“It’s Kamala,” she said. “Just think like ‘comma,’ and add a ‘la.’ ”
Co-host Joy Behar suggested the name was like Pamela, “like we’re used to.” Not quite, Harris corrected her.
As Harris opened a book tour widely seen as a precursor to a presidential campaign, she wanted to make sure everyone knows that her name, like her story, is not something this country is used to, at least in its potential presidential candidates.
In her book and on her tour, Harris is introducing herself as a candidate of nuance, a child of immigrants, a woman of color, capable of bridging the cracks in the country’s foundation because she has seen their effects firsthand.
Harris was born to an Indian mother and Jamaican father. She identifies as black and would be the first Asian American president were she to run and win. She is a former prosecutor who constantly referred to herself as California’s “top cop.” She is also a dogged advocate of criminal justice revisions.
The 54-year-old is not a presidential candidate yet — at least, not officially. A source close to the senator said Harris has not finalized plans for an announcement. As television host after television host prodded her about her plans, Harris insisted that she hasn’t decided anything, yet.
But eventual presidential candidates have long used books and tours like hers to stir national attention and establish a narrative — which is of particular importance for someone like Harris, whose national profile has grown in recent years but remains blurry. Several people attending Harris’s book event at George Washington University on Wednesday night said they knew very little about her until her hard-nosed performance at Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings seized their attention. Many of them said they came to learn more.
So she started with the name that has tripped up television hosts all week. Her parents named her Kamala, which means “lotus,” a prominent symbol in Asian cultures, she said.
“The symbolism is that the lotus flower sits on water, but never really gets wet,” Harris explained Wednesday night. “Its roots are in the mud, meaning it is grounded. One must always know where they come from.”
Yet she distanced herself from other potential candidates as much with how she tells her story as the story itself.
As she addressed a supportive crowd Wednesday night, Harris gushed with easy energy. She not so much fidgeted in her arm chair as used every inch of it, sitting back while a joke landed, sliding to the edge of her seat with her finger pointed for weightier pronouncements or for one of several condemnations of the current administration’s policies.
Often, she dispelled pretense in favor of colloquialism — as when she said of divisive rhetoric and policies, “I’m done with it,” with a casual wave of her hand. She compared President Trump’s “tantrum” over a border wall to her godson’s tantrums over his toy trains.
“You got to see both sides of her tonight,” said Karen Moon, 53, who was in the crowd. “You saw what she’s going to be like when she runs and what she’s going to be like when she’s offstage. You have to have a personality. I think she has it. You can tell she’s passionate.”
Harris wants America to trace the origins of that passion to her mother, who Harris says was her primary influence after her parents divorced. Her mother immigrated to the United States at age 19 to pursue a doctorate from the University of California at Berkeley. Her father, Jamaican immigrant and Stanford professor Donald Harris, is far less a factor in the book, although she says he remained involved in her life.
Harris traces her place in the African American community to her mother. Though Harris and her sister would often fly to India to visit family, they also were part of the African American community in Berkeley, where her mother became active in the civil rights movement. Harris recalled sitting in her stroller and listening to African American leaders speak and share their stories. For college, she headed to Howard University, the historically black university in Washington.
But Harris was not only defining her racial identity this week but also her atypical path as a politician.
She acknowledged questions might arise over her choice to become a prosecutor, as San Francisco district attorney and then as the state attorney general. Put bluntly: How could she be part of what many in her party believe is a broken, racially biased criminal justice system? In her book, Harris says her motivation was to be there for “victims of crimes committed and victims of a broken criminal justice system.”
“To be a progressive prosecutor is to understand — and act on — this dichotomy,” she wrote.
There is little else that distinguishes Harris’s policy positions from others who may run to be the Democratic presidential nominee. She has aligned with mainstream Democrats on almost every issue, from immigration to the Affordable Care Act to foreign policy.
She also cast herself as dogged in pursuing her goals. In the book and at events, she described calling then-White House chief of staff John F. Kelly’s home phone to talk about President Trump’s entry ban to demonstrate an uncompromising stance on immigration. She recounted a “shouting match” with the head of JPMorgan Chase to illustrate her willingness to stand up to big business. She brought up officiating at one of the first gay weddings in California to show her unequivocal support of LGBT rights.
As she has for much of her career, she went out of her way to avoid alienating elements of the party. When “The View” co-host Meghan McCain asked whether freshman Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) could split the party with her much-criticized suggestions for tax increases, Harris defended the congresswoman.
“No,” Harris said. “I think she’s challenging the status quo. I think that’s fantastic.”
Harris’s book, like many campaign-related biographies, is carefully curated, dodging many of the controversies she seems likely to encounter from less friendly audiences. CNN’s Jake Tapper asked her about one: the resignation of one of her top aides after accusations of sexual harassment surfaced.
“It was a very painful experience to know that something could happen in one’s office — of almost 5,000 people, granted — but that I didn’t know about it,” Harris said.
Likewise, she did not address her romantic relationship in the early 1990s with San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown. She also avoided her controversial decision as prosecutor to not immediately free Daniel Larsen, an inmate the courts had declared “actually innocent,” because his lawyers had not filed his writ of habeas corpus by the deadline.
Harris is still making introductions. At the end of her Wednesday event, moderator Jonathan Capehart asked her to read a portion of her book, one in which she explains that she wants to tell later generations that she played a role in a pivotal moment in American history.
Harris couldn’t hold back a grin as Capehart asked the obvious: “Will you tell them you ran for president?”
Harris, still smiling, reached for the children’s book she is also selling this week — “Superheroes are Everywhere.” She opened to the back cover and revealed a small mirror, one that reflected her face before she showed it to the crowd, as convincing a reply as any to the question she is poised to answer soon.
Correction: An earlier version of this article referred to Kamala Harris’s father as Douglas Harris. His name is Donald Harris.