Ask Sen. Kamala Harris about her aspirations for higher office and you’ll get an unsatisfying answer.
“I have aspirations to get through this interview,” the California Democrat says with a belly laugh.
One year into her stint in the Senate, the Democratic Party's newest rising star — and one of its most buzzed-about potential 2020 hopefuls — has cut a profile that offers few clues about her political aspirations. Expectations for her are especially high given that Harris hails from California, the center of the resistance engaged in an ongoing battle with the Trump administration.
Sitting with POLITICO reporters in her Capitol office last week for a rare extended interview, she offered detailed, philosophical answers largely devoid of the partisan talking points of other new Senate arrivals plainly eyeing the White House. In response to a softball question about GOP inaction on guns and immigration, she spoke at length without uttering the word "Republicans." Though she's not above taking swipes at President Donald Trump, Harris appears more at home working with Senate Republicans than wrangling with them.
Harris has also accumulated attention-grabbing moments on the job, such as when she skewered Attorney General Jeff Sessions over Russia and when she bucked her own party leadership on a major immigration compromise, arguing that it gave away too much to the president.
But the former prosecutor has developed a reputation as a serious-minded lawmaker who bones up on policy and can engage on substance. The 53-year-old freshman senator's reluctance to engage in daily partisan warfare with congressional Republicans could be read as a canny political strategy — or a sign that she's settling in for a lengthy Senate career rather than the rough and tumble of a presidential campaign.
No one seems to know the answer for sure, including Harris herself.
Unlike Senate Democrats such as Kirsten Gillibrand of New York or Chris Murphy of Connecticut, who have insisted they aren’t running for president, Harris’ light-hearted answer isn’t a “no.”
“I have seen so many people along the way focused on that thing out there, and they trip over the thing in front of them. And the thing in front of us is so important,” Harris said. “I’m going to let everybody else sit around and think about things that have yet to approach."
But watching her performance in the Senate so far, some Republicans are convinced she’s laying the groundwork for a national campaign. “Kinda looks like it,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), who said her pointed questioning style on the Judiciary Committee often seems like a competition between her and Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), another possible 2020 contender.
California’s senior Democratic senator, for one, hopes to see her “good friend” stick around. “There’s a certain degree of staying power” required to succeed in the Senate, Dianne Feinstein said in an interview, “because it gets tedious.”
Would Harris make a good president? It's "too early" to tell, Feinstein said.
Harris, who drew criticism as San Francisco’s district attorney when she refused to seek the death penalty in a high-profile murder case despite pleas from Feinstein and other top Democrats, is already more accessible than some other Democrats in the presidential conversation.
Unlike Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who studiously avoid the Capitol press corps, Harris is willing to hold court with reporters, if not for long. In a more relaxed setting, Harris offered a relatable glimpse of her personality — the intellectual attorney general-turned-senator who also loves foul-mouthed Bay Area rapper Too Short.
After seeing a picture of a reporter’s newborn, Harris shared a decidedly unpresidential memory of helping her younger sister Maya (a former top campaign aide to Hillary Clinton) potty train her niece while in the thick of law school.
“I’m dealing with this brutal stuff, dog-eat-dog in school, and then I would come home and we would all stand by the toilet and wave bye to a piece of shit,” Harris recalled. “It will put this place in perspective.”
Booker attributes Harris’ emergence to a recognition that with Trump so often consuming the capital’s oxygen, Democrats can’t afford to just keep their heads down — as Booker himself did during the Obama era. And Harris is also beginning to separate herself from a crowded field of liberal senators who often are in lockstep on issues like climate change and health care.
Her biggest step in that direction came last month when Democratic leaders tried to corral the caucus behind a bipartisan immigration deal. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) kept all but three of his members — Harris and New Mexico’s two senators — on board with a compromise that offered billions for Trump’s border wall.
When Schumer gathered liberal senators before the vote, Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) endorsed the compromise and its path to citizenship for young immigrants. And the rest of the party’s left flank seemed to fall in line, according to two sources familiar with the meeting.
But Harris kept everyone guessing.
Ultimately, she voted against the bill, waiting until the rest of her liberal colleagues had already supported it. She described the "difficult decision" as a statement on the issue, not a rebuke to her leadership.
“I needed to reconcile the various benefits and shortcomings of that and I decided that, for me, the benefits did not outweigh the shortcomings," Harris said.
Her move did not come without a cost. Harris briefly angered Schumer and undercut other Democrats looking to strike an elusive deal on immigration.
“She did some damage with her colleagues,” said one Democratic senator, who insisted on anonymity.
The immigration compromise fell well short of 60 votes, so Harris' vote was not decisive. Democratic leaders are hopeful that Harris will be there when they need her, said Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.).
But her boldness in going against what Murphy now calls a "terrible compromise" didn’t go unnoticed by her fellow progressive icons.
“I appreciate her speaking out very forcefully and being a leader on issues like immigration,” Sanders said in an interview. Still, in this instance, it was the Democratic socialist Sanders who compromised, and Harris who refused to.
Harris won’t be pinned down on how she'll vote in the future on border wall proposals. She said she doesn’t judge colleagues who backed the immigration deal.
She’s also pragmatic about her party’s dilemma in the midterms: While Democrats try to hone their anti-Trump identity, they are also trying to reelect 10 Senate Democrats from states the president won. Harris wants to be a part of the campaign to save her party’s endangered moderates and is enthusiastically backing Feinstein against a liberal challenger.
And Harris is prepared to campaign for senators whose views on climate change, immigration and social issues diverge from her own. Her extensive fundraising efforts for Senate Democrats facing reelection have netted more than $2.5 million so far, according to her aides.
The relationships she's cultivating with fellow Democrats of all stripes could pay big political dividends, whether she chooses to rise through the Senate ranks or run for president.
She drank Michigan bourbon with centrist Sen. Gary Peters of Michigan during a "down-to-earth" policy chat in his office. And she’s pals with Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, probably the most conservative Democrat in the Senate.
Harris and Manchin sit next to each other on the Senate Intelligence Committee and have starkly different views of Trump, whom Manchin often embraces and Harris regularly blasts.
Though she describes “big-tent party” as a “loaded term,” Harris seems to recognize that Democrats need moderates like Manchin if they ever want to take back Washington. She said she has "a great deal of respect" for the West Virginia senator and would travel to his state to campaign for him.
Beyond boosting Democratic prospects for the midterms, Harris is putting in hours of work that the public will never see. Investigating Russian meddling in the 2016 election sits alongside immigration atop her priority list, and colleagues say that in private she’s heads-down diligent about that work.
“She’s very serious … and I have not seen her be particularly partisan,” said Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), who sits on the Intelligence panel with Harris.
That policy work has helped Harris forge bonds with some of the Democrats she may find on the same debate stage in a presidential primary. Warren endorsed Harris’ Senate bid early and worked with her on California housing issues. Just this week, Gillibrand introduced Harris to two Nigerian girls affected by Boko Haram.
The New Yorker said that “I certainly don’t see” their relationship as competitive. “I see us as allies. And two people working toward the same goal.”
Just as Gillibrand did on the Armed Services Committee, Harris is using her seats on the influential Judiciary and Intelligence panels to boost her national profile with sharp-edged questioning of Trump officials. Her commanding presence is already welcomed by fellow liberals, who say they need all the help they can get under Trump.
"She's hit the ground and been an impact player right away," Booker said of Harris. "She's letting her voice be heard, and frankly she's a voice ... the Senate has urgently needed for a long time."