AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
California Senator Kamala Harris announced her bid for the White House today and says she welcomes the large field of Democrats expected in the 2020 campaign. Harris visited her alma mater Howard University in Washington to take questions from the press. NPR political correspondent Asma Khalid was there. She joins us now. Hey there, Asma.
ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: Hey, Audie.
CORNISH: It's been clear for a while that the senator has been thinking about running. Can you talk about the timing?
KHALID: Yeah. Well, I mean, I think there is clearly a symbolic element to announcing her candidacy on MLK Day. You know, she spoke about the inspiration that she takes from the civil rights movement, the role that that movement had in her parents' lives.
But she also talks a lot about her record for pushing racial justice and pointed to a program that she led in California that she says kind of shut the revolving door in the criminal justice system. It shut down recidivism rates, so you could get people who've gotten out of jail to essentially stay out of jail.
You know, she's also out there pushing college affordability, "Medicare-for-all" - all these things that, truthfully, don't really sound that unique this cycle because, essentially, every Democrat is pushing for those things. I think what we see that's really unique in her, though, is that she is leaning into her record as a prosecutor.
CORNISH: Right. And that is meaningful because in a Democratic primary, obviously, with the progressive politics around criminal justice reform and things like that, it sounds like maybe she's trying to get ahead of it.
KHALID: That's right. I mean, she does have some concerns that young, progressive voters of color do have some concerns about the criminal justice system and policing. And she was the attorney general of California and a top prosecutor in San Francisco.
And, you know, she's talked about this. She's talked about regretting some of the decisions that she and her office had to make. But she also feels like that experience gives her insights into the problems about how, you know, we all need to fix some of those things.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
KAMALA HARRIS: There is a lot about what I did as a prosecutor that I'm proud of, including a recognition that there are fundamental flaws in the criminal justice system and that this criminal justice system needs to be reformed.
KHALID: And so, Audie, from here, she's got a rally planned on Friday with some sorority sisters in South Carolina. She'll then head to her hometown, Oakland, Calif. And then it is on to Iowa for her.
CORNISH: Now, a lot of other Democrats who are also thinking about a presidential run were out at King Day events, right? What are you hearing about them?
KHALID: Well, I was at a breakfast this morning here in Washington, D.C., with the Reverend Al Sharpton. Former Vice President Joe Biden was there. He was being honored.
And I think what's really interesting is that if Biden were to get into this race, I think there are some questions that people, specifically in different communities of color, have around his support for a '90s-era crime bill. He came closer today than I have ever heard him before in acknowledging some regrets around that. He said that it was a big mistake that was made and that it trapped an entire generation.
A lot of Democrats this election cycle are talking more and more, it seems like, about systemic racism or institutional racism. And that's also something I heard from Joe Biden today.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
JOE BIDEN: The bottom line is we have a lot to root out. But most of all, the systematic racism that most of us whites don't like to acknowledge even exists. We don't even consciously acknowledge it, but it's been built into every aspect of our system.
KHALID: And, Audie, we also heard today from a couple of women who've said that they're running for president. That's Senator Elizabeth Warren and Senator Kirsten Gillibrand. They were among several other Democrats who were out today at rallies and different events.
And what I'm noticing in listening to these candidates this year is how much more direct they seem to be willing to talk about race and racism than I've heard in previous election cycles. There's an emphasis that it seems they're putting on racism as a fairly large problem in our society.
And, you know, of course, this is MLK Day. I think we sort of expect them to talk about these issues today. But I will say it's something I've also heard in announcement videos, and even on the trail in Iowa so far.
CORNISH: That's NPR's Asma Khalid. Thank you so much for your insight.
KHALID: You're welcome.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.