Kamala Harris kicks off campaign with huge rally, defends her record as a prosecutor

OAKLAND — Kamala Harris kicked off her 2020 presidential campaign Sunday with a massive hometown rally that put her Democratic presidential rivals on notice and sought to bolster her progressive credentials despite her years of working as a prosecutor.

With a crowd estimated at over 10,000 exploding with applause as Harris took the stage at Frank H. Ogawa Plaza, the gravity of the moment seemed to momentarily overwhelm the senator.

“So, here we are, here we are,” she said with a broad smile. “Let me tell you, I am so proud to be a daughter of Oakland, California.

“We were raised by a community with a deep belief in the promise of our country and a deep understanding of the parts of that promise that still remain unfulfilled,” Harris said before devoting the bulk of her speech to those unfulfilled parts of the American experiment.

But first, Harris needed to address the elephant in the room: her former career in law enforcement. Since announcing her her intention to run for president on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, Harris has faced attacks from progressives who claim she didn’t work hard enough to reform the criminal justice system during her seven years as district attorney in San Francisco and two terms as state attorney general.

Harris cited the Bob Marley lyric “don’t give up the fight” when talking about her career path.

“It is this deep-rooted belief that inspired me to become a lawyer and a prosecutor,” she said, the crowd going silent with discomfort at the mention of her background in criminal justice. “It was just a couple of blocks from this very spot, nearly 30 years ago as a young district attorney, I walked into the courtroom for the first time and said the five words that would guide my life’s work: Kamala Harris for the people.”

A populist reworking of courtroom language used by prosecutors introducing cases, the phrase constitutes her 2020 campaign slogan and could be seen on t-shirts placards and electronic screens in the plaza, and brought the crowd back to life.

“Now I knew that our criminal justice system was deeply flawed, but I also knew the profound impact law enforcement has on people’s lives and its responsibility to give them safety and dignity. I knew I wanted to protect people,” Harris continued. She was interrupted by a heckler loudly taking issue with her record.

In few cities in America could one find such a staunchly progressive electorate. The last time so many people had gathered in this spot was in the fall of 2011 when Occupy Oakland demonstrations encamped in the plaza and their persistent rallies led to a general strike that closed the Port of Oakland on Nov. 2. On that day, thousands of people marched beneath a banner hung across 14th St. that read “Down with capitalism.” The rhetoric of the protests conflated the police, justice system and other agents of state power with the financial institutions that had caused the crisis.

The daughter of a Jamaican father and an Indian mother who met as graduate students at nearby U.C. Berkeley, Harris grew up in Oakland until she was 12, attending Thousand Oaks Elementary School in Berkeley. She was raised going to protests in the East Bay during the Civil Rights movement, and is no stranger to Bay Area activism.

While Hillary Clinton beat Bernie Sanders in 2016 Democratic primary in Alameda County (which includes Oakland) by 3.4 percentage points, the battle was especially fierce here. Clinton seemed to pour gasoline on that still smoldering fire in a Friday interview in which she decried recent attacks against Harris by Sanders and his supporters.

“It feeds into sexism and misogyny,” Clinton said. “She’s being attacked by the left. Enough. If you don’t support Democrats, go somewhere else.”

Oakland resident Tony Lewis, 60, a retiree, said he voted for Sanders in 2016 to send a progressive message, but won’t vote for the Vermont senator if he runs in 2020.

Yahoo News reported on Friday that Sanders had made a decision to enter the race, probably as early as this week.

“I wasn’t a strong supporter of Sanders last time around. My sense is he’s probably less viable this time around than he was four years ago,” Lewis said.

Instead, Lewis is choosing between Harris and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, viewing both as “on the progressive end of the scale.”

A 53-year-old Oakland resident named Tiara, who described her profession as that of someone who “wears many hats,” said she was all in for Harris.

“I like her strength. I’m looking for something new. Something fresh. That’s why I’m here today, to feel empowered,” she said.

The first big Democratic rally of the 2020 presidential campaign, Harris’ Oakland kickoff found its stride when she began going after President Trump.

While she warned the crowd that the U.S. needed to address the serious threat posed by international drug cartels, she was quick to add a disclaimer about Trump’s pet project, a wall on the border with Mexico: “The president’s medieval vanity project is not going to stop them,” and received a rousing ovation.

In a section of her stump speech devoted to drawing a clear distinction between herself and Trump, Harris ticked off a list of items that fell under the rubric “not our America.

“When we have leaders who bully and attack a free press and undermine our democratic institutions, that’s not our America,” Harris said. “When white supremacists march and murder in Charlottesville or massacre innocent worshipers in a Pittsburgh synagogue, that’s not our America. 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!”

Harris said she would run on a platform including universal pre-K and “debt free college.” She said she hoped to restructure the tax code, giving middle-income earners a large break and and reversing the 2017 tax cut on corporations and the wealthy.

The media attention to her rally and her impressive fundraising haul in the first week of her campaign (she took in over $1.5 million in the first 24 hours following the announcement of her candidacy) suggest she is getting off to a fast start.

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Kamala Harris early in her career
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Kamala Harris early in her career
San Francisco district attorney candidate Kamala Harris, left, serves lunch to an unidentied visitor while volunteering at Thanksgiving service at Glide Memorial United Methodist Church in San Francisco on Thursday, Nov. 27, 2003. Glide church has been feeding the needy for years, this Thanksgiving about 1,200 volunteers helped prepare 6,000 meals from 1,000 turkeys and 600 hams. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)
San Francisco's new district attorney, Kamala Harris, right, receives the oath of office from California Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald M. George, left, during inauguration ceremonies Thursday, Jan. 8, 2004, in San Francisco. In the center is Harris' mother, Dr. Shyamala Gopalan, who holds a copy of "The Bill of Rights." Harris, a political novice and career prosecutor, became San Francisco's chief law enforcer Thursday and California's first district attorney of Indian and black descent. (AP Photo/George Nikitin)
San Francisco District Attorney Kamala Harris poses for a portrait in San Francisco, Friday, June 18, 2004. The December election of a new district attorney was supposed to signal a turning point for police-prosecutor relations in San Francisco, where lofty, ultra-liberal ideals sometimes clash with the street-level realities of law enforcement. But after ousting her former boss on a pledge to restore order to the DA's office, Kamala Harris has faced unforeseen trials with her colleagues in blue. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom holds a Thanksgiving meal while volunteering at Glide Memorial United Methodist Church in San Francisco Thursday, Nov. 25, 2004. Glide prepared more than 5,000 meals for Thanksgiving. Also pictured are San Francisco District Attorney Kamala Harris, center, and Newsom's wife Kimberly Guilfoyle Newsom, second from right. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)
California Attorney General Kamala Harris, who as a prosecutor once specialized in child sexual assault cases addresses the Domestic Human Trafficking symposium in Los Angeles, Friday, April, 25, 2014. According to a 2005 International Labour Organization paper, human trafficking, or sexual servitude and forced labor, brings in about $32 billion annually, making it the second most profitable criminal enterprise after illegal arms trafficking. The vast majority of those trafficked are women and children, from all milieus of society. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)
** CORRECTS SPELLING OF LASHUAN HARRIS ** San Francisco district attorney Kamala Harris, right, speaks at a news conference about Lashuan Harris in San Francisco, Friday, Oct. 21, 2005. Lashuan Harris, the women seen dropping her young sons into San Francisco Bay, pleaded innocent to three counts of murder. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)
Kamala Harris, San Francisco District Attorney (Photo by Steve Jennings/WireImage for Conde Nast media group) *** Local Caption ***
Belva Davis, Kamala Harris, San Francisco District Attorney, and Laura Michalchyshyn of the Sundance Channel (Photo by Steve Jennings/WireImage for Conde Nast media group)
VENICE, CA - NOVEMBER 03: San Francisco District Attorney Kamala Harris attends the 'Choose Or Lose Your Toys' event at the Obsolete Gallery on November 3, 2009 in Venice, California. (Photo by Jesse Grant/Getty Images for Obsolete)
En esta fotografía de archivo del 17 de junio de 2009, la fiscal de distrito de San Francisco Kamala Harris, a la izquierda, aplaude mientras el nuevo jefe de la policía George Gascon, en el podio, es presentado por el alcalde Gavin Newsom, a la derecha, en San Francisco. Las actitudes tolerantes que tuvieron hacia los indocumentados podrían descarrilar las candidaturas a gobernador de California de dos prominentes figuras de la política en San Francisco: Harris y Newson. (Foto AP/Eric Risberg, Archivo)
San Francisco District Attorney Kamala Harris was one of six candidates taking part in the democratic primary debate for Attorney General at the Milken Institute in Santa Monica, May 18, 2010. The remaining four candidates are Chris Kelly, Ted Lieu, Pedro Nava and Alberto Torrico. (Photo by Jay L. Clendenin/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
SALINAS, CA - NOVEMBER 01: San Francisco district attorney and democratic candidate for California attorney general Kamala Harris laughs as she sits backstage before a get-out-the-vote rally at the National Steinbeck Center on November 1, 2010 in Salinas, California. With one day to go until Election Day, Jerry Brown is wrapping up his three day campaign trip throughout California in hopes of defeating his republican challenger and former eBay CEO Meg Whitman. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
In this photo taken Tuesday, Nov. 30, 2010, California Attorney General Kamala Harris gives her first news conference in Los Angeles. Harris asked a federal appeals court on Tuesday, march 1, 2011, to allow gay marriages to resume while the court considers the constitutionality of the state's voter approved ban on same sex unions. The request came after the California Supreme Court said it needed the rest of the year to consider a legal question the appeals court said it needs answered before it can resolve the case. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)
NEW YORK CITY, NY - OCTOBER 01: Jason Binn and Attorney General of California, Kamala Harris pose at Provocateur circa October 2011 in New York City. (Photo by Jason Binn/WireImage)
BEVERLY HILLS, CA - JUNE 05: Attorney General Kamala Harris attends the Fifth Annual Kidstock Music and Arts Festival at Greystone Mansion on June 5, 2011 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)
BEVERLY HILLS, CA - MARCH 18: California Attorney General Kamala Harris speaks onstage at the Public Counsel's William O. Douglas Award Dinner held at the Beverly Hilton Hotel on March 18, 2011 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)
California Attorney General Kamala Harris, right, and Michael Troncoso, Senior Counsel to the Attorney General, left, listen as mortgage fraud victim Jacqueline Marcelos speaks at a roundtable of foreclosure victims at Mission Economic Development Agency in San Francisco, on Monday, Nov. 21, 2011. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)
LOS ANGELES, CA - DECEMBER 13: California Attorney General Kamala Harris participates in TheWrap's 'The Power Of Leadership' brunch at Scarpetta on December 13, 2012 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Jerod Harris/Getty Images for TheWrap)
Californbia Attorney General Kamala Harris speaks to the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, NC (Photo by Ralf-Finn Hestoft/Corbis via Getty Images)
California Attorney General Kamala D. Harris at the Time Warner Cable Arena in Charlotte, North Carolina, on September 4, 2012 on the first day of the Democratic National Convention (DNC). The DNC is expected to nominate US President Barack Obama to run for a second term as president. AFP PHOTO Robyn BECK (Photo credit should read ROBYN BECK/AFP/GettyImages)
SAN FRANCISCO, CA - JULY 11: California Attorney General Kamala Harris (L) looks on as California Governor Jerry Brown (R) speaks to reporters after signing the California Homeowner Bill of Rights (AB 278 and SB 900) on July 11, 2012 in San Francisco, California. Gov. Jerry Brown signed the California Homeowners Bill of Rights that establishes landmark protection rules for mortgage loan borrowers. The laws go into effect on January 1, 2013. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
California Attorney General Kamala D. Harris speaks with supporters at the California Democrats State Convention in San Diego, CA on Saturday, February 11, 2012 in San Diego, CA. Harris has helped Californian homeowners by lobbying for a large share of federal funds to help with the massive foreclosure crisis in the state. (Photo by Sandy Huffaker/Corbis via Getty Images)
MOUNTAIN VIEW, CA - DECEMBER 12: California Attorney General Kamala Harris arrives at the Breakthrough Prize Inaugural Ceremony at NASA Ames Research Center on December 12, 2013 in Mountain View, California. (Photo by C Flanigan/FilmMagic)
SAN FRANCISCO, CA - JUNE 30: California State Attorney General Kamala Harris appears at the Gay Pride Parade on June 30, 2013 in San Francisco, California. (Photo by Arun Nevader/FilmMagic)
LOS ANGELES, CA - MAY 17: California Attorney General Kamala Harris speaks at a news conference on May 17, 2013 at the Los Angeles Civic Center in Los Angeles, California. Harris hosted a meeting of the state's district attorneys to develop recommendations on reducing gun violance. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)
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A Morning Consult/Politico poll of potential Democratic contenders taken January 18-22 put Harris in third place behind former Vice President Joe Biden and Sanders. Warren was tied for fourth place with former Rep. Beto O’Rourke.

“She seems to be more in touch with the public, in what we want. She knows politics and that’s what we need, someone who can run the country competently,” said Paula, a 33-year-old from Oakland who works in the financial industry and declined to give her last name.

As the rally broke up, two young men held up signs. One read “Kamala chose not to release nonviolent drug offenders.” Another sign read: “Kamala chose not to prosecute Mnuchin,” a reference to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, who made a large profit off his investment in failed California mortgage lender IndyMac, later called OneWest Bank. As attorney general, Harris resisted calls to bring charges against him; he later made a contribution to her Senate campaign. In her speech, Harris made a point of boasting that she had helped institute California’s tough law on home foreclosures. 

When asked if they were Sanders supporters, the men just smiled.

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