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Kamala Harris Comes Home to Support & Criticism at Campaign Kickoff

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Blocks away from where she was born at Oakland Kaiser, the first black, American-Indian woman to run for president of the United States readied herself to step up to the podium. It was a big moment for Senator Kamala Harris, knowing the path to proving herself to the country starts at home among her biggest fans and harshest critics.

Streets around City Hall in Oakland Sunday were literally lined with people, tons of people on several streets in a serpentine-like system of what seemed like at least three distinct lines that wound up and around city blocks and somehow converged. The end point was the rally at the Frank H. Ogawa Plaza park in front of City Hall, but most  stood there for hours knowing full well and not caring that they’d never get in – they just wanted to be near the moment. And in line, chopping it up with fresh-made friends, was where many of the estimated 20,000 attendees were when the pastor gave his sermon, when the gospel choir sang and when her old friend and Mayor Libby Schaaf praised the Senator.

Harris took to the stage at nearly 1:45 p.m. and reintroduced herself to her native home, not as a district attorney or as an attorney general, and not even as the Senator. In front of a crowd of supporters lucky enough to make their way into the park, many holding signs with her “For The People” slogan, Kamala Harris introduced herself as the person who wants to be the next president.

“I stand before you today to announce my candidacy for President of the United States.
I’m running for president because I love my country. I love my country.
I’m running to be president, of the people, by the people, and for all people.”

California Senator Kamala Harris speaks during a rally launching her presidential campaign on January 27, 2019 in Oakland, California. Photo courtesy of NOAH BERGER/AFP/Getty Images

But Harris and her record are not free from flaws and no group of people know that better than Bay Area locals. It was here in Alameda County where she got her start as a prosecutor in 1990, in the courthouse just blocks away from where the rally was held Sunday. By 2003, she took on the tough job as the district attorney, twice-elected, in San Francisco and in 2011 she advanced to the state’s top “law dog” position as California’s first female attorney general. She was elected to U.S. Senate and took over Barbara Boxer’s seat in 2016. She claims she was a “progressive prosecutor,” but it is important to note that the definition of progressive is largely subjective and takes on drastically different meanings in different regions of the state and across the country. Additionally, what is considered “progressive” denotes something entirely different to those inside the justice system versus those on the outside.

Vice President Joe Biden administers the Senate oath of office to Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., Jan. 3, 2017, as the 115th Congress begins. Photo courtesy of AP Photo/Kevin Wolf

Harris did not build a reputation for being soft on crime. She was faced in each of her prosecutorial roles with decisions about which cases should or could be charged and which ones to dismiss. Some of those decisions, made directly and indirectly, have created resentment among some Bay Area residents and Californians in general. Her hard stance on school truancy and a push to prosecute parents of chronically truant students was and still is a bitter pill in California.

The candidate touts attempts like her Back on Track program in 2004 to reform a racially disproportionate justice system but many critics feel she fell woefully short and in some ways worsened the existing inequities by remaining “neutral” during mandatory minimum sentencing and prisoner release disputes. She has since backed the First Step criminal justice reform bill that aims in part to reduce minimum sentencing.

On the flip side, supporters applaud her efforts that led to a $20 billion settlement for California homeowners due to shady foreclosure practices during the recession and some progressives appreciate her commitment to not seeking the death penalty in any case. Harris discussed several of these issues with the New York Times in 2016 for an article that may best sum up her disputed role in the state’s criminal justice system and reform initiatives: “Harris embodies the party’s ambitions and contradictions on this issue as its leaders try to navigate a swing in the opposite direction.”

She will likely face scrutiny for a scandal associated with her dismissal of cases when it was discovered that a technician tampered with evidence. Additionally, the campaign spotlight will inevitably force Harris to respond to questions regarding her knowledge of inappropriate behavior by Larry Wallace, a former top aide who was a accused of workplace sexual harassment and who settled for $400,000.

All that said, several people who came out to support Harris’ bid for presidency Sunday believe her controversial record is simply the inevitable result of being a prosecutor in a uniquely diverse area and state plagued by an often broken system. Oakland residents William James and Brian Turner credit her law enforcement record as a primary reason for their support. When asked what past issues she may need to reckon with, apologize for or address as she moves forward, James pointed to the fact that her record is on paper in plain sight and open to evaluation, whereas the current president had no political record or relevant experience to judge from.

“I don’t think she has anything to apologize for – I think she just needs to explain,” Turner said. “She has a record of local support, so I think she’ll be fine there…I’m more worried about when she steps out of California and has to deal with the other states.”

Another two women came in from San Francisco with their “cockatiels for Kamala” to be part of what they see as a much-needed “positive experience” in today’s negative political climate. “I think she’s really smart,” Renee said, who preferred to be identified by her first name. “I think she has a good understanding of the issues, that she has the ability, that she’s competent.” Renee also believes Harris will stand up for “all people” and although the candidate will encounter roadblocks along the way, that she’s “headed in the right direction on the issues.” Renee, an Arkansas import, said that paying attention and being involved has always been important but is now more detrimental than ever before due to rampant “gaslighting and misinformation” prevalent everywhere, but especially in places like her home state.

Nate, a Berkeley resident who also chose to provide only his first name, stood alone with a sign that read: “Green Jobs Not Jails.” His mission Sunday was to challenge voters to find and support candidates who prioritize environmental concerns. Although Nate is leaning toward Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, he was clear that he will vote for Harris if she secures the Democratic nomination.

“What Kamala can improve on is to fully support the Green New Deal,” Nate said. “She needs to come out with plans to implement green jobs into our country.” He went on to echo concerns about her role as a prosecutor in the state’s mass incarceration problem.

During her speech, Harris acknowledged that when she stepped up 30 years ago and first spoke the words, “Kamala Harris for the people,” that the criminal justice system “was deeply flawed.” Harris continued: But I also knew the profound impact law enforcement has on people’s lives, and it’s responsibility to give them safety and dignity. I knew I wanted to protect people. And I knew that the people in our society who are most often targeted by predators are also most often the voiceless and vulnerable. And I believed then as I do now, that no one should be left to fight alone.”

Kamala Harris presidential campaign rally in at Frank Ogawa Plaza in Oakland, Calif. Jan. 27, 2019. Photo courtesy of WDEF

Not everyone is put off by her record in law enforcement – for some, it’s a selling point. Oakland resident Janeen Jackson values the experience she brings as a prosecutor to the national stage and appreciates her vigorous and direct questioning during Senate hearings, an opinion not shared by Senate Republicans. Jackson is proud to throw her support behind Harris as “a sister of Oakland and as a black woman.”

However, strong opposition exists from both sides of the ideological spectrum to what some see as her “identity politics.” In that vein, it is not enough that she is just a woman or that she is black – many want to see her offer up “tangibles” in terms of how she will shape policy to protect women and black communities.

At the end of the day, it is obvious that just like any other viable candidate, Kamala Harris will spend her time in the barrel being forced to reckon with her past record and pushed to provide firm answers on what she envisions for the future of this country. And just like every other serious contender, she will not please everyone. Given that the Bay Area is split between those who love and those who resent her, it says something that she came home to face that division as she kicked off what will definitely be a grueling campaign. It is tough at this point to say how she will weather the scrutiny and whether she can reckon with her past to turn detractors into supporters.

Harris has a hill to climb and although objections to her candidacy have been at times quite loud, Sunday’s turnout makes it apparent that she still has a large number of fans here in the East Bay willing to help push her to the top. That phenomena may be largely fueled by a sense of local pride but it is certainly spiked by the dire state of our country and degraded discourse. For many people concerned with the lack of justice at the top echelons of current government, a presidential “law dog” is not a bad thing – it is exactly what the doctor ordered. 

She ended her speech with promises to try and “heal our nation” and to restore the “American Dream.” In what sounded like a small admission of her own perceived failures, Harris noted that some battles for the good of our nation have been won and some have sadly been lost but that the battle ahead comes at an “inflection point in the history of our world.”

“So today I say to you my friends, these are not ordinary times,” Harris said. “And this will not be an ordinary election. But this is our America.”

Whatever your opinion of Kamala Harris might be, she speaks truth when she says that these are not ordinary times and this is just the beginning of an unordinary election.

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Nik Wojcik - East Bay Editor

Nik Wojcik - East Bay Editor

Journalist, editor, student, single mom to a pack of wolves, foodie, music lover, resident smart ass, and champion of vulgarity and human kindness.