That was a principled win for her, a demonstration of leadership and reaffirmation that having an HBCU graduate in the primary matters. Unfortunately, the stir over the sponsorship of the event overshadowed the substance of her remarks and her responses in the Q&A session.
She certainly had a home-field advantage of sorts as a Howard University graduate, bantering about school mascots and expressing delight in the students’ well-crafted questions. Talking about criminal justice reform is plainly in the former district attorney and former California AG’s wheelhouse, and it should be. She was relaxed and thoroughly comfortable with the subject matter.
She began (starting at the four-hour mark) with opening remarks excoriating Trump for comparing impeachment, a constitutionally designed process, to lynching, her voice evidencing her utter disgust at his attempt to portray the most powerful man in the world, with the best lawyers, as a victim akin to blacks tortured and lynched in the Jim Crow era. (“What do we have in Donald Trump? Someone who dares — dares — to use the word ‘lynching’ with the blood that has been poured on the soil of South Carolina and so many places,” Harris declared. “And he dares to compare himself to the people who have been at the wrong end of a system that is in need of reform.”)
In the remainder of her remarks and in the Q&A sessions, she spoke authoritatively on the need for reintroduction programs, anti-bias training and bail reform (which penalizes people because of lack of funds, which in turn results in job loss and protective services taking a child away while the parent sits in jail awaiting trial). She spoke with passion on the need to improve conditions for incarcerated women (issues of dignity including shackling women in delivery and denying feminine products). When it came to marijuana legalization, she insisted that there be justice “retroactively” for those incarcerated as a new, lucrative industry — selling the very product they had been incarcerated for possessing — springs up. That would include clemency and jobs in the new pot industry.
She was most effective when she showed determination to expand the goal of “safe” neighborhoods to “healthy neighborhoods” with affordable housing, functioning schools and access to health care. If you have healthy neighborhoods, she argued, they will be safe.
Her performance raises the question as to whether she can break former vice president Joe Biden’s overwhelming advantage among African American voters, key in any Democratic primary but especially in a state such as South Carolina. Biden certainly has the affection and loyalty of seniors in the African American population, but if Harris can be as effective with younger voters 40 years and under (and, critically, make sure they turn out), she could make real headway.
Audiences can tell when a well-meaning politician is struggling to win favor and when someone’s life experience and passion drive their policy positions. Authenticity is a much-overused word in politics, but in the case of Harris, on these sets of issues she leads the pack.