Har­ris’s book tour seen as pre­cur­sor to pres­i­den­tial run

The Washington Post - - NEWS - BY CHELSEA JANES [email protected]­post.com

As Sen. Ka­mala D. Har­ris set­tled into her seat on ABC’s “The View” on Tuesday, she was asked to do some­thing not re­quested of most tele­vi­sion guests.

“Be­fore we do any­thing,” The View co-host Whoopi Gold­berg asked the Cal­i­for­nia Demo­crat, “would you pro­nounce your name for me please?”

Har­ris an­tic­i­pated this ques­tion, so much so that she ded­i­cated a para­graph to it in the mem­oir she was pro­mot­ing, “The Truths We Hold.” Few na­tional fig­ures — with the ex­cep­tion of Barack Obama — have had to pro­vide such a ba­sic in­tro­duc­tion.

“It’s Ka­mala,” she said. “Just think like ‘comma,’ and add a ‘ la.’ ”

Co-host Joy Be­har sug­gested the name was like Pamela, “like we’re used to.” Not quite, Har­ris cor­rected her.

As Har­ris opened a book tour widely seen as a pre­cur­sor to a pres­i­den­tial cam­paign, she wanted to make sure ev­ery­one knows that her name, like her story, is not some­thing this coun­try is used to, at least in its po­ten­tial pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates.

In her book and on her tour, Har­ris is in­tro­duc­ing her­self as a can­di­date of nu­ance, a child of im­mi­grants, a woman of color, ca­pa­ble of bridg­ing the cracks in the coun­try’s foun­da­tion be­cause she has seen their ef­fects first­hand.

Har­ris was born to an In­dian mother and Ja­maican fa­ther. She iden­ti­fies as black and would be the first Asian Amer­i­can pres­i­dent were she to run and win. She is a for­mer pros­e­cu­tor who con­stantly re­ferred to her­self as Cal­i­for­nia’s “top cop.” She is also a dogged ad­vo­cate of crim­i­nal jus­tice re­vi­sions.

The 54-year-old is not a pres­i­den­tial can­di­date yet — at least, not of­fi­cially. A source close to the se­na­tor said Har­ris has not fi­nal­ized plans for an an­nounce­ment. As tele­vi­sion host af­ter tele­vi­sion host prod­ded her about her plans, Har­ris in­sisted that she hasn’t de­cided any­thing, yet.

But even­tual pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates have long used books and tours like hers to stir na­tional at­ten­tion and es­tab­lish a nar­ra­tive — which is of par­tic­u­lar im­por­tance for some­one like Har­ris, whose na­tional pro­file has grown in re­cent years but re­mains blurry. Sev­eral peo­ple at­tend­ing Har­ris’s book event at Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton Univer­sity on Wednesday night said they knew very lit­tle about her un­til her hard-nosed per­for­mance at Jus­tice Brett M. Ka­vanaugh’s Supreme Court con­fir­ma­tion hear­ings seized their at­ten­tion. Many of them said they came to learn more.

So she started with the name that has tripped up tele­vi­sion hosts all week. Her par­ents named her Ka­mala, which means “lo­tus,” a prom­i­nent sym­bol in Asian cul­tures, she said.

“The sym­bol­ism is that the lo­tus flower sits on wa­ter, but never re­ally gets wet,” Har­ris ex­plained Wednesday night. “Its roots are in the mud, mean­ing it is grounded. One must al­ways know where they come from.”

Yet she dis­tanced her­self from other po­ten­tial can­di­dates as much with how she tells her story as the story it­self.

As she ad­dressed a sup­port­ive crowd Wednesday night, Har­ris gushed with easy en­ergy. She not so much fid­geted in her arm chair as used ev­ery inch of it, sit­ting back while a joke landed, slid­ing to the edge of her seat with her fin­ger pointed for weight­ier pro­nounce­ments or for one of sev­eral con­dem­na­tions of the cur­rent ad­min­is­tra­tion’s poli­cies.

Of­ten, she dis­pelled pre­tense in fa­vor of col­lo­qui­al­ism — as when she said of di­vi­sive rhetoric and poli­cies, “I’m done with it,” with a ca­sual wave of her hand. She com­pared Pres­i­dent Trump’s “tantrum” over a bor­der wall to her god­son’s tantrums over his toy trains.

“You got to see both sides of her tonight,” said Karen Moon, 53, who was in the crowd. “You saw what she’s go­ing to be like when she runs and what she’s go­ing to be like when she’s off­stage. You have to have a per­son­al­ity. I think she has it. You can tell she’s pas­sion­ate.”

Har­ris wants Amer­ica to trace the ori­gins of that pas­sion to her mother, who Har­ris says was her pri­mary in­flu­ence af­ter her par­ents di­vorced. Her mother im­mi­grated to the United States at age 19 to pur­sue a doc­tor­ate from the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia at Berke­ley. Her fa­ther, Ja­maican im­mi­grant and Stan­ford pro­fes­sor Dou­glas Har­ris, is far less a fac­tor in the book, al­though she says he re­mained in­volved in her life.

Har­ris traces her place in the African Amer­i­can com­mu­nity to her mother. Though Har­ris and her sis­ter would of­ten fly to In­dia to visit fam­ily, they also were part of the African Amer­i­can com­mu­nity in Berke­ley, where her mother be­came ac­tive in the civil rights move­ment. Har­ris re­called sit­ting in her stroller and lis­ten­ing to African Amer­i­can lead­ers speak and share their sto­ries. For col­lege, she headed to Howard Univer­sity, the his­tor­i­cally black univer­sity in Wash­ing­ton.

But Har­ris was not only defin­ing her racial iden­tity this week but also her atyp­i­cal path as a politi­cian.

She ac­knowl­edged ques­tions might arise over her choice to be­come a pros­e­cu­tor, as San Fran­cisco district attorney and then as the state attorney gen­eral. Put bluntly: How could she be part of what many in her party be­lieve is a bro­ken, racially bi­ased crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem? In her book, Har­ris says her mo­ti­va­tion was to be there for “vic­tims of crimes com­mit­ted and vic­tims of a bro­ken crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem.”

“To be a progressive pros­e­cu­tor is to un­der­stand — and act on — this di­chotomy,” she wrote.

There is lit­tle else that dis­tin­guishes Har­ris’s pol­icy po­si­tions from oth­ers who may run to be the Demo­cratic pres­i­den­tial nom­i­nee. She has aligned with main­stream Democrats on al­most ev­ery is­sue, from im­mi­gra­tion to the Af­ford­able Care Act to for­eign pol­icy.

She also cast her­self as dogged in pur­su­ing her goals. In the book and at events, she de­scribed call­ing then-White House chief of staff John F. Kelly’s home phone to talk about Pres­i­dent Trump’s en­try ban to demon­strate an un­com­pro­mis­ing stance on im­mi­gra­tion. She re­counted a “shout­ing match” with the head of JPMor­gan Chase to il­lus­trate her will­ing­ness to stand up to big busi­ness. She brought up of­fi­ci­at­ing at one of the first gay wed­dings in Cal­i­for­nia to show her un­equiv­o­cal sup­port of LGBT rights.

As she has for much of her ca­reer, she went out of her way to avoid alien­at­ing el­e­ments of the party. When “The View” co-host Meghan McCain asked whether freshman Rep. Alexan­dria Oca­sio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) could split the party with her much-crit­i­cized sug­ges­tions for tax in­creases, Har­ris de­fended the con­gress­woman.

“No,” Har­ris said. “I think she’s chal­leng­ing the sta­tus quo. I think that’s fan­tas­tic.”

Har­ris’s book, like many cam­paign-re­lated bi­ogra­phies, is care­fully cu­rated, dodg­ing many of the con­tro­ver­sies she seems likely to en­counter from less friendly au­di­ences. CNN’s Jake Tap­per asked her about one: the res­ig­na­tion of one of her top aides af­ter ac­cu­sa­tions of sex­ual harassment sur­faced.

“It was a very painful ex­pe­ri­ence to know that some­thing could hap­pen in one’s of­fice — of al­most 5,000 peo­ple, granted — but that I didn’t know about it,” Har­ris said.

Like­wise, she did not ad­dress her ro­man­tic re­la­tion­ship in the early 1990s with San Fran­cisco Mayor Wil­lie Brown. She also avoided her con­tro­ver­sial de­ci­sion as pros­e­cu­tor to not im­me­di­ately free Daniel Larsen, an in­mate the courts had de­clared “ac­tu­ally in­no­cent,” be­cause his lawyers had not filed his writ of habeas corpus by the dead­line.

Har­ris is still mak­ing in­tro­duc­tions. At the end of her Wednesday event, mod­er­a­tor Jonathan Cape­hart asked her to read a por­tion of her book, one in which she ex­plains that she wants to tell later gen­er­a­tions that she played a role in a piv­otal mo­ment in Amer­i­can his­tory.

Har­ris couldn’t hold back a grin as Cape­hart asked the ob­vi­ous: “Will you tell them you ran for pres­i­dent?”

Har­ris, still smil­ing, reached for the chil­dren’s book she is also sell­ing this week — “Su­per­heroes are Every­where.” She opened to the back cover and re­vealed a small mir­ror, one that re­flected her face be­fore she showed it to the crowd, as con­vinc­ing a re­ply as any to the ques­tion she is poised to an­swer soon.


In her book, Sen. Ka­mala D. Har­ris (D-Calif.) says she is a child of im­mi­grants and a woman of color who can bridge the cracks in the coun­try’s foun­da­tion be­cause she has seen their ef­fects first­hand.

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