburb of Pleasanton, said he doesn’t usually get involved in political rallies but felt the urge to attend in part because he believes it’s time for a woman to lead the country, and he likes what he has heard from Harris.
“It’s been male-dominated and look where we’re at,’’ said Berry, 32, who is going back to school to pursue a degree in political science. “I feel like the rest of the United States needs a leader from California as well as a woman to help point us in the right direction.’’
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: ‘America, we are better than this’: Kamala Harris launches presidential campaign