SAN FRANCISCO — Kamala Harris insists she’s not thinking about running for president. But few got that impression after her high-octane performances in nationally televised congressional hearings this week.
The first-term California senator often described as risk-averse and overly cautious appears to be eagerly shedding that profile and embracing a role as one of the Senate’s fiercest critics of the Trump administration.
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It’s enough to spark widespread speculation about her prospects for 2020.
“The dominant trend in Democratic Party politics is fresh, new and interesting — that’s what people are looking for — not old, steady and establishment,’’ says Wade Randlett, a longtime Democratic fundraiser in Silicon Valley who has known Harris for years. “And Kamala is the trifecta on that.’’
Within hours of her aggressive questioning of Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats and National Security Agency Director Admiral Mike Rogers on Wednesday, Harris was raising money off the furor that resulted from Senator Richard Burr’s admonishment to be more “courteous” in her questioning — an awkward scene which went viral, raising questions about whether her gender played a role in his reaction.
The next morning, Harris scored a prized appearance on NBC’s “Today” show prior to the James Comey hearing. There she noted her own credentials in asking tough questions, and called out Trump’s “inappropriate” demand that Comey pledge his loyalty.
“When I think about that, I was a district attorney of San Francisco, the attorney general of California, and now a United States senator. I’ve taken the oath many times,’’ she said. “The oath was to the Constitution of the United States, not an individual.”
From her first days on Capitol Hill, Harris has been winning kudos from progressives, beginning when she became one of only 11 senators to vote against the confirmation of General John Kelly to head the Department of Homeland Security. Representing a state that is home to the largest number of undocumented immigrants, Harris pointedly asked Kelly in his confirmation hearing not to use DACA applications to deport the so-called DREAMers, undocumented immigrants who had been brought to the country as infants.
She ultimately broke with fellow California Sen. Dianne Feinstein on the vote, in part because Kelly would not guarantee to safeguard those students from deportation.
All told, Harris has voted against 18 of President Donald Trump’s nominees — making her one of the administration’s most dogged opponents to date.
On Wednesday, Harris’ own team skillfully seized on her budding profile, sending out a fundraising letter titled “They told me to be courteous.”
Her pitch: “This is hardly the first time the GOP has done this — let us not forget when they silenced my friend and colleague Elizabeth Warren for trying to read a letter from Coretta Scott King about Jeff Sessions… Well here is the truth: I will not be silenced. We will not be silenced. The American people, who deserve the truth, will not be silenced. Not when the faith and integrity of our democracy is at stake.”
Harris previewed that defiant posture in San Francisco recently, when during a live recording of the Pod Save America podcast, she exploded into “What the f— is that?” in reaction to conservative GOP Congressman Raul Labrador’s statement that people don’t die because they don’t have health insurance.
Supporters argue that Harris’ high-profile in Washington proves that her basic approach hasn’t changed from her days as state attorney general, when she proudly insisted that she was “fearless, yes; reckless, no.”
“Sometimes California’s “cautious” is D.C.s rebel,’’ says Donnie Fowler, a Silicon Valley CEO and longtime Democratic strategist who worked most recently on the 2016 Clinton presidential campaign. “[She] has always struck me as someone who knows what she wants to do — though that doesn’t mean she won’t be deliberate,’’ he said.
Harris proudly told Democratic grassroots activists in her home state this month that in her first 100 days of office, she has earned “bloody knuckles” for pushing back on Trump in areas ranging from immigration and gay rights to the environment. After urging her followers nearly three-dozen times to “fight” and “resist” Trump on Election Night, Harris has followed up in her first five months on Capitol Hill with both aggressive messaging on social media and moves that have progressives hailing her as an energetic and nimble leader of the Democratic resistance to Trump.
“I’ve always had strong opinions, and a perspective — and waged the fights that needed to be had,” Harris told POLITICO in an interview last week. She argued that as California’s top cop, “when I was fighting the big banks for the people,’’ or being outspoken on issues of human trafficking or the international drug trade, “there was nothing cautious about that.’’
But she also acknowledged that her role as the state’s chief law enforcement official came with some constraints. “It was frustrating when I was AG. People, I think, mistook when I said it would be wrong for me to talk about investigations, it would be wrong for me to talk about confidential and classified information,’’ she said. “And I didn’t, because I had a responsibility.”
Now, Harris said, she believes a key part of her legislative role is to use the bully pulpit that comes with representing the nation’s most populous state. “Being a United States senator — and particularly a U.S. senator from California, we have such a high stakes, in terms of the outcome of the policies and decisions of this administration,’’ she said. “And there’s no question that the responsibility, for me, is to be very clear about how I feel about what’s happening…and sharing with the public what I know.”
Regarding fights with the Trump White House, she said, “we will have them,’’ and she fully intends “to make sure that Californians know what’s going on.”
But even as she ups her national profile as one of her party’s rising stars, Harris still hasn’t convinced some longtime state politics watchers that her actions represent a real breakout on the legislative and leadership front.
Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a veteran California political analyst, said that Harris in the past was viewed to be so careful in shepherding her political profile that “I don’t know that she has a reputation in California.”
As recently as her 2016 Senate run, Harris regularly fought perceptions that she was too careful and calculating on policy issues. When in November she backed away from actions taken by past state attorneys general by refusing to take positions on controversial state ballot initiatives that included calls for sentencing reform, Harris earned rebukes from the L.A. Times editorial board.
The state’s largest paper endorsed her, but complained that Harris appeared “more focused on her political career than on the job,’’ and was often “too cautious and unwilling to stake out a position on controversial issues.”
Randlett says Harris’ approach in the nation’s capital dramatizes how the Trump presidency has shocked Democrats into action,and increased pressure to move quickly for change — and tangible results.
“Rather than boring, and cautious and “stay in the back” — the old conventional Senate wisdom, where you stay in the back row for for years — she understands that’s not what people are looking for,’’ Randlett said.
A young senator who cut a high-profile and took international trips early in their tenure would have been called “show horse” in the past, but high levels of impatience and fear among Democrats has speeded up the traditional timeline, he said.
“It’s the combination of being from the most progressive state in the country — but she’s not throwing darts or tweetstorms. She’s doing it in a responsible way that’s steeped in the law,’’ says Democratic strategist Laura Capps. “All eyes are on her to be a national leader, and she’s living up to it so far. She’s fulfilling expectations for her natural ability.’”
Bebitch Jeffe says that Harris faces particular pressure to perform because she “is perceived as a part of this new generation of leadership.” As a senator of African-American and Indian-American heritage, “she is a woman of color, a diverse ethnicity,’’ and one with powerful friends like former President Barack Obama, who enthusiastically endorsed her Senate bid, she noted.
With that background, Harris is may quickly ascend the political ladder, and could very well up on the short list as a presidential or vice presidential candidate. But “what she needs is visibility and name recognition beyond California — and that’s part of what I see going on right now,’’ Bebitch Jeffe said. “I see a freshman senator who is attempting to raise her national and statewide visibility.”
Fowler says that with her emergence as a Capitol Hill star, it’s “inevitable, and natural” that Harris “is immediately going to become a national leader — because she is the first of the next generation of California Democrats to step up. And until we elect the next governor, she is the only one out there,’’ he said.
Last week, Harris brushed aside a question about a 2020 presidential run from Recode founder Kara Swisher at a California tech conference.
“I’m not giving that any consideration,’’ Harris said firmly. “I’ve got to stay focused.”
“That’s a yes,’’ Swisher quipped.