It has been an eventful fall for Senator Kamala Harris, and not entirely in the positive sense of the word.
Ever since the second Democratic debate in late July, when Tulsi Gabbard lambasted her criminal justice record, Harris has only been polling in the single digits (a recent Quinnipiac University poll has her at 3 percent, down from 7 percent in August). Perhaps, many pundits have conjectured, she’s too moderate for the Warren-and-Sanders liberals, but too liberal for the moderates who favor Biden. In early October, a rather damning survey released by the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California revealed she has no home-state advantage, and put her in fourth place there, behind Elizabeth Warren, Joe Biden, and Bernie Sanders. The following week, California Senator Diane Feinstein, her senior colleague in the senate, endorsed Biden. The day before, an open letter on Medium drew Harris into a sexual assault case filed by a junior partner at her husband’s law firm. In response, Harris issued a statement reiterating her support for survivors, and her longtime opposition to forced arbitration agreements. This was also the week that political commentators began to write their “What Happened to Kamala” pieces. But the Senator seems to want women, in particular, to know these takes are premature.
Indeed with the Iowa caucus still nearly four months away, and only the fourth of 12 Democratic primary debates taking place on Tuesday, Oct. 15, it’s too early to count Harris out. Recently, she has begun to recast her stump speech to focus more on the ways in which she has pursued justice and equity (definite themes of all her public appearances) for women in particular. These have included “representing and fighting for victims of child sexual assault,” prosecuting “cyber-exploitation” (men extorting women with nude photos, but she doesn’t like the phrase “revenge porn”), and supporting a maternal mortality bill. “Black women are 3 to 4 times more likely to die in connection with childbirth,” she told InStyle on a recent evening in Las Vegas, at an event sponsored by the women’s activist group Supermajority. “And so it needs to be addressed in a number of ways, but all of which understand that at its core it’s a racial bias issue. And so it’s about training people in the healthcare profession, and it is about, also, elevating the issue in terms of the general acceptance of the fact that it’s intolerable and should not continue.”
In the past week, Harris also introduced a new family leave plan, which would provide six months of paid leave for parents who need to “take time away from work to welcome a new child into their family,” as her website reads, and medical leave for anyone who needs to “address their own or a family member’s serious illness.” Vox called it “the most generous paid leave proposal from any of the 2020 candidates.” At the Supermajority event, she invoked the plan, even going into specifics as to how she would pay for it. She would, she said, fine corporations who “don’t pay people equal for equal work,” and use that to fund family leave.
Harris has a thing for plans that are detailed and pragmatic, if often punitive. “For each differential and percentage that they’re not paying equal, there will be a fine based on their profits from the year before that,” she said, with prosecutorial zeal. “That fine is going to go into paid family leave. And sadly,” she added wryly, “I think that there's going to be a lot of money in that.”
The theme of the Supermajority event was gender equity. Senator Harris joined Cecile Richards, former president of Planned Parenthood, and Ai-Jen Poo, executive director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, at the Smith Center for the Performing Arts in Las Vegas, to discuss: What would a world in which women were safe, valued, and represented in government look like? Supermajority was launched earlier this year by Richards, Poo, and Alicia Garza, co-founder of Black Lives Matter (among the six co-founders) with the aim of mobilizing women of all ages and races to fight for equity at the polls and on the ground. “They’re doing some phenomenal work promoting women’s leadership and organizing around some very important principles,” Senator Harris told me later, when asked about Supermajority, “You know, what women deserve in terms of economic empowerment, safe communities, and recognizing women within the context of the families they are raising and in which they are being raised.”
Harris was referring to the female-focused agenda put forth by Supermajority: Our lives are safe. Our bodies are respected. Our work is valued. Our families are supported. Our government represents us. These five tenets, which the founders collectively call the “Majority Rules,” were gleaned from the polling of tens of thousands of women, in person and online, and form a kind of blueprint for gender equity.
A posse of Supermajority members had just completed a two-and-a-half-week cross-country bus tour that spanned 15 cities and the District of Columbia. Las Vegas was the final stop. It was a fitting endpoint given that last year Nevada elected the country’s first female majority legislature. “It’s great to end up here in Nevada, where women are, in fact, the Supermajority,” Richards said. The Nevada legislature’s accomplishments this past session were staggering: lawmakers voted to strengthen penalties for domestic violence, and to do away with the requirement for a doctor to ask whether a woman is married before she can get an abortion; they provided permanent state-level funding for rape kit testing, and passed a “red flag” gun law that allows police to temporarily confiscate the firearms of anyone deemed by a judge (the request is usually made by a family member or friend) to be a threat to themselves or others.
“Thank you to the women of Nevada for breaking so many barriers,” said Harris, who was crisp and commanding but also soigné as ever in a tweedy pantsuit and gold necklace. “I just left Gabby Giffords and a group of leaders on the need for smart gun safety laws,” she said, referring to a Gun Safety Forum at the University Medical Center in Las Vegas, where she and eight other Democratic presidential hopefuls had discussed the issue. “Is it any surprise that with a female majority legislature, you pushed through some of the most groundbreaking, substantive, and meaningful legislation in the country?” It was the day after the second-year anniversary of the October 1 shooting at a music festival in Las Vegas, and the modest crowd of roughly 100 or so women — high school and college students, activists and community organizers handpicked to pose questions to Harris — applauded.
The discussion eventually found its way to reproductive rights, as it tends to when liberal women gather. “There is no question,” Harris said, “that this is a moment where there is a full on attack against women's access to reproductive health.” She noted that poor women and women of color are particularly affected by laws that restrict access to abortion because they do not have the resources to travel to get a safe, physician-assisted procedure. “I think of the work that we do on the defensive, but I’m also prepared to take it to the offensive,” she said. “When we get elected, we will require review of any law coming out of any state that restricts access for constitutionality and compliance with Roe v. Wade. And if it does not comply, it cannot go into effect.”
A woman named Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner, co-founder and CEO of MomsRising, a national grassroots advocacy organization that concerns itself with issues that affect women and families, stood to ask a question: “The Moms of America believe everyone, absolutely everyone, has the right to be safe without the fear of violence or assault, regardless of race, gender, zip code, ability, identity, or any other factor. With the second anniversary of Tarana Burke’s #MeToo Movement coming up soon, what are your plans for addressing gender-based violence and for making sure that we are supporting survivors?”
“That work has probably occupied the vast majority of my entire career,” Harris told her, noting just how many women have experienced harm in some form. “Well, one of the best ways that we can avoid it and prevent it is to make sure women have economic opportunities so that they’re not reliant on an abusive relationship to keep a roof over their head and put food on the table. All of these issues are connected,” she added. “You know, when people would say to me, ‘Kamala, talk to us about women's issues’ — cause me being the first woman elected for these positions — and I'd say, ‘You know what? I am so glad you want to talk about the economy.’”
One of the major themes of the night were the many barriers Harris shattered to become the first woman to be elected to various positions inside the system, where women, and particularly women of color, had never been (95 percent of elected prosecutors in this country are white, and 83 percent of them are men.) Harris talked about some of the misperceptions surrounding this process. “It occurred to me that you may think that breaking barriers means you start out on one side of the barrier and you just show up on the other side of the barrier,” she told the crowd. “Noooo, there’s breaking involved. It is not without pain, hard work, and great effort because it is about asking people to imagine what they’ve never seen before and to believe it’s possible.”
Later, I asked her what she considered some of the major barriers of her career. “When I was elected the first woman district attorney of San Francisco, and I was the first woman of color to be elected district attorney of any county in California, which is a state of 40 million people,” she said, somewhat impatiently, as though saying isn’t this obvious. “When I was attorney general of California, and elected to the United States Senate … so it’s pretty much every race I’ve run.”
As the night wound down, Harris addressed the clear ‘first’ that’s at stake this time around. If elected, she would not only be the first woman president, but also the first black woman president. “For me, in this election, it has been the elephant in the room, or frankly more candidly the donkey in the room. This conversation is about electability,” she said. "I’m going there,” she added, when a woman in the first row raised an amused eyebrow at her candor. “Girl, I’m going there. Reporters will ask me, what do you think about this whole question of ‘is America ready for you?’ What I tell them is, you know what? This is not a new conversation for me. I’ve heard this conversation every time I have — and now here’s the operative word — won. But every time, every time, I ran for these offices: They’re not ready for you. It’s not your turn. It’s not your time. Nobody like you has done this before. Oh, I think you’d be great, but I don’t think everybody else is ready. And I didn’t listen. And of course we won. But the more important point that I’m making here is you didn’t listen.” She pointed at the audience. “The people didn’t listen.”
Her message to the women in attendance? “We cannot wait for other people to give us permission, to tell us what is possible.”