Astead W. Herndon

c.2019 New York Times News Service

Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., the barrier-breaking prosecutor who became the second black woman to serve in the Senate, declared her candidacy for president Monday, joining an increasingly crowded and diverse field in what promises to be a wide-open nomination process.

The announcement was bathed in symbolism: Harris chose to enter the race on the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, an overt nod to the historic nature of her candidacy, and her timing was also meant to evoke Shirley Chisholm, the New York congresswoman who became the first woman to seek the Democratic Party’s nomination for president 47 years ago this week.

In addition, Harris will hold her first campaign event Friday in South Carolina, where black voters are the dominant force in the Democratic primary, rather than start off by visiting Iowa and New Hampshire, the two predominantly white states that hold their nomination contests first. She will hold a kickoff rally Sunday in Oakland, California, her hometown.

Harris’ campaign must overcome criticism from progressives who believe she has lurched to the left only in recent years as preparation for a presidential campaign. She has repeatedly come under scrutiny for several “tough-on-crime” positions she took as a prosecutor in California, including defending the use of the death penalty as recently as 2015 and establishing a measure that sought to punish parents for chronically truant children.

For the first time, the Democratic presidential race now includes several high-profile women, with Harris joining two other prominent senators who have announced candidacies, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, has also said she is running, and more women could enter the race in the coming weeks.

Harris made her announcement on “Good Morning America" and also released a video aimed at supporters and other Democrats.

“The future of our country depends on you, and millions of others, lifting our voices to fight for our American values,” Harris said in the video. She also debuted a campaign slogan that played off her background as a prosecutor: “Kamala Harris, for the people.”

“Let’s do this together: For ourselves, for our children, for our country,” she said.

Harris’ long-expected entry comes as many Democrats are eager to find new leaders and as the party grasps for a unifying message that can appeal to its increasingly progressive base and more moderate voters who have recoiled from President Donald Trump.

A 54-year-old former California attorney general and San Francisco district attorney, Harris is something of a bridge between the Democrats eyeing the race who are in their 70s, like former Vice President Joe Biden, and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and those in their 40s, like former Rep. Beto O’Rourke of Texas and Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J. Further, while she hails from one of the country’s most famously liberal cities, she has ties to both the pragmatic and leftist wings of the party: she is rooted in the Bay Area’s Democratic establishment but has embraced a more progressive agenda since being elected to the Senate in 2016.

“I love my country,” Harris said on “Good Morning America'’ on Monday. “And this is a moment in time where I feel a sense of responsibility to stand up and fight for the best of who we are.”

Harris is not yet well known to voters, but there is deep curiosity about her among the party rank-and-file as they face a Democratic nomination contest that is defined primarily by its uncertainty.

With Trump thrusting issues of race and identity to the forefront of the national debate, and the Democratic coalition growing even more dependent on racial minorities, Harris — the daughter of a Jamaican father and Indian mother — would represent a history-making contrast in a general election against the president.

Like former President Barack Obama, to whom she was compared while she was still attorney general, Harris is running for president just two years after coming to the Senate. But unlike Obama, who became a political celebrity even before he arrived in Washington, Harris has made her name since being elected to Congress.

As the first black woman in the Senate in over a decade, she garnered attention from her perch on key committees for her interrogations of Trump administration officials and nominees, most famously during a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing with former Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

“Did you have communication with Russian businessmen or any Russian national? Are you aware of any communications?” Harris asked Sessions during the tense exchange.

“You let me qualify,'’ Sessions responded. “If I don’t qualify, you accuse me of lying, so I need to be correct as best as I can. I’m not able to be rushed this fast. It makes me nervous.”

In California, Harris sought to fashion a third-way approach to criminal justice as a city and state prosecutor, what she dubbed being “smart on crime.” But like many Democrats, she has sought to align herself with the party’s leftward drift in recent years, proclaiming her support for “Medicare for All” and, after an initial hesitation, disavowing most corporate donations and embracing the legalization of recreational marijuana, which Harris once rebuffed.

But it remains unclear how exactly Harris will position herself on the ideological spectrum in this race. She does not hurl rhetorical thunderbolts at Wall Street in the same fashion of colleagues and rivals like Warren. Still, she is no centrist and would likely embrace an agenda that is more unreservedly progressive than some of her moderate opponents.

Harris focused her initial campaign themes on broad themes of unity and revitalization, which emphasize her unique status as one of — if not the — most viable black women to ever run for president. Her announcement video borrows language from “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing,” the song and poem written in 1900 and long referred to as America’s “black national anthem.”

At a recent appearance to promote her latest book “The Truths We Hold: An American Journey,” Harris, when asked why she would run for president, cited the need for leaders who have a “vision of our country in which everyone can see themselves.”

Democrats flocked to see her at a handful of public events tied to the book and many were enthusiastic about her potential.

“Her message of unity is key — people need that hope again,” said Valoree Celona, a 50-year-old insurance executive, who attended one of Harris’ book events earlier this month in New York. Celona, who said Harris caught her attention during Senate hearings, described the senator as “tough, but she’s fair.”

“I didn’t think someone from California could speak to all parts of the country, but I was impressed,” said Ava Leegant, a surgeon from San Francisco who also came to the New York event.

However, even before she formally entered the race, Harris was criticized by her own party.

One of Harris’ top aides, Larry Wallace, resigned in December after revelations that he was involved in a harassment lawsuit and a $400,000 settlement while working for the California Department of Justice. Harris has said she did not know about the settlement, but apologized and took “full responsibility” for hiring Wallace.

Supporters characterized her prosecutorial career, which began when she joined the Alameda County district attorney’s office at 26, as pioneering in the modern criminal justice reform movement. But critics on Harris’ left have called her record into question, pointing to a dramatic increase in the state’s prison population during her years in public office.

“If Kamala Harris wants people who care about dismantling mass incarceration and correcting miscarriages of justice to vote for her, she needs to radically break with her past,” wrote Lara Bazelon, a law professor, in an opinion piece for The New York Times last week.

It remains to be seen how much Democratic primary voters will assess her based on her tenure in California.

A Quinnipiac University poll in mid-December illustrated Harris’ potential, finding her with an overwhelmingly favorable rating among Democrats but with the majority of respondents still wanting “to hear more.” About 40 percent of Democrats had a favorable opinion of her, compared with just 4 percent who viewed her unfavorably.

Harris, the first major candidate for president from California in over a quarter-century, could also benefit from changes to the 2020 nominating calendar. Her native state has moved up its primary to early March, immediately after the first four early-nominating states, presenting the possibility that she could capture a large trove of delegates just as the contest gets underway.

Republicans were quick to denigrate her candidacy Monday.

“Kamala Harris is arguably the least vetted Democrat running for president, but it’s already clear how unqualified and out-of-touch she is,” the Republican National Committee said in a statement, adding “all she has to show for her brief time in the Senate is a radically liberal voting record.”

Harris’ campaign will be based in Baltimore with a second office in Oakland. In addition to the presidential announcement, her campaign staff also confirmed key staff positions and a logo — which reads “Kamala Harris For The People” in blue and red letters across a yellow background.

It was intended as another nod to Chisholm, who used a similar color scheme for her presidential campaign in 1972.