Standing in front of a multicolored mural in Los Angeles, on which a historical sign urged “No A La Prop. 187,” U.S. Senate candidate Kamala Harris scanned the room and asked all of the immigrants – or children of settlers to the United States – to raise their hands.
Harris, a self-described proud daughter of California born to immigrants from India and Jamaica, raised her right hand. Nearly every arm behind her went up.
“Look around the room,” said Harris, the state attorney general. “This is who we are.”
She followed her stop at the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles with another endorsement event Tuesday, this one hosted by the Mexican American Bar Association. There, standing beside labor icon Dolores Huerta and her son, Democratic congressional candidate Emilio Huerta, Harris was commended for her commitment to passing an immigration overhaul and pressing for full immigrant integration.
“I would love nothing better than to see an immigration bill sponsored by our (next) U.S. senator,” said Emilio Huerta, smiling and gesturing to Harris.
While Harris’ opponent, Rep. Loretta Sanchez, D-Orange, has courted the Latino vote by touting her Mexican American heritage, Harris has mounted an aggressive charge from the early days of the campaign to compile heavyweight Latino endorsements and build a coalition of surrogates in the community.
In the weeks before the Nov. 8 election, she’s stepped up her activity. Harris visited Kern County Democratic Party headquarters for an earlier event with Huerta. Last weekend, she was in the Inland Empire for a pair of rallies with Democratic Assembly candidates Abigail Medina and Sabrina Cervantes.
“We don’t concede to the notion that it should be a forgone conclusion (Sanchez) has the Latino vote,” said Juan Rodriguez, Harris’ campaign manager. “While Loretta has entertained a strategy of dividing people or regions as the way to get the majority of the electorate, our approach has been about bringing people together ... It’s part of the fabric of this campaign.”
Harris’ considerable fundraising edge has allowed her to run early TV ads in English and Spanish – with the latter featuring Huerta, Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León, and La Opinión, the country’s largest Spanish-language newspaper, which wrote that she “has more potential to lead at a national level.” Sanchez has struggled to raise money and launched her ad Thursday, though a Super PAC supporting her has made a small radio buy targeting Republicans.
De León, a Democrat from Los Angeles, said he decided to back Harris after meeting with her this summer at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia. She talked about plans to help lead the national debate on immigration reform as part of a “very substantial, deep conversation about the future of California – the diversity of our state, who we are and what we are becoming,” de León said.
“It was a very lengthy and very personal meeting and I walked away convinced she was the right person for California,” he said, adding, “Kamala is going to get a lot more Latinos than people expect.”
Public polls show Harris leading Sanchez by significant margins, and closing the gap among Latino likely voters.
A Public Policy Institute of California survey Wednesday had Sanchez up with Latinos 41 percent to Harris’ 33 percent. But the gulf was a whopping 42 percent in a September poll. In the Field Poll that month, Latinos for the first time favored Harris to Sanchez, 35 percent to 34 percent. Field had the spread at 49 percent to 24 percent for Sanchez in its July survey.
From a tactical standpoint, Harris’ bid for Latino support is “a smart play,” said Michael Trujillo, a Democratic political consultant in Los Angeles.
“If you are forcing your opponent to constantly reconstitute her base it makes it harder,” he said about how Harris’ strategy affects Sanchez. “It’s campaign 101, and Kamala is pulling it off effectively.”
Trujillo said Harris’ hefty cash advantage also has helped her attract Latino support, including from the likes of Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon and former Speakers John A. Pérez and Fabian Núñez, Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia and the United Farm Workers.
“Good things come to those who could put the budget together to run a race,” Trujillo said. “It becomes a magnet regardless of your ethnicity.”
Sanchez’s campaign isn’t ceding any ground with Latinos, who many expect to vote in large numbers to oppose Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump. Her spokesman, Luis Vizcaino, reiterated criticisms that Harris’ highly touted $20 billion settlement with the big banks did not do enough to relieve Latino homeowners stung by the foreclosure crisis. He blamed Harris, California’s top law enforcement official, for the rise in violent crime over the last year.
“I expect her track record of failure does in fact galvanize Latinos to (go to) the polls,” Vizcaino said. “Kamala Harris’ mortgage settlement that benefited the banks and hurt Latino families who lost their homes is just one example. Higher crime rates under her watch is another.”
One of the turning points of the election came earlier this year when Harris overwhelming won the state Democratic Party endorsement over Sanchez. The vote preceded many of Harris’ largest endorsements, including President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and Gov. Jerry Brown. It enraged Sanchez supporters, some of whom blame the party for her fundraising shortfalls.
Ahead of the primary, Rep. Filemon Vela, D-Texas, a member of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, called the party’s support of Harris “insulting to Latinos all across this country,” adding that there has never been a Latina elected to the U.S. Senate.
“The state party institution in California knows that they rely on the Latino vote in every general election cycle to help Democrats beat Republicans,” Vela said at the time. “I respect the right of Latino voters to choose whoever they want to in that race, but the institution shouldn’t be taking sides.”
Another Sanchez ally, former state Sen. Denise Moreno Ducheny of San Diego, agreed the party should have remained neutral.
“The winning position for Democrats was the two of them being in the runoff,” she said.
“Part of the argument for Loretta from the get-go was: She has Washington experience; she has legislative experience and she has experience with a lot of the issues (that) … we have worked on together and think are important, including border infrastructure, water and transportation.”
Carlos Alcalá, chairman for the party’s Chicano Latino Caucus, who helped Sanchez contact delegates ahead of the party endorsement vote, said he doesn’t begrudge Harris for assertively courting Latino votes. Though he faulted Harris for not being responsive enough to the Latino community on criminal justice issues, Alcalá said Sanchez missed a chance to capitalize.
“If Loretta had come out stronger on civil rights issues she would have had much more enthusiastic support from the Latino community,” said Alcalá, who has spent months registering voters with his wife, Norma. “Loretta didn’t make it a lot of the issue in her campaign. She played it more conservatively and as a result, she has support, but it’s not as devoted.”
Both Harris and Sanchez have pledged to tackle immigration reform. Harris calls it the defining civil rights issue of our time. Sanchez refers to it as the nation’s biggest moral, economic and security imperative.
Harris points to her work organizing legal services for unaccompanied minors during the Central American refugee crises and her defense of “sanctuary cities” that curtail law enforcements collaboration with federal immigration officials. “An undocumented immigrant is not a criminal,” she says on the campaign trail.
Angelica Salas, executive director of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, praised Harris for accomplishments Sanchez diminishes.
Speaking at the endorsement meeting this week, where Harris warmly referred to those assembled as “mi amigos,” Salas said the foreclosure settlement and legislation aimed at homeowners helped safeguard the future for many families. She hailed Harris’ official actions supporting Obama’s executive actions on immigrants.
“She actually said ‘I am going to be your attorney for California’s immigrant families,’ ” Salas said to applause. “She’s already our champion.”