Kamala Harris hasn’t launched a bid for the presidency yet, but she has launched the narrative around which her campaign would be built.
Hers is the latest political autobiography to hit the shelves. In a medium as predictable for White House aspirants as an Iowa stump speech, the book hews to caution, as most such volumes do, offering details on confrontations only with the most obvious villains, such as former White House Chief of Staff John Kelly and JPMorgan Chase Chief Executive Jamie Dimon.
Yet it also provides an early glimpse at how Harris would position herself in what seems likely to be a crowded field of candidates.
The book, timed for release as rival Democrats are launching their campaigns, aims to introduce Harris as uniquely positioned to fight for civil and economic rights: as a child of immigrants from India and Jamaica who rose to the top of their fields; as a prosecutor who forced law enforcement agencies resistant to change to confront racial bias; and as a political crusader who defied pressure from colleagues and forced more money out of the nation’s most powerful banks to compensate homeowners in the aftermath of the mortgage crisis.
Based on the book’s evidence, Harris likely will claim, for example, that her tenure as California attorney general established her bona fides as an economic populist.
“I hope you know what you’re doing,” Harris quotes then-Gov. Jerry Brown telling her soon after she was narrowly elected to the attorney general’s job, which Brown had previously held. A nationwide deal was on the table with the big banks that had been sued by multiple state attorneys general for duping consumers into taking on mortgages they could not afford. California had been offered up to $4 billion as part of the deal. Harris decided that was not nearly enough.
She frames the fight she waged against pushback from other Democrats, other attorneys general worried the deal would collapse and the nation’s most politically powerful financial interests as a career-defining moment.
There’s an obvious campaign message in all this: that Harris has the backbone and expertise to champion a new economic order.
To punctuate the point, the senator recalls calling Dimon personally — over the objection of staff — and the two of them shouting at each other “like dogs in a fight.” But Harris ultimately secured $20 billion for California homeowners, she writes. An outgrowth of the fight, she adds, was the bill of rights for homeowners that Harris successfully helped champion in the state Legislature.
For California’s junior senator, a relative newcomer to the national spotlight, the stakes with this book release are high. The 318-page narrative is an early benchmark Democratic voters will use to gauge the 54-year-old lawmaker’s qualifications for the job, and whether she has a coherent vision that they can rally around.
Harris is under added pressure to prove herself qualified after Sen. Dianne Feinstein said last week that her California colleague can’t compete with the experience of a Joe Biden, a likely primary rival for Harris.
Along with the detailed policy narrative, Harris offers a deeply personal story. The senator has been dismissive of speculation that her background as a black and Asian woman positions her well in a party looking for a fresh, non-white face to lead the fight against President Trump and his anti-immigrant agenda, history of misogyny and hostility toward the racial-justice movement. Even so, the family story she tells has the potential to captivate party activists much as former President Obama’s life story did.
Harris writes how her Indian-born mother first came to the United States when she flew to Berkeley in 1958 to pursue a career in breast cancer research after graduating from the University of Delhi at the age of 19. It was there she met Harris’ father, a fellow Berkeley student who was born in Jamaica.
A family plan for Harris’ mother to return home for an arranged marriage was upended after her parents took a shine to one another during civil rights protests.
“Her marriage — and her decision to stay in the United States — were the ultimate acts of self determination and love,” the senator wrote.
Her parents would divorce when she was young, but Harris’ mother had an outsize influence on the senator even after Shyamala Gopalan Harris died of colon cancer several years ago. Caring for her mother through the illness increased Harris’ resolve to protect the Affordable Care Act from GOP attack, she says.
The book foreshadows how Harris’ background as a child of immigrants would shape a White House run.
That background factored into her story about confronting Kelly in a call to his home the day Trump’s immigration ban took effect. It factored into her often lonely quest for criminal justice reform while district attorney in San Francisco, a city that was struggling to reduce homicides. And it factored into the crusade she launched as attorney general against a network of private vocational colleges that scammed vulnerable Californians.
While some candidates are highlighting their political successes in red states to showcase electability, Harris makes clear through the book that she would take the opposite approach — embracing California as a policy ideal that Democratic voters can aspire toward. A recurring theme in the book is pioneering California measures that Harris had a hand in championing.
Sticking to the theme of the California way of doing things being a path forward for Washington, the senator makes the case for outside-the-box innovation in a chapter that could be mistaken for a campaign white paper. She takes the Left to task for too often favoring slogans over substance and portrays herself as a detail-oriented wonk in a section of the book titled “embrace the mundane.”
A spirited endorsement of a New Deal-style experiment in Stockton with guaranteed income, an idea popular with progressives, comes with a caveat.
“Would it work?” she writes. “If it’s part of ‘the Plan’ you’re running on, you’re compelled to say yes. But the better answer is ‘Let’s find out.’”