There was a time, about eight years ago, when the candidate for attorney general of California — at that point the state’s first black woman to seek statewide office — came to a more ephemeral goal: to compete in one of the city’s most prestigious athletic competitions.
In a carefully controlled manner, she fielded questions on criminal justice issues, on inclusivity in her campaign and whether she was worried about violence against black women. In the end, a crush of media competition reduced the number of questions Harris fielded at a predominantly African-American church to one.
This may have been her first encounter with Howard University’s famed Olympians — a male student could almost feel the gust of rivalry as a woman fielded her question. At that moment, it didn’t seem that either she or the man she was competing against would win.
“That’s the power of power,” said Harris, a Democratic senator from California. “It was intimidating. But I can tell you what the power of power was like next week. It was more like this: ‘Hi, y’all. How are you?’ It was very personable.”
The new presidential contender, who is considering running for president in 2020, has worked hard to project that kind of self-assurance. At a Saturday evening rally in New York City, she made a star turn on the iconic set of “The Daily Show” without giving viewers a clue as to which audience she would be addressing. She touched on every single topic, from health care to the U.S.-China trade war, but managed to be just as raw and real about heartbreak. She talked openly of her early decisions on Hollywood entertainment as a girl in Oakland.
And she never lost sight of the issues that are important to African-Americans: cracking down on police misconduct and school systems that disproportionately fail African-American children.
“This is why I’m running,” she said. “Because in these times, what you do matters. … What your voice will mean, how your vote will count.”
Harris followed up her appearance on Comedy Central’s nightly political comedy show — which has at times leaned hard to the left — with a Brooklyn homecoming on Sunday to address a much larger audience at historically black Baruch College.
To be sure, Harris has never said she wants to emulate Barack Obama’s habit of gathering random African-Americans in national television campaigns. But at what could be her last stop before starting a push for the presidency, she tried to set her own tone — not as a voice for African-Americans, but to show she can relate to all voters, including those who don’t identify as black.
“This is my music festival,” she said at the Baruch event, referring to the Eagles before singing “Hotel California” to close out her set.
Standing in an enormous ballroom at the college, Harris told the mostly black crowd that she thinks “it’s really important we have people of color in every seat of power, from the top down,” adding, “We are in this together.”
Trump, she said, has had “a singular focus for the last two years. He attacks every minority group in this country, every woman in this country.”
Harris said some of her political opponents are “traitors to black families,” adding that they like to take credit for their accomplishments, especially for things they have done on their own.
“That’s easy to do when you’re not charged with the responsibility of accomplishing anything,” she said.
There’s no doubt that Harris’s most defining moment of campaigning so far will be Thursday’s debate in Milwaukee. The one question about race Harris wouldn’t answer on Sunday night at Baruch was whether she is looking forward to playing the “divide and conquer” game that is now the hallmark of the president’s rallies.
“I honestly haven’t thought about that,” she said. “The time will come when I can consider it in all its dimensions. But that’s not now.”
Harris, on tour to introduce a new book, will head to Philadelphia on Monday for another event at the historically black Historically Black College and University, which she attended as a student.