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Harris kicks off campaign by laying into Trump

Sen. Kamala Harris wrapped her campaign opener around two broad themes: truth and civility. | Tony Avelar/AP Photo

OAKLAND, Calif. — Sen. Kamala Harris, formally launching her presidential campaign against Donald Trump with a call to end the politics of division, cast herself on Sunday as a voice for progressive causes and a fighter who could stand up to the president — specifically by countering his many falsehoods with the truth.

Speaking at a raucous hometown rally here — where more than 20,000 supporters crowded around a downtown plaza and hundreds more spilled into the streets — Harris declared that American democracy was under attack like “never before.” Set against the flags of all 50 states, but delivered in a deeply divided America, the address invoked the trauma of the Watergate era of high cynicism and low confidence in Washington’s leaders.

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The California Democrat portrayed her candidacy as the antidote to a growing unease with the country’s direction today, and to concerns that core values that should define the presidency are disintegrating under Trump. She wrapped her campaign opener around two broad themes: truth and civility.

“As we embark on this campaign, I will tell you this: I am not perfect. Lord knows I am not perfect,” Harris said. “But I will always speak with decency and moral clarity and treat all people with dignity and respect. I will lead with integrity and I will speak the truth.”

With the stately backdrop of Oakland City Hall, where a preacher bellowed, a gospel choir sang and “artists of the black diaspora” performed, Harris’ dual message underscored her candidacy as one of both a Democratic uniter and a principled leader tough enough to stand up to the Trump White House, whose administration she said was failing the public.

Without ever mentioning his name, Harris repeatedly cast herself as the direct contrast to the president on a wide range of issues — from women’s and immigrants’ rights, to cybersecurity and American security abroad. Harris called out the Trump administration for what she called “bullying and attacking a free press” and putting “children in cages crying for their mothers and fathers.”

“Don’t you dare call that border security,” Harris said of the practice of separating migrant families at the border. “That’s a human rights abuse. And that’s not our America.”

“America,” she said, “we are better than this.”

Sen. Kamala Harris speaks to reporters.

Throughout the address, she turned her broader attention to this moment in time, which she called an “inflection point in the history of our nation.” Democratic values are under attack around the world, authoritarianism is on the march, nuclear proliferation is on the rise, and “we have foreign powers infecting the White House like malware,” Harris said.

Harris’ campaign designed the speech as a venue to tie her message to her biography as the daughter of a Jamaican-born father and Indian-born mother. But aides also saw it as a way for the senator to put down stakes on several progressive issues, from Medicare for all, to a $ 500-a-month tax break for the middle class paid for by rolling back the Republican tax overhaul, to guaranteed universal pre-kindergarten and debt-free college.

The Sunday setting allowed the speech to be carried live on CNN, MSNBC and Fox News. Harris’ campaign slogan — “For the People,” a nod to her background as a prosecutor — was repeated on hundreds of T-shirts, hats and bathing suits in the California crowd, and voters were invited to text the word “Fearless” to her campaign to indicate their support.

Harris said she’d spent her professional life working on behalf of victims. “My whole life, I’ve only had one client: the people,” she said.

Kamala Harris

Still, in a city famous for sometimes radical progressive politics, the backdrop of Oakland came with risks that Harris, who as state attorney general served as California’s “top cop,” would be met by protests from the far left.

Asked whether Harris’ law enforcement background could be problematic with some liberals angered about police brutality and the slow progress of criminal-justice reform, Buffy Wicks, the East Bay assemblywoman who was an architect of the Barack Obama presidential campaign’s grassroots organization, argued that Harris had the “progressive values” that remain her bona fides. “She’s made some tough calls, but she’s is driven by her heart,” Wicks said.

The rollout underscored Harris’ unusual position as a candidate who appears to fit the needs — and the image — of voters with a wide range of interests and political philosophies.

Some in the crowd, like Natalie Walker of East Palo Alto, president of the Rho Delta Omega chapter of the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority, said that Harris represented “diversity, equal access,” and pointed to the historic candidacy of someone who was only the second African-American woman to be elected to the U.S. Senate.

As a daughter of Oakland, Harris said she was raised to believe that public service is a noble cause, and that the fight for justice is everyone’s responsibility. Invoking an iconic Bob Marley tune, a nod to her own heritage, Harris drew cheers when she summed up her philosophy: “You’ve got to get up and stand up and don’t give up the fight.”

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