Now's the time prospective presidential candidates start taking the subtle but crucial behind-the-scenes steps that get them noticed by the political intelligentsia, and Sen. Kamala Harris is quietly following the script.
She’s making speeches to key national constituencies. She’s due for an appearance at a Washington think-tank panel full of chattering-class presidential favorites that the national media will be reporting and analyzing, probably for days. She’s been fundraising for colleagues and making sure that she is forming relationships with key national reporters.
They’re all boxes that prospective presidential candidates routinely check. It’s a chance to ultimately convince insiders they’ve got the gravitas and the fundraising chops to be taken seriously.
The California Democrat, sworn into office four months ago, insists she’s not thinking about a run for president. Her inner circle forcefully tries to tamp down 2020 speculation – after all, there is no upside to being seen as a new senator focused more on national political ambition than on California.
But the speculation is not going away, not with the absence of a clear Democratic presidential frontrunner and the party desperately in search and in need of a new generation of leadership.
“A lot of activists in the party would love to see a new leader step forward,” said Roger Hickey,” co-director of the progressive strategy group Campaign for America's Future.
Harris is being closely watched.
“Looking forward to see how she performs as a senator, I think that the sky is the limit for her,” said Jaime Harrison, associate chairman and counselor of the Democratic National Committee.
So far, Harris has leaped into the political spotlight with a resume that screams potential presidential material. She's 52, a generation younger than better-known favorites such as Sens. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts or former Vice President Joe Biden.
“From everything I’ve seen of her she’d be an attractive candidate, she could be a compelling candidate, and I think she’d have a lot of appeal for primary voters,” said Bob Shrum, a senior adviser to the presidential campaigns of Al Gore and John Kerry.
A strong block of liberal Democrats, though, would eagerly embrace another Sanders run. And Shrum said Democrats would rally around a Biden presidential candidacy but, if the 74-year-old Biden doesn’t run, and he has said that he will not, “there’s a deep desire in the Democratic Party to move on to a new generation.”
What every new presidential hopeful needs is an early defining moment.
President Barack Obama’s was his 2004 keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention. Harris’ was her energetic performance in a prominent speaking role at the Women’s March on Washington, a rally that attracted worldwide attention and had an estimated crowd of a half a million people. She instantly became a favorite of liberals, and followed that with remarks at an immigration rally at the White House and a podcast with former top Obama adviser David Axlerod, the architect of Obama’s out-of-nowhere 2008 campaign.
Harris’ rollout accelerates this month. She was the keynote speaker at last week’s National Democratic Institute’s Madeleine Albright luncheon, a prominent Washington event hosted by the nonprofit, nonpartisan group. She’ll give the May 13 commencement speech at Howard University in Washington, her alma mater.
Days later she’ll join a host of others floated as presidential wannabes, including Warren, Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York in a speaking role at the Ideas Conference, a Washington gathering seen as the liberal equivalent of the Conservative Public Action Conference, a traditional testing ground of GOP presidential hopefuls.
Harris is building relationships in the party. She’s done fundraising emails for fellow senators Warren, Gillibrand and Sherrod Brown of Ohio.
It's the sort of quiet bridge-building that ultimately paid off for Obama, Jimmy Carter, George W. Bush and many others years before they were elected.
The presidential buzz around Harris, though, is more a product of national Democrats than Californians. Though she won election last year with 61.6 percent of the vote, a recent Public Policy Institute of California poll found that 30 percent of Californians – including 20 percent of Democrats – don’t know enough about Harris to say one way or the other what kind of job she is doing the Senate.
Interviews with nearly two dozen ardent Harris supporters in California showed most think it is too soon for her to run for president. Gary Peichoto, a Harris enthusiast who lives outside of Modesto, laughed when asked whether she should run in 2020.
“It’s too early,” Peichoto said. “I’d rather go with Elizabeth Warren.”
Christine Wasserman, a social worker in Los Angeles, said she’s been a fan ever since Harris as California’s attorney general helped broker a settlement with the nation’s five largest mortgage firms for improper foreclosure practices during the housing crisis. But president? Right after joining the Senate?
“Let’s let her be a senator for awhile,” Wasserman said.
Harris insisted she shares that sentiment. “I’m not thinking about that,” she said when asked about the possibility of a presidential run.
“I’m four months into the Senate and we’ve got a lot of work to do,” Harris said after an event in downtown Los Angeles. “I just got back from Iraq, from Baghdad, and from looking at one of the largest refugee camps in the world with 80,000 Syrian refugees. Those are the issues I will focus on.”
It’s customary in Washington to deny any interest in running for president before doing so (Obama did it. Warren, Booker, Biden and Gillibrand are all doing it, with Gillibrand saying she is “ruling it out” ). So Harris’ reluctance won’t stop the talk.
Bob Schoonover, president of the largest employee union in Los Angeles County, said in an interview that “I think she should consider” a run for president. Labor support like that of the Service Employees International Union, where Schoonover leads the more than 57,000 employees of Local 721, would be critical to a run.
Vito Chiesa, a registered Republican who chairs the Stanislaus County Board of Supervisors in California, said he tried to get a meeting with Harris in Washington.
“She’s in such demand,” he said. “She’s kind of a chosen one.”
Harris is the charismatic daughter of immigrants from Jamaica and India. Obama called her brilliant and “by far the best looking attorney general in the country” (he later apologized for what was deemed a sexist remark). She seemingly has the ingredients to energize the Democratic base, and her next tasks if she runs are centered in two places: Washington and the rest of America.
At the Capitol, she needs to develop a reputation as someone to watch. Harris is making immigration her signature issue. She tried to convince Democrats to vote against Trump’s nomination of John Kelly for homeland security secretary after he dodged her questioning on whether he’d use information that “Dreamers” voluntarily provided the government to deport them.
“Dreamers,” who came to the U.S. illegally as children, identified themselves to the government in return for a promise from the Obama administration not to deport them. Just 10 of the 44 Senate Democrats and two independents joined Harris in voting against Kelly, which clearly rankles her.
“He was confirmed – and within days the Muslim ban dropped,” Harris said, referring to the attempted ban on travelers from six Muslim-majority nations.
At the same time, Harris needs to get herself known in political circles outside Washington. Democratic strategists said Harris’ outspoken opposition to Trump’s immigration policies can resonate with the progressive base, and she’d now need to campaign for Democrats seeking election next year, notably in early primary states such as Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.
The possibilities are there, said Dick Harpootlian, former South Carolina Democratic chairman. “I think she’s articulate, I think she’s a lawyer,” he said. “I think that she’s somebody who could galvanize a huge swath of progressives but she is untested on a national stage.”