Sen. Kamala Harris sees a path out of the wilderness for Democrats — but can she sell it to them?

During one of the first big meetings Sen. Kamala Harris attended back in California following her swearing in, she said something many of the progressive activists who look to her as an icon were taken aback to hear.

As the Democratic party tries to claw its way back to control of Congress, she wanted them to at least consider rallying behind some of its most conservative — and most vulnerable — politicians.

“It was a room full of people who did not want to hear that,” Harris said Thursday in a meeting with reporters and editors in The Times’ Washington bureau. “They were like, ‘What happened? Why are you saying this?’”

Amid all the self-reflection and infighting among Democrats about how they find their way out of the wilderness, Harris is emerging as a more nuanced political character than many on either side of the political line expected.

California’s freshman senator, a civil rights crusader whose India-born mother and Jamaica-raised father met during political protests in the Bay Area, is so associated with the identity politics of the left that her Twitter feed was a punchline in a recent “Saturday Night Live” skit. But as she finds her way in Washington, Harris is embracing an approach somewhat at odds with that image. That became clear as she talked about the path back for Democrats, why she won’t unconditionally slam the door on working with Trump, and what her mother told her about people like Supreme Court nominee Neil M. Gorsuch.

The pressure on Harris to unwaveringly fly the flag of the resistance is intense. She recalled the event in Los Angeles where she encouraged supporters not to turn their backs on Sens. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota and Joe Manchin III of West Virginia — red-state Democrats some liberal activists would like to purge — in their upcoming reelection bids.

“We can’t afford to be purists,” Harris said. “You have to ask that question of yourself: Are we going to be purists to this resistance to the point that you let these guys go? Or can you understand that you may not agree with 50% of their policy positions, but I can guarantee you will disagree with 100% of their replacements’ policy positions. So that is part of the question. What do we have to do in this movement to be pragmatic?”

Harris hardly aligns herself with the counter-movement inside Democratic ranks that has pushed to reorient the party’s focus more exclusively toward white, working-class voters in places like Scranton, Pa., and Lansing, Mich.

“There is this conversation that we’ve got to go back and get him,” she said, referring to the prototypical white, male Trump voter. “The inference there is that to do that we need to walk away from that Latina or black mom. That is a mistake.”

But she suggested the party has too often seized on wedge, identity politics issues that divide voters. “What I do know about those two ladies and that guy is when we wake up at 3 in the morning or something is troubling us, it is never through the lens of, ‘am I Democrat or Republican,’ or on our identity based on what other people have decided is our identity.”

Instead, she said, it is economic issues that weigh on people: their bills, their job troubles, their difficulty getting health insurance.

“We, as Democrats and progressives, cannot afford to be guilty of putting people in these narrow boxes based on what we have decided is their identity instead of seeing that they have lived full lives. They are full people, as multifaceted as the other people we know.”

She pointed to the incident at a bar outside of Kansas City, Kan., in February in which an attacker shot and killed an Indian immigrant he mistakenly believed to be a Muslim. Patrons in the bar risked their lives trying to protect the victim, she said.

“I bet you that patrons in that bar voted for Trump,” Harris said. “But when presented with that situation, at that moment, without reflection, they did the right thing…. We can’t afford to put people in boxes.”

Harris expected to be taking her post in a very different Washington. Up until late on election night, she said, she had been looking forward to pushing a nationwide expansion of the climate-change initiatives that have taken root in California and taking a leadership role in removing restrictions on immigrants. It was during a private family dinner as votes were being counted across the country that what was confronting her became real. She said she saw her 9-year-old nephew in tears at what was intended to be a celebratory event.

“That man can’t win,” the boy cried. Later, in the reception room where she declared her own victory, she saw similar scenes.

But despite pressure from activists on the left, Harris refuses to rule out working with the White House.

“Political capital is something that does not gain interest,” she said, when asked how she thought Democrats should respond if the White House offers to collaborate on joint priorities, such as federal money to rebuild outdated roads, bridges and airports. “When you’ve got it, you’ve got to spend it…. If the Trump administration puts in place a real, significant and genuine plan for infrastructure, I'll be down with it.”

Some things, though, are nonnegotiable, Harris said. She is not among the Democrats lamenting that too much political firepower might have been used fighting Gorsuch, whose confirmation moved forward Thursday after Republican leaders made the historic move of changing Senate rules to step around a Democratic filibuster.

“If you look at the decisions this guy has written?” Harris said. “And everyone presents him as a nice guy. My mother had many sayings. One of them was, ‘Just because somebody has good manners, doesn’t make them a good person.’”

evan.halper@latimes.com

Follow me: @evanhalper

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