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Opinion Harris goes wonky, embraces black women

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) at the Essence Festival on July 6 in New Orleans. (Amy Harris/Invision/AP)

The two knocks on Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) have been that she is fuzzy on policy and that she hasn’t used her biography to connect emotionally with voters, especially black voters who have, at least until the June 27 debate, been loyal to former vice president Joe Biden.

On Saturday, Harris sought to remedy both with a rip-roaring speech at the Essence Festival in New Orleans. She received a hero’s welcome from the African American, female attendees and lost little time reaffirming her background as “a daughter of the civil rights movement” with parents who went to marches. She went straight at President Trump’s message to make American great again. She asked the crowd: “Well, what exactly does ‘again’ mean?” She rhetorically asked if this meant going back to before the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, before Roe v. Wade, before the Fair Housing Act. “Well, Essence, we’re not going back!” The crowd cheered raucously.

Referencing the Black Census Project, she surveyed her previously revealed proposals for a monthly credit up to $500 for working families, an equal pay law that would put the burden on employers to show men and women are being paid equally, an investment in teachers’ pay and a bill to address black women’s maternal mortality rates. Hmm. It’s not just Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) who has a lot of plans. (Warren appeared at the Essence Festival as well.)

She used the refrain that “we must right what is wrong” as she ticked off each of her policies and then rolled out a new multi-part plan to close the wealth gap between blacks and whites. “So a typical black family has just $10 of wealth for every $100 held by a white family,” she explained. “So we must right that wrong and after generations of discrimination give black families a real shot at homeownership — historically one of the most powerful drivers of wealth in our country.” The plan includes a $100 billion grant to assist with down payments and closing costs in previously red-lined neighborhoods, and reforms to include additional measures of financial responsibility (e.g. paying utilities and rent on time) to aid in establishing a credit history. She vowed to strengthen and enforce anti-discrimination housing laws. She argued that this would close the wealth gap by at least one-third.

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She also hinted at more initiatives to come in pledging to “write the next chapter” in the American story, including investment in historically black colleges and universities. Coming up soon, she promised, would be proposals to assist black entrepreneurship.

She ended with a stirring call, reminding them: “The fight of Black women has always been fueled and grounded in faith and in the belief of what is possible. We have always built the future that we can see and believe in and fight for.” She then put herself in a long line of heroic African American women. “And that’s why Sojourner spoke. It’s why Mae flew. It’s why Rosa and Claudette sat. It’s why Maya wrote. It’s why Fannie organized. It’s why Shirley ran. And why I stand here as a candidate for president of the United States.” The crowd was ecstatic.

Moving over to a conversation with the Rev. Al Sharpton, she did touch on the school segregation issue but avoided any mention of Biden. (She pointed out mandatory busing still exists in some places to this day but said new strategies are needed to address segregation created by white flight from cities.)

Since the first 2020 Democratic primary debate, former vice president Joe Biden and Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) have clashed on the issue of busing. (Video: Blair Guild/The Washington Post)

In answering the “Are you ready to take on Trump question” from Sharpton, she repeated part of her new stump speech calling Trump out as a “predator” who victimizes the weak and powerless. She declared that, in her experience with such characters, these predators are “cowards.” In a twist, she then lashed out at Trump for believing Russian President Vladimir Putin, North Korea dictator Kim Jong Un and the Saudi crown prince over our own intelligence services (the implication being that he is afraid to stand up to these tyrants). “We need a new commander in chief,” she asserted.

This is a new stage, clearly, in the Harris campaign. She had her breakthrough moment in the debate and now needs both to secure the black vote (knocking Biden down in the process) and to shore up her policy credentials (at least staying within arms’ reach of Elizabeth I’ve-Got-A-Plan-For-That Warren). Her biggest challenge may be to nail down a firm and detailed position on health care that protects her left flank but does not set her up for a world of trouble in the general election.

If she can do all that and keep up her current level of confidence and energy, she very well could be the Democratic nominee. However, she’ll need to tighten up her policy discussion and be ready for the next debate. You’d better believe her opponents will be coming after her.

Read more:

Eugene Robinson: Kamala Harris got everyone’s attention. Can she keep it?

Greg Sargent: Kamala Harris’s takedown of Joe Biden was more brutal than it seems

Jennifer Rubin: There are two lines of counterattack on Harris. Will either work?

Helaine Olen: How Kamala Harris can solve her Medicare-for-all problem

Karen Tumulty: Kamala Harris steps out of her comfort zone — and it works