Democratic Sen. Kamala Harris, standing outside of Oakland's city hall, formally kicked off her campaign for the White House by presenting herself as the leader who can best unite an America that is at an "inflection point" and facing a critical question.
"We are here because the American Dream and our American democracy are under attack and on the line like never before," Harris said Sunday. "And we are here at this moment in time because we must answer a fundamental question: Who are we? Who are we as Americans? So, let's answer that question to the world and each other right here and right now. America, we are better than this."
Harris, a first-term U.S. senator from California who announced her candidacy last Monday, rallied thousands of supporters at the Frank Ogawa Plaza in Oakland, her hometown and where she served as a prosecutor before becoming the state attorney general. According to some estimates, over 20,000 people attended the rally, which eclipses the crowd at former President Obama's first campaign rally in February 2007 - which to be fair took place in freezing cold conditions.
Harris invoked the speech that Robert F. Kennedy gave in 1968 when he announced that he would challenge President Lyndon B. Johnson, noting that Kennedy said "at stake is not simply the leadership of our party and even our country, it is our right to moral leadership of this planet."
Harris added, "So today I say to you, my friends: These are not ordinary times, and this will not be an ordinary election, but this is our America."
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Harris' campaign is filled with historic possibility. If she ultimately wins the White House she would be the first African-American woman and first person of Asian descent to be president.
Harris, the daughter of immigrants from Jamaica and India, said that as she and her sister, Maya Harris, grew up in the East Bay they were "raised by a community with a deep belief in the promise of our country, and a deep understanding of the parts of that promise that still remain unfulfilled."
She has attributed her decision to become a lawyer and a prosecutor to her upbringing, and said Sunday that she and her sister were "raised to believe that public service is a noble cause and the fight for justice is everyone's responsibility."
She said she is running "with faith in God, with fidelity to country, and with the fighting spirit I got from my mother."
Harris's launch has drawn heavily on symbolism. She officially entered the race on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Campaign aides say she has drawn inspiration from Shirley Chisholm, a New York congresswoman who in 1972 became the first black woman to run for president from a major party.
Harris' first news conference as a candidate was on the campus of Howard University, the historically black college in the nation's capital that she attended as an undergraduate. On Friday, she was in South Carolina to speak to members of the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority, of which she is a member. Other members of the group, wearing traditional pink and green, were on hand at Sunday's rally.
Her choice of Oakland for her campaign launch was both biographical and symbolic. The state of California has played a leading role in resistance to the presidency of Donald Trump. And Oakland itself, where she was born and spent her formative years, has a history of activism. The plaza outside City Hall where Harris spoke once housed Occupy Oakland's encampment. When Barack Obama ran for president in 2008, he picked the site for his first Bay Area campaign event.
Michael Ahrens, a spokesman for the Republican National Committee, called it "fitting" that Harris chose "the most liberal district in deep-blue California to launch her campaign."
Harris' campaign is expected to highlight her career as a prosecutor as part of her rationale for seeking the presidency. Harris was the first black woman elected district attorney in California, as well as the first woman, first African-American and first Asian-American to hold that job.
On Sunday, she said she has long known the criminal justice system to be "deeply flawed" but that she also knew the "profound impact law enforcement has on people's lives and its responsibility to give them safety and dignity."
Harris said throughout her life she has "only had one client: the people," echoing the words she has used in courtrooms and has adopted as her campaign's slogan.
Harris also did not shy away from taking on Trump directly, saying the U.S. welcomes refugees and calling the wall that Trump wants to build at the southern border a "medieval vanity project" that would not actually stop transnational gangs, which she noted she battled as state attorney general. She also said that, as president, she would "always speak with decency and moral clarity and treat all people with dignity and respect. I will lead with integrity. And I will tell the truth."
Harris is among the first major Democrats to jump into what is expected to be a crowded 2020 presidential contest.
Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York have announced exploratory committees. Former Maryland Rep. John Delaney and Julian Castro, federal housing chief under President Barack Obama and a former San Antonio mayor, already are in the race.
Sens. Cory Booker of New Jersey, Sherrod Brown of Ohio, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Bernie Sanders of Vermont may also run.
After the rally, Harris planned to her first trip to Iowa as a presidential candidate. In the weeks before last November's elections, she traveled to the leadoff caucus state to campaign on behalf of Democrats, and also visited other early-voting states.
Harris's campaign will be based in Baltimore and led by Juan Rodriguez, who managed her 2016 Senate campaign. Aides say the campaign will have a second office in Oakland.
Full transcript of Harris's speech:
I am so proud to be a daughter of Oakland, California. And as most of you know, I was born just up the road at Kaiser Hospital. And it was just a few miles away my parents first met as graduate students at UC Berkeley where they were active in the civil rights movement.
They were born half a world apart from each other. My father, Donald, came from Jamaica to study economics. My mother, Shyamala, came from India to study the science of fighting disease.
They came here in pursuit of more than just knowledge. Like so many others, they came in pursuit of a dream. And that dream was a dream for themselves, for me and for my sister Maya.
As children growing up here in the East Bay, we were raised by a community with a deep belief in the promise of our country – and, a deep understanding of the parts of that promise that still remain unfulfilled.
We were raised in a community where we were taught to see a world, beyond just ourselves. To be conscious and compassionate about the struggles of all people.
We were raised to believe public service is a noble cause and the fight for justice is everyone’s responsibility.
In fact, my mother used to say "don't sit around and complain about things, do something.” Basically I think she was saying. You’ve got to get up and stand up and don’t give up the fight!
And it is this deep-rooted belief that inspired me to become a lawyer and a prosecutor.
It was just a couple blocks from this very spot that nearly 30 years ago as a young district attorney I walked into the courtroom for the very first time and said the five words that would guide my life’s work:
“Kamala Harris, for the people.”
Now, I knew our criminal justice system was deeply flawed.
But I also knew the profound impact law enforcement has on people’s lives, and it's responsibility to give them safety and dignity.
I knew I wanted to protect people.
And I knew that the people in our society who are most often targeted by predators are also most often the voiceless and vulnerable.
And I believed then as I do now, that no one should be left to fight alone.
You see, in our system of justice, we believe that a harm against any one of us is a har against all of us. That’s why when we file a case, it’s not filed in the name of the victim. It reads, “The People.”
This is a point I have often explained to console and counsel survivors of crime, people who faced great harm. Often at the hands of someone they trust – be it a relative or a bank or a big corporation.
I would remind them. You are not invisible. We all stand together.
That’s the power of the people.
My whole life, I’ve only had one client: the people.
Fighting for the people meant fighting on behalf of survivors of sexual assault - a fight not just against predators but a fight against silence and stigma.
For the people meant fighting for a more fair criminal justice system.
At a time when prevention and redemption were not in the vocabulary or mindset of most district attorneys, we created an initiative to get skills and job training instead of jail time for young people arrested for drugs.
For the people meant fighting for middle class families who had been defrauded by banks and were losing their homes by the millions in the Great Recession.
And I'll tell you, sitting across the table from the big banks, I witnessed the arrogance of power. Wealthy bankers accusing innocent homeowners of fault, as if Wall Street’s mess was of the people’s making.
So we went after the five biggest banks in the United States. We won 20 billion dollars for California homeowners and together we passed the strongest anti-foreclosure law in the United States of America. We did that together.
For the people meant fighting transnational gangs who traffic in drugs and guns and human beings. And I saw their sophistication, their persistence and their ruthlessness.
And folks, on the subject of transnational gangs, let’s be perfectly clear: the President's medieval vanity project is not going to stop them.
And in the fight for the people to hold this administration accountable, I have seen the amazing spirit of the American people.
During the health care fight, I saw parents and children with grave illnesses walk the halls of the United States Congress, families who had travelled across the country at incredible sacrifice.
They came to our nation’s capital believing that if their stories were heard, and if they were seen, their leaders would do the right thing.
I saw the same thing with our Dreamers. They came by the thousands. By plane, train and automobile. I’m sure they were sleeping ten-deep on someone’s living room floor.
They came because they believe in our democracy and the only country they’ve ever known as home.
I met survivors who shared their deepest, most painful personal experiences – who told stories they had never before revealed, even to their closest loved ones – because they believed that if they were seen, that their leaders would do the right thing and protect the highest court in our land.
Together we took on these battles.
To be sure we’ve won and we’ve lost, but we’ve never stopped fighting.
And that’s why we are here today.
We are here because we have another battle ahead.
We are here knowing that we are at an inflection point in the history of our world.
We are at an inflection point in in the history of our nation.
We are here because the American Dream and our American democracy are under attack and on the line like never before.
We are here at this moment in time because we must answer a fundamental question.
Who are we? Who are we as Americans?
So, let’s answer that question. To the world. And each other. Right here. And, right now.
America, we are better than this.
When we have leaders who lie and bully and attack a free press and undermine our democratic institutions that’s not our America.
When white supremacists march and murder in Charlottesville or massacre innocent worshipers at a Pittsburgh synagogue that’s not our America.
When we have children in cages crying for their mothers and fathers, don't you dare call it border security, that’s a human rights abuse and that’s not our America.
When we have leaders who attack public schools and vilify public school teachers that’s not our America.
When bankers who crashed our economy get bonuses but workers who brought our country back can't even get a raise that’s not our America.
And when American families are barely living paycheck to paycheck, what is this administration’s response?
Their response is to try to take away health care from millions of families.
Their response is to give away a trillion dollars to the biggest corporations in this country.
And their response is to blame immigrants as the source of all our problems.
And guys lets understand what is happening here: People in power are trying to convince us that the villain in our American story is each other.
But that is not our story. That is not who we are. That’s not our America.
Our United States of America is not about us versus them. It’s about We the people!
And in this moment, we must all speak truth about what’s happening.
Seek truth, speak truth and fight for the truth.
So let's speak some truth. Shall we?
Let’s speak truth about our economy. Our economy today is not working for working people.
The cost of living is going up, but paychecks aren't keeping up.
For so many Americans, a decent retirement feels out of reach and the American Dream feels out of touch.
The truth, is our people are drowning in debt.
Record student loan debt. Car loan debt. Credit card debt. Resorting to payday lenders because you can’t keep up with the bills.
People are drowning in America.
We have a whole generation of Americans living with the sinking fear that they won't do as well as their parents.
Let’s speak another truth about our economy. Women are paid on average 80 cents on the dollar. Black women, 63 cents. Latinas, 53 cents.
And here’s the thing. When we lift up the women of our country, we lift up the children of our country. We lift up the families of our country. And the whole of society benefits.
Let's speak another truth. Big pharmaceutical companies have unleashed an opioid crisis from the California coast to the mountains of West Virginia. And people once and for all we have got to call drug addiction for what it is: a national public health emergency. And we don't need another War on Drugs.
Let’s speak truth. Climate change is real and it is happening now. From wildfires In the west to hurricanes in the east, to floods and droughts in the heartland, we're not gonna buy the lie. We're gonna act, based on science fact, not science fiction.
And let’s speak an uncomfortable but honest truth with one another: racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, transphobia are real in this country. They are age-old forms of hate with new fuel. And we need to speak that truth so we can deal with it.
Let’s speak the truth that too many unarmed black men and women are killed in America. Too many black and brown Americans are locked up. From mass incarceration to cash bail to policing, our criminal justice system needs drastic repair. Let’s speak that truth.
Let’s speak truth. Under this administration, America’s position in the world has never been weaker. Democratic values are under attack around the globe. When authoritarianism is on the march. When nuclear proliferation is on the rise. We have foreign powers infecting the White House like malware. Let us speak truth about these clear and present dangers.
And let’s speak the biggest truth, the biggest truth of all: In the face of powerful forces trying to sow hate and division among us, the truth is that as Americans we have much more in common than what separates us. Let’s speak that truth.
So, let's not buy into that stuff that they are trying to peddle. Let's never forget, that on the fundamental issues, we all have so much more in common than what separates us.
You know, some say we need to search to find that common ground. Here’s what I say, I say we need to recognize that we are already standing on common ground.
I say we will rise together or we will fall together as one nation, indivisible.
And I want to be perfectly clear: I'm not talking about unity for the sake of unity. Hear me out. I'm not talking about unity for the sake of unity.
I'm not talking about some façade of unity.
And I believe we must acknowledge that the word unity has often been used to shut people up or to preserve the status quo.
After all let’s remember: when women fought for suffrage, those in power said they were dividing the sexes and disturbing the peace.
Let’s remember: when abolitionists spoke out and civil rights workers marched, their oppressors said they were dividing the races and violating the word of God.
But Fredrick Douglass said it best and Harriet Tubman and Dr. King knew.
To love the religion of Jesus is to hate the religion of the slave master.
When we have true unity, no one will be subjugated for others. It’s about fighting for a country with equal treatment, collective purpose and freedom for all.
That’s who we are.
And so, I stand before you today, clear-eyed about the fight ahead and what has to be done—with faith in God, with fidelity to country, and with the fighting spirit I got from my mother. I stand before you today to announce my candidacy for President of the United States.
I’m running for president because I love my country. I love my country.
I’m running to be president, of the people, by the people, and for all people.
I’m running to fight for an America where the economy works for working people.
For an America where you only have to work one job to pay the bills, where hard work is rewarded and where any worker can join a union.
I am running to declare, once and for all, that health care is a fundamental right, and we will deliver that right with Medicare for All!
I am running to declare education is a fundamental right, and we will guarantee that right with universal pre-k and debt free college!
I am running to guarantee working and middle class families an overdue pay increase. We will deliver the largest working and middle-class tax cut in a generation. Up to $500 a month to help America's families make ends meet.
And we’ll pay for it by reversing this administration’s give aways to big corporations and the top one percent.
I’m running to fight for an America where our democracy and its institutions are protected against all enemies, foreign and domestic.
Which is why I will defend this nation against all threats to our cybersecurity.
We will secure our elections and our critical infrastructure to protect our democracy.
And we will honor our service members and veterans – so no one who has served this country has to wait in line for weeks and months to get what they are owed when they return home on first day.
I’m running to fight for an America where no mother or father has to teach their young son that people may stop him, arrest him, chase him, or kill him, because of his race.
An America where every parent can send their children to school without being haunted by the horror of another killing spree.
Where we treat attacks on voting rights and civil rights and women’s rights and immigrant rights as attacks on our country itself.
An America where we welcome refugees and bring people out of the shadows, and provide a pathway to citizenship.
An America where our daughters, where our sisters, where our mothers and grandmothers are respected where they live and where they work.
Where reproductive rights are not just protected by the Constitution of the United States but guaranteed in every state.
I’ll fight for an America where we keep our word and where we honor our promises.
Because that’s our America.
That’s the America I believe in.
That’s the America I know we believe in.
And as we embark on this campaign, I will tell you this: I am not perfect. Lord knows, I am not perfect. But I will always speak with decency and moral clarity and treat all people with dignity and respect. I will lead with integrity. And I will speak the truth.
And of course, we know this is not going to be easy guys. It’s not going to be easy.
We know what the doubters will say.
It’s the same thing they've always said.
They’ll say it’s not your time. They’ll say wait your turn. They’ll say the odds are long. They’ll say it can’t be done.
But America’s story has always been written by people who can see what can be unburdened by what has been. That is our story. That is our story.
As Robert Kennedy many years ago said, “Only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly.”
He also said, “I do not lightly dismiss the dangers and the difficulties of challenging an incumbent President, but these are not ordinary times and this is not an ordinary election.” He said, "At stake is not simply the leadership of our party and even our country. It is our right to moral leadership of this planet.”
So today I say to you my friends, these are not ordinary times. And this will not be an ordinary election. But this is our America.
And here’s the thing. It’s up to us.
It’s up to us. Each and every one of us.
So let's remember in this fight we have the power of the people.
We can achieve the dreams of our parents and grandparents.
We can heal our nation.
We can give our children the future they deserve.
We can reclaim the American Dream for every single person in our country.
We can restore America’s moral leadership on this planet.
So let’s do this.
And let’s do it together.
And let's start now.
Thank you. God bless you. And God bless the United States of America.