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Sen. Kamala Harris Considers 'A Collection Of Factors' Related To Possible 2020 Bid

Jan 7, 2019
Originally published on January 8, 2019 10:52 am

As possible 2020 presidential candidates start announcing exploratory committees, there's talk that Sen. Kamala Harris may be on the verge of launching herself into the ring.

On Tuesday, her memoir The Truths We Hold hits shelves. In it, the California Democrat ticks through her résumé and credentials, while mixing in a look at her upbringing and family life.

Harris spoke with NPR on a number of wide-ranging topics, from her mother to her views on the death penalty and the Kavanaugh hearings to whether Joe Biden would make a good president. But she didn't commit to a presidential run herself.

Here are some highlights from the discussion.

People like you write books like this mostly when they are getting ready to launch a campaign — it's a "get to know me on a national level."

I have not made up my mind. There are a collection of factors to consider ... they include my family, they include the need for real leadership in this country and whether I can provide that leadership. So there are a number of factors, but I will keep you posted. But I am not prepared to make any announcement at the moment.

Much of the book is framed around your mother. How does introducing her to your readers help them understand you?

My mother was a force of nature. She was somebody who really committed her life to the service of others. She is and was somebody who was incredibly smart but incredibly loving at the same time. These things coexisted with my mother. And there's so much that I learned from her that we would call values and principals, and reason for being.

Many people will not know that your mom was an immigrant from India. Why did she come to the U.S.?

My mother was 19 when she graduated college. She wanted to study science. She went to her father, my grandfather, and my grandmother and said, "I want to go and study at one of the best schools for that." And my grandfather, who had an arranged marriage to my grandmother, and this was in the 1950s that my mother approached them, my mother said she wanted to go and study at UC Berkeley California and my grandfather said go. And so they put her on a plane, and this is when transcontinental travel was not very common, she had never been to the United States. But my grandfather was really quite progressive, and he said to his eldest child who was his daughter, my mother: "You go and you study."

Truth be told, I believe that the plan was that she would then get that degree and come back and have a good arranged marriage in India, but my mother being who she was, the daughter of a father who fought for India's independence, she was naturally attracted to the civil rights movement that was exploding all over the United States — but also in the Bay Area... She became very involved in the civil rights movement, and met my father. Instead of going back to India and having an arranged marriage, she had a marriage based on love. And that really was, in many ways, an ultimate act of courage and optimism and really set in place the foundation for how I think of the world.

As you mentioned, they were both activists — met during the civil rights movement. In light of that, did you ever consider representing marginalized people as a defender? Why did you decide to be a prosecutor?

At a very young age, I knew I wanted to be a lawyer. And mostly because the heroes among many of the civil rights movements were the lawyers. These individuals who understood the skill of the profession of law to translate the passion from the streets to courtrooms of our country and do the work that we know must constantly be done of reminding people of that promise we articulated in 1776, that we're all equal and should be treated that way.

My family and extended family thought, at best, it was a curious decision and with some of them I had to defend the decision like one would a thesis.

Why did they not expect that from you?

They said, "Why would you go and be a part of an institution that is not always fair and does not always pursue justice?" Some would call it the persecutors office, not the prosecutor's office. ... Law enforcement has such a profound and direct impact on the most vulnerable among us. And there is a duty and a responsibility to be a voice for the most voiceless and vulnerable and to do the work of justice. And that's the work I wanted to do. ... It is also understanding that the victims of crime come from the same communities as those who have been treated unfairly. The victims of crime deserve a voice. I, for a while, specialized in child sexual assault cases. I'm gonna tell you, prosecuting those cases were extraordinarily difficult and some of the most important work I did.

You have been criticized by some on the left over the death penalty, for defending the death penalty. How to you explain your position?

To be clear, I am personally opposed to the death penalty. I have always been — and I remain — opposed to the death penalty. I believe for a number of reasons that it is a flawed system both in terms of the way that it has been applied historically, which is disproportionately against people of color and poor people.

But you still think there's a place for it.

No. I don't. But as attorney general of the state of California, I had a constitutional responsibility to represent my clients. And one of my clients happened to be the California department of corrections and the district attorneys of California who did seek, in many jurisdictions, a death penalty sentence.

Going back to the Brett Kavanaugh hearings, do you regret how that unfolded for her [Christine Blasey Ford]?

What I regret about her experience is that she was treated as though she was on trial. She was not on trial. She had done nothing wrong. ... She decided that what she had known needed to be known by the decision-makers. So she reached out to her member of Congress, to make sure that those people who have the responsibility for vetting this guy knew this thing that she knew. And she wanted to remain anonymous because it was never about her. She initiated all that visited her in the ensuing months because she felt an obligation as a citizen to make sure that those who are in a position of power and responsibility had all the information.

And what ended up happening was a circus. What ended up happening was she was vilified for doing what she believed was the right thing to do. And again, having personally prosecuted sexual assault cases, I was incredibly disappointed and frustrated by the lack of information that leaders have about the nature of these kinds of issues like sexual assault. And how they treated her, I thought was regrettable and really unfortunate. And I have nothing but praise for her and her courage, including what it did, which was require people to have a national conversation about an issue that is seldom discussed — and impacts a wide range of people in all genders, in every socioeconomic background, race, religion and ethnicity.

Big picture question: Why do you think Donald Trump won?

I'll give you a crude analysis. I mean, if we had hour upon hours, I could get into much more depth and specificity. But here's my take on it: Over the last 10 years in our country, at least, we've seen an incredible amount of change — the Great Recession, the term "Great Depression" was already taken. But in America, then and today, people are literally walking around with the proverbial tin cup. Economic upheaval like we have not seen in generations. People lost their homes, they lost their jobs, many of whom will never be able to buy a home or have a permanent job again. People are reading about the browning of America and the immigrants are coming. And we had Barack Obama as president and then we had a women running as president and we had a Jew running for president and gay people can marry and: "Oh my God, Oh my God." And then you talk about the impact of technology and automation ...

There's an incredible amount of change that has happened in a relatively short period of time, and it has understandably had a lot of people feeling displaced, wondering and asking a question about where do they fit in, their relevance, are they obsolete. I think it brings into question questions of identity. What does it mean to be an American? What does it mean to be a productive American? What does it mean to be a breadwinner or the leader of a household? And people are also resentful of this change and where will they fit into it and will this include them. And [Trump] read it accurately. And then he took it to the lowest common denominator. [He said] it is us versus them instead of what real leadership would be about — which is to read it and say, "Hey everybody, We're all in this together. And my vision of the future includes you. You are in my vision of the future. We will get through this together."

You mention in your book about your relationship with a former attorney general of Delaware, Beau Biden, who passed away a few years ago of cancer. You call him an incredible friend. Do you think his father, Joe Biden, would make a good president?

I think there are many people who would make a good president. And I got to know Joe as a person through Beau. They had an incredibly special relationship. It was really very special. I'm very fond of Joe Biden, so you're not gonna hear me criticize Joe Biden. I think he's a great guy.

I started with an assumption about why you wrote this book, but I'm going to end by just asking you, what did you want to communicate?

The election of November 2016 — obviously it was a national election for president, but it was also the night I was elected to the United States Senate. And as I write in the book, even just that night, which was the impetus for writing this book, I was experiencing our election and watching on the monitors this thing happen to our country. And I write about how my godson came up to me crying, "Auntie Kamala, this man can't win." And he was afraid. And people were afraid. And my speech, impromptu that night, was we must fight. And that there is so much worth fighting for. And I wrote the book to talk about that.

Do you think your mom would want you to run for president?

I think my mother would want me to do whatever she thought I wanted to do. My mother, I write about it in the book, when she was in the hospital — and it was when I was just starting my race for attorney general — she had, at that point, disassociated from many things. She was turning things off. She was otherwise a voracious reader and passionate. She'd scream at the TV when necessary, when some debate was happening. And she was laying with her face turning the other way so her back was where I was, because I was just spending time with her. And then she said, "Kamala, How's the race coming along?" And I said, "Well Mommy, they say they're gonna kick my ass." And she turned around in the bed and looked at me with this big smile across her face — and that says it all.

Sydney Harper and Peter Granitz produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Milton Guevara adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Senator Kamala Harris' new book, "The Truths We Hold," is out today. It is the type of book that usually precedes a presidential run.

Have you made up your mind as to whether or not you're going to run for president?

KAMALA HARRIS: I have not made up my mind, but I will. I will. And I'll do that soon.

MARTIN: Do you know the criteria that you still need to put together before you do that?

HARRIS: Well, there's a collection of factors to consider, but I will keep you posted. But I am not prepared to make any announcement at this moment. (Laughter).

MARTIN: Let me know if you change your mind by the end of the conversation.

HARRIS: (Laughter) I will. (Laughter).

MARTIN: Her book reads part policy prescription, part memoir. And early in our conversation, I asked her why she decided to become a prosecutor.

HARRIS: My family and extended family thought, at best, it was a curious (laughter) decision. And with some of them, I honestly had to defend the decision like one would a thesis.

MARTIN: What did they tell you? Why did they not...

HARRIS: They said...

MARTIN: ...Accept that from you?

HARRIS: Well, because they said, why would you go and be a part of an institution that is not always fair and does not always pursue justice? And my point then - and certainly my point today, after a career as a prosecutor and a career in law enforcement - is that if we want to change or improve or reform systems, yes, there's no question there is a role and a responsibility and an impact to be had from being on the outside. But there is also a power that one can have by being inside and at the table where the decisions are being made.

MARTIN: You have been criticized by some on the left side of your party over the death penalty, for defending the death penalty after opposing it as district attorney for San Francisco then as attorney general defending it. How do you explain your position? How do you defend it to progressives who say it's immoral, it's ineffective?

HARRIS: So to be clear, I am personally opposed to the death penalty. I have always been, and I remain opposed to the death penalty. I believe, for a number of reasons, that it is a flawed system both in terms of the way that it has been applied historically, which is disproportionately against people of color and poor people, I know that it is a system for which the defenders would say it creates some deterrent. But in my experience, when somebody is about to pull the trigger of that gun, they're not sitting there thinking about whether it's going to be life without possibility of parole or the death penalty.

MARTIN: But you still think there's a place for it?

HARRIS: No. I don't. But as attorney general of the state of California, I had a constitutional responsibility to represent my clients. And one of my clients happened to be the California Department of Corrections and the District Attorneys of California.

MARTIN: I'm going to ask a big-picture question that I don't know if everyone has heard you articulate an answer to. Why do you think Donald Trump won?

HARRIS: I'll give you a crude analysis. Over the last 10 years in our country, at least, we've seen an incredible amount of change. People are reading about the browning of America, and the immigrants are coming. And we had Barack Obama as president, and then we had a woman running for president. And gay people can marry, and - oh, my God. Oh, my God.

So there's an incredible amount of change that has happened in a relatively short period of time. And it has, understandably, left a lot of people feeling displaced, wondering and asking a question about where do they fit in. And he read it. He read it accurately.

MARTIN: You give him credit for that?

HARRIS: He read it accurately. And then he took it to the lowest common denominator.

MARTIN: Hillary Clinton characterized Trump supporters as a basket of deplorables. How would you characterize people who supported Donald Trump?

HARRIS: I think that there are a lot of different people who supported Donald Trump, and I am not going to put them in any one category because it's as diverse a group as we are Americans.

MARTIN: The front page of The New York Times on Sunday had an article titled as follows. "Democrats Puzzle Over Whether A Woman Will Beat Trump." Have you heard this kind of question? Do people actually say this out loud in the Democratic Party? Do they whisper it?

HARRIS: (Laughter). Well, I will tell you, in my career, people whisper it. They murmur it. They speak it. Sometimes they shout it. (Laughter). I've heard it for every office I've run for. When I ran to be district attorney in San Francisco, challenging an incumbent - you know, people have notions about what and who San Francisco is. They think it's this progressive town of, you know, forward-thinking people. Well, yeah. Yeah, there are a lot, but there had never been a woman to be district attorney of San Francisco when I ran. And many told me, there's never been anyone like you, and people aren't probably ready for you.

MARTIN: So this idea that America is not ready, look what happened to Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. You know, he's got all these white male voters who are really...

HARRIS: I heard it again...

MARTIN: ...In his base.

HARRIS: ...When I ran for attorney general of California. You can best believe people said they're not ready for you to be the top cop of this state. But I won. I won because I didn't listen.

MARTIN: Do you think that makes you more appealing to voters in swing states or states that went explicitly for Donald Trump?

HARRIS: If I run, we'll see. (Laughter).

MARTIN: You mention in your book about your relationship with the former attorney general of Delaware, Beau Biden...

HARRIS: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...Who passed away a few years ago of cancer. The two of you would talk sometimes several times a day, you write, during the mortgage crisis that you were both dealing with. You call him an incredible friend. Do you think his father, Joe Biden, would make a good president?

HARRIS: I think there are many people who would make a good president. And I got to know Joe, as a person, through Beau. They had an incredibly special relationship. You're not going to hear me criticize Joe Biden. I think he's a great guy.

MARTIN: He has said recently that he just doesn't see people out there in the Democratic field as early as it is who could actually beat Donald Trump, and until he sees that, he's still considering running. What do you make of that?

HARRIS: I think that everyone who wants to run should run.

MARTIN: Let me ask about this current moment. There are - some of your Democratic colleagues in the House are talking quite openly about impeachment. Have you at this point seen anything that would rise to the level of impeachment?

HARRIS: Well, I'm on Senate Intelligence Committee, and so there is nothing that I can talk with you about that relates to what happens there and what we've heard. But I will say this. I feel very strongly that we have to do everything we possibly can to protect Bob Mueller and his ability to see his investigation through. And that needs to be the first and highest priority, as far as I'm concerned.

MARTIN: Senator Kamala Harris of California, thank you so much for your time.

HARRIS: Thank you. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.