It was a cold January night, and George Washington University’s Lisner Auditorium was packed. Attendees sat on the floor around the room’s perimeter, and a loud, dull chatter filled the room. When Sen. Kamala Harris, D-California, walked onto the stage, as “California Love” by Tupac played in the background, the room erupted into cheers. She was there to introduce herself to the American people through her autobiography The Truths We Hold. She leaned into her history as a prosecutor and recalled fond memories of her parents bringing her to protests—including one story where Harris, apparently, fell out of a stroller during a march.
The room erupted with laughter.
Harris reminisced about moments from her races for district attorney and attorney general when others told her that she, specifically, wasn’t ready: “Nobody like you has ever done this before. They’re not gonna be ready for that.” Harris was too young. It wasn’t her turn, and it was going to be too hard. A political strategist even said to an audience at the University of California, Irvine, that Harris couldn’t possibly win because she was “a woman running for attorney general, a woman who is a minority … who is anti–death penalty, who is DA of wacky San Francisco.”
These thoughtful, upbeat moments played well in Lisner. The crowd engaged with Harris and was captivated by her. She would go on to launch her presidential campaign at Frank Ogawa Plaza in Oakland on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Ogawa Plaza, named after a civil rights leader, is a major protest hub in Oakland and was the main encampment for the city’s Occupy movement in 2011. (Occupy protesters and others also refer to the plaza as Oscar Grant Plaza, an ode to a black man who was killed by a BART officer in 2009.) Harris’ campaign logo paid homage to former Rep. Shirley Chisholm, and Harris launched her presidential campaign 47 years to the day after Chisholm’s historic presidential bid in 1972.
Harris’ campaign, in its opening stages, was animated by identity and justice. Her early poll numbers suggested that Democratic voters were indeed receptive to a black woman candidate (even if that woman, in the long run, wasn’t Harris). But after that first burst of momentum, she failed to stick her landing. Voters were never able to figure out who she was or what particular problem facing Americans she cared about most.
That lack of definition has followed Harris throughout her career. Going through her record is akin to doing backflips down a football field. As district attorney of San Francisco, she refused to impose the death penalty against a 21-year-old who killed Isaac Espinoza, an undercover police officer. She supported reforming the state’s three-strikes law, declined to seek life sentences for people whose third strike was nonviolent, and created the “Back on Track” program—a reform-minded initiative that placed first-time drug offenders, many of them young people who were just trying to make rent or feed their families, into college apprentice programs instead of jail.
At the same time, she supported a city policy requiring law enforcement officers to hand undocumented juvenile immigrants over to federal immigration authorities in the event of an arrest for a felony—regardless of whether they were actually convicted of a crime. This was in line with the tough-on-crime campaign she ran against incumbent District Attorney Terence Hallinan.
The same puzzling dichotomy presented itself during her tenure as attorney general of California, when the political climate was trending more toward reform. She opposed a bill that would have required her office to investigate officer-involved shootings. In 2015, she declined to support statewide standards regulating the use of body cameras. She also tried to block a request by Michelle-Lael Norsworthy, who was incarcerated at the time, for sex reassignment surgery. And Harris has a long history of defending police and prosecutorial misconduct—including appealing a judicial ruling reversing the wrongful conviction of Daniel Larsen and denying Kevin Cooper, whose case is laden with racism and police misconduct, a DNA test that could exonerate him. (Harris ended up supporting that test once she was elected senator.) She would later flip-flop on the death penalty when she appealed a ruling that could have helped end capital punishment in California.
But she also implemented a body camera program for officers working under the California Department of Justice in 2015. Harris refused to defend Proposition 8, a homophobic ballot initiative mandating marriage between a man and a woman, in front of the U.S. Supreme Court. Harris urged the Supreme Court to allow public universities to consider race in admissions and mandated implicit bias training for California state police.
With the exception of the Espinoza case, though, Harris never took a public stance that directly questioned the inherent brutality of her profession, which—despite the influx of reformers, many of them people of color—still inflicts its punishments disproportionately on black Americans.
Her messaging as a presidential candidate was as inconsistent as her actions as a prosecutor had been, cycling through slogans and priorities from season to season. By the end, after dabbling in calling for social and economic justice, she turned back to presenting herself as a prosecutor who would use her skills to indict a “criminal” president.
The inconsistency ultimately led the campaign to a slow death. Many political observers offered up single-theory lessons or morals about Harris’ failure to win. Some knee-jerk reactions blamed it on the hostility of American politics to women candidates, or to black candidates, or to black women candidates; some blamed the media for unfair coverage. But campaigns are complex ecosystems, and they don’t fall apart for one reason. It makes sense that a lack of strong messaging and organizational troubles paved the way to funding problems. Harris’ virality and political standing in Washington and California didn’t translate into national recognition. This caused her to spend a lot of time introducing herself to voters, even as she kept switching slogans and failed to find a policy issue to stand on. She couldn’t step outside the structures that make it harder for black women to exist in politics; unlike the white men she was campaigning against, she couldn’t offer herself as a “viable” candidate with a shorter résumé, or shrug off the record she had. Her prosecutorial history, while not progressive, was in some ways her strongest credential and, in others, her biggest blind spot. There were black women voters who rocked with her and those who didn’t. Many of her policies didn’t swing far enough left for some voters to say they trusted her, while other voters gladly hopped aboard the #KHive.
This is politics. No candidate or their approach is going to appeal to everyone. The bid for president is a zero-sum game in which most who play are unsuccessful. Pundits and political reporters who hold forth on why a candidate didn’t gain traction are mostly guessing based on the information available—which will always be limited since no one is capable of getting inside another person’s head.
We don’t know why, after rising through local and state office on to the Senate, and then into the presidential field, Harris couldn’t get things to string together for her. At Lisner, setting herself up to become a candidate, she was witty and personable, and she leaned into the concept of being a crusader for justice. She wasn’t on the defensive, as she would be so many times thereafter, but had the assurance of a candidate who belonged. It was a believable vision. It just didn’t turn out to be a persuasive one.