Sen. Kamala D. Harris of California joined the 2020 presidential contest Monday, thrusting a daughter of immigrants from Jamaica and India into the Democratic race two years after she arrived in the Senate.
Harris, a 54-year-old former prosecutor raised in a state that has been the crucible of the Trump resistance, expanded a growing field of candidates fighting for the nomination of a party that is increasingly nonwhite and fueled by women alienated by the president.
She made the announcement during an interview on ABC’s “Good Morning America” and in a video that her campaign posted online.
“The future of our country depends on you and millions of others lifting our voices to fight for our American values,” she said in the video. “That’s why I’m running for president of the United States.”
Harris plans a more formal campaign launch in Oakland, Calif., on Sunday, when she will give a speech outlining her candidacy.
As she weighed whether to enter the race, Harris spoke about the challenges of running a campaign that would attempt to break several barriers. If elected, she would be the first woman, the first person of Asian heritage and the first African American woman as president.
Yet on Monday, Harris’s message was largely one of unity. During a news conference at Howard University hours after her announcement, she said the core issue of her campaign is “the people,” as opposed to any of the vast array of issues that other Democratic candidates say drew them to run.
“Nobody is living their life through the lens of one issue. I think what people want is, they want leadership that sees them through the complexity of each of our lives and pays equal attention to their needs,” Harris said. “Let’s not put people in a box. And as they make their decisions, let’s make sure we give them credit for being smarter than that.”
Harris’s announcement drew on history, coming on a day commemorating the legacy of slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., a timing that she said was “very important” to her. Her campaign noted that Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman to run for president in a major party, launched her campaign 47 years ago this week.
Amid that context, however, Harris played down the role of race on Monday.
“When people wake up in the middle of the night — whether it be a mom in Compton or a mom in Kentucky — she’s waking up having the same concerns,” Harris said, “about how she’s going to be able to raise those babies, how she’s going to be able to pay the rent at the end of the month, how she’s going to be able to retire with dignity.”
When a reporter asked how she would describe her identity, Harris replied: “I describe myself as a proud American.”
Harris is relatively unknown nationally — a CNN survey in September found that 51 percent of registered voters had not heard of her — and has recently tried to introduce herself through the requisite campaign book “The Truths We Hold,” released Jan. 8. In the Senate she has earned a reputation for sharp questioning and a skeptical approach to Trump administration officials. On the Senate Judiciary Committee, she has been one of the body’s more pointed interrogators, particularly during high-profile moments such as the confirmation hearings for Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh.
During a tense exchange with then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions over Trump campaign contacts with Russia, Sessions stopped her.
“I’m not able to be rushed this fast,” he said. “It makes me nervous.”
Harris’s rich mixture of heritage has led some supporters to refer to her as “the female Barack Obama.” The former Democratic president also launched his presidential campaign two years after joining the Senate.
As a child, Harris attended a Hindu temple and a black Baptist church. Her first name (which she pronounces “comma-la”) comes from the Sanskrit word for lotus plant.
Harris’s late mother immigrated to the United States from India as an adult and became a physician specializing in breast cancer. Her Jamaican father became an economics professor at Stanford University. They divorced when Harris was young, and her mother raised her and her younger sister, Maya.
Harris attended Howard University in Washington and the University of California Hastings College of the Law. She then set out on a career as a prosecutor.
When she ran in 2003 and unseated her onetime boss, San Francisco District Attorney Terence Hallinan, she became the first black woman to be elected district attorney in California. When she was elected attorney general of California in 2010, she became the state’s first female, the first African American and first Asian American to hold the position.
Her tenure as attorney general was marked by efforts to protect consumers and fight sexual trafficking. But she also came under fire for tough stances against felons whose guilt fell under question.
Some of that tenure is bound to come under scrutiny during her presidential campaign, but she nonetheless is expected to highlight her career as a prosecutor. The campaign slogan in her announcement video is “For the People,” which campaign advisers said was a nod to her rising in court to say, “Kamala Harris, for the people.”
In her first remarks after announcing her presidential campaign, Harris described the criminal justice system as “horribly flawed” and in need of change. Yet, she said, all communities also support law enforcement.
“There is a lot of work to do, but to suggest it’s one or the other, I don’t buy that,” she said.
In 2014, she married Doug Emhoff, a media, entertainment and intellectual property partner, with two children from his earlier marriage.
Harris’s Senate colleagues Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) have announced presidential bids. Among those expected to join the race are Democratic Sens. Cory Booker (N.J.), Sherrod Brown (Ohio) and Amy Klobuchar (Minn.) Also pondering a run is Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).
In the weeks before the November elections, Harris made trips to Iowa and South Carolina, both early-voting states. She is positioned to do well in her home state, which has moved its primary from June to March 2020, as well as neighboring Nevada.
Harris has faced controversy: One of her senior advisers, Larry Wallace, resigned in December amid questions about a $400,000 lawsuit that was settled in 2017. The suit resulted from allegations that he sexually harassed a female assistant when they worked for Harris at the California Department of Justice.
Among several allegations in a lawsuit cited by the Sacramento Bee, Wallace placed a printer underneath his desk and forced his female assistant to replace ink or paper in it every day, even when she asked to move it to another location to avoid crawling under his desk in dresses or skirts.
Harris has played a prominent role as Washington confronted the #MeToo movement, and was among the first senators to call on Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) to resign last year amid allegations of misconduct.
Harris is planning to base her presidential campaign in Baltimore, with a second office in Oakland, Calif. It will be led by Juan Rodriguez, who was the manager of her 2016 Senate campaign and was also a senior adviser to California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s campaign.