When Kamala Harris was growing up in Oakland, California, her mother would warn her not to run too far at the park. But her father took a different position.
“Run as far as you want,” he told her. “Be fearless – and run.”
The story, which Harris shared with an audience in Washington on Wednesday night, invited speculation that the freshman senator from California may be taking her father’s advice literally as she contemplates a run for president in 2020.
At the event – the first formal stop on a book tour promoting her new memoir, The Truths We Hold – she promised to make her decision “soon” but otherwise revealed nothing more about her intentions. Outside the venue, a huckster sold pink “Kamala 2020” T-shirts and hats.
During the breezy, hour-long discussion with the Washington Post columnist Jonathan Capehart, Harris set the record straight about the pronunciation of her first name (“Kamala – like comma-la”), defended her career as a prosecutor against criticism from progressive quarters, and assailed Donald Trump for forcing a partial shutdown of the federal government over his demand for funds for a border wall.
“You cannot hold the American people hostage over your vanity project,” the 54-year-old former attorney general for California told the receptive audience at George Washington University.
Harris compared the president’s behavior to the way her godson might act when deprived of his toy train.
“Any good parent would tell you that you don’t listen to those kinds of tantrums, and you don’t reward that kind of behavior,” she said.
“Did you watch his speech last night?” Harris asked of the president’s primetime address from the Oval Office. She accused Trump of a “blatant” attempt to stoke racial division.
“What was that supposed to be about?” she asked. “Tell me that – if not about inserting race in a way that was intended to create fear and division. That’s not what a leader does.”
The interview lingered on Harris’s upbringing as the daughter of immigrants from India and Jamaica and her career path from courtroom prosecutor to California’s “top cop”.
Harris described herself as a “progressive prosecutor” who supported in equal measure harsh punishments for violent offenders and large-scale reforms of the criminal justice system. She pointed to her efforts to reduce recidivism and implement implicit bias training.
She also recounted a “shouting match” with the JP Morgan boss Jamie Dimon in the aftermath of the mortgage meltdown in 2012. The exchange was so tense, Harris wrote, that she removed her earrings because “I’m a girl from Oakland”.
Should Harris run, the anecdote about fighting for California homeowners against the big banks may help establish her progressive credentials in a wide Democratic primary race that will feature Senator Elizabeth Warren, a sharp critic of Wall Street, and possibly Senator Bernie Sanders, who has condemned corporate greed.
Though Harris has not officially launched a campaign, the book tour and media blitz has been described as a “soft” campaign launch. In an earlier interview on CNN, Harris said she believed the country was absolutely ready from a woman of color as president.
At the end of the event on Wednesday night, Capehart asked Harris to read a passage from her book, which imagines future generations asking someone alive at this political moment: “Where were you at that inflection point?” The senator recited the excerpt mostly from memory.
“So,” Capehart said, “When your time comes, when your godchildren, grandchildren ask you what did you do, will your response be, I ran for president?”
Harris erupted in laughter as the crowd cheered and whooped wildly.
“Did you say maybe?” he tried again.
Still laughing, she nodded. “Yeah.”