Kamala Harris’ role in Trump resistance may matter more than her thin Senate record

Minutes after announcing she wanted to be president Monday, California Sen. Kamala Harris started facing a question likely to dog her throughout her White House run.

“What qualifies you to be commander-in-chief?” “Good Morning America” co-anchor George Stephanopoulos asked.

Fellow co-anchor Robin Roberts quickly followed up, observing that the Democratic lawmaker, had “only two years in Washington.”

“What I believe the American people want in their next commander-in-chief is someone who has leadership skills, who has experience and who has integrity and will fight on their behalf,” Harris responded. She also noted that she has served as “a leader in local government, state government and federal government.”

But while Harris spent years as a local prosecutor in the Bay Area and six years as California attorney general, she is entering just her third year in Congress. She hasn’t compiled much of a list of legislative achievements.

“Her most visible role in the Senate has been being outraged,” said Dan Schnur, a former media adviser to Republican Gov. Pete Wilson, noting Harris’ contentious, highly-publicized exchanges with Trump administration officials such as former Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh.

Yet those confrontations with an administration highly unpopular in her state, more than any signature Senate policy achievement, are likely to galvanize primary voters in California and around the country, said Schnur, who teaches political communications at the University of Southern California and U.C. Berkeley.

“For every California Democrat who votes for her because of a particular bill she sponsored, there are 100 who are going to vote for her because of her questioning of Brett Kavanaugh,” he said.

Indeed, Harris’ approval rating among the state’s likely voters rose to 55 percent shortly after the Kavanaugh hearings concluded, according to a September poll conducted by the Public Policy Institute of California. Seventy percent of Democrats approved, while 14 percent disapproved and 17 percent were unsure.

Combined with what many constituents describe as an energetic in-state operation that has cultivated ties with everyone from almond growers to tech industry behemoths to immigration reformers, Harris has some of the critical building blocks already in place to compete in California’s primary next year, which was moved up to March 3, a.k.a. Super Tuesday.

The state’s early voting is now set to begin in February, at the same time Iowa voters conduct the nation’s first presidential caucuses, giving California significant influence over who Democrats will pick as their nominee.

Leaders of nearly a dozen key industry groups and advocacy organizations as well as elected officials from California credited Harris for her hands-on approach to what’s known as “casework” for constituents and interests in her home state.

“She appears to me to be very engaged, open-minded,” said former California Secretary of Food and Agriculture Bill Lyons. And “she was helpful on several major issues with the (statewide trade group) Almond Alliance regarding trade tariff issues,” he said, including acting as a liaison with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

That type of engagement, they said, makes up for any lack of legislative accomplishments in the Senate. Many said they recognized that being one of the most junior members in the Republican-controlled Senate has limited what the 54-year-old senator can do.

“Everybody knows the moment we’re in DC. It’s just a time of blocking progress,” said Mary Creasman, CEO of the California League of Conservation Voters. Creasman noted that President Obama had a similar level of experience when the then-Illinois senator launched his presidential campaign after only two years in the Senate.

In her first two years in Washington, Harris has seen one stand-alone piece of legislation become law: A bill to expand the John Muir National Historic Site in Martinez, California.

She also succeeded in adding several noncontroversial measures into a 2018 federal aviation bill to require reviews of federal disaster response and provide relief for some disaster victims. And Harris’ proposal to update the national emergency alert system was included in a 2018 homeland security department policy bill.

Those measures address issues California has had to grapple with in recent years thanks to the calamitous wildfires that have burned through the state, but they hardly amount to a major policy breakthrough.

Harris has also worked behind the scenes to broker policy compromises that are particularly relevant to California. In 2017, she served as the point person for a handful of Democrats and some of the country’s most powerful tech companies, including Google and Facebook, negotiating on a bipartisan human trafficking bill targeting Backpage.com.

California-based tech companies, including Google and Facebook, worried the bill could undermine internet freedom.

But some anti-trafficking activists were concerned she wasn’t a more forceful supporter of the bill, after going after Backpage.com as attorney general. “She’s conspicuously absent from being a sponsor” of the bipartisan legislation, known as the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act, vice president of the National Center on Sexual Exploitation Lisa Thompson noted at the time. “That raises eyebrows.”

Ultimately, the negotiations led to a tweak in the language that both sides accepted. The president signed legislation in April 2018, and it promptly drew a legal challenge.

On many issues, however, Harris has not been at the negotiating table, opting instead to work from the outside. As Democratic Rep. Ro Khanna of Fremont observed, there is a political benefit in that. For Harris, “It’s almost an advantage to not be associated with being part of the gridlock” in Washington, Khanna pointed out.

Harris has been particularly vocal on immigration, drawing praise from advocates of undocumented immigrants.

Kerri Talbot, policy director for D.C. Immigration Hub, an umbrella organization helping coordinate pro-immigration activists, told The Bee last year that Harris has earned a reputation as “the champion for this on the left.”

As Harris pointed out then, California is home to the nation’s largest number of DACA recipients or “Dreamers” — undocumented immigrants brought to the country as children who were granted legal status by the Obama administration. President Trump has tried to end the program.

“They must be seen and heard, and I feel a very strong sense of responsibility to use every component of power that I have ... to educate the public to make sure they are seen and not vilified,” she told The Bee.

Harris’ crusading style, in hearing rooms and at protests, has drawn accusations from Republicans of grandstanding.

But in California, the epicenter of the so-called ‘resistance’ to President Trump, that approach plays well with many voters and advocacy groups.

Steve Smith, spokesman for the California Labor Federation, one of the state’s most influential unions, said Harris has been “active on the things we care about,” advocating for policies like a $15 minimum wage and universal healthcare.

While those proposals don’t have a prayer of becoming law under President Trump, Californians “really appreciate that as a junior senator she has really stepped up and become one of the (administration’s) vocal critics,” Smith said.

Editor’s note: This story has been edited to correct the number of years that Harris served as California attorney general.

Emily Cadei works out of the McClatchy Washington bureau, where she covers national politics and writes the Impact2020 newsletter. A native of Sacramento, she has spent more than a decade in D.C. reporting on U.S. elections, Congress and foreign affairs for publications including Newsweek, Congressional Quarterly and Roll Call.
Kate Irby is based in Washington, D.C. and reports on issues important to McClatchy’s California newspapers, including the Sacramento Bee, Fresno Bee and Modesto Bee. She previously reported on breaking news in D.C., politics in Florida for the Bradenton Herald and politics in Ohio for the Cleveland Plain Dealer.