Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., speaks at a campaign event in Portsmouth, N.H., Monday, Feb. 18, 2019. (AP/Elise Amendola)

California's Kamala Harris distances herself from Bernie Sanders: "I am not a democratic socialist"

Sanders, who identifies as a democratic socialist, won in New Hampshire in 2016 by more than 20 percentage points


Shira Tarlo
February 19, 2019 4:51PM (UTC)

Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., on Monday distanced herself from democratic socialism when asked by a reporter if she would be able to compete in the Democratic Party's presidential primary in 2020 in states like New Hampshire, where progressives including Sens. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts have maintained a following.

Harris was asked about the leftist ideology during her first trip to New Hampshire as a presidential candidate, a state where Sanders, who identifies as a democratic socialist, defeated former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2016 by more than 20 percentage points.

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"Well, the people of New Hampshire will tell me what's required to compete in New Hampshire, but I will tell you I am not a democratic socialist," Harris told reporters during a campaign stop. Sanders' label has been embraced by some high-profile Democrats, including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y.

"I believe that what voters do want is – they want to know that whoever is going to lead understands that in America today not everyone has an equal opportunity and access to a path to success," Harris told reporters. "And that that has been building up over decades, and we've got to correct course."

"When we have an America where almost half of American families cannot afford a $400 emergency, we know that we've got to do some course correction," she added. "When we have an America where 99 percent of the counties in the United States of America – if you're a minimum wage worker working full time – you can't afford market rate for a one bedroom apartment, we need to course correct."

"And those are my commitments in terms of being able to be in a position where one, I see it, but also I intend to do something," she said.

Sanders, a national progressive firebrand, launched a second straight bid for the Democratic presidential nomination on Tuesday. He is the latest progressive candidate to enter the very crowded 2020 Democratic field that already includes Sens. Cory Booker of New Jersey, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Kamala Harris of California, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts; Reps. John Delaney of Maryland and Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii; former secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro and South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg. Most recent polls have found that the frontrunner is a candidate who has not yet officially announced a bid: former Vice President Joe Biden.

For her part, Harris, 54, made history in 2016 when she became the first biracial woman, the first Indian-American woman and the second black woman to be elected to serve in Congress' upper chamber. She previously served as California's attorney general before her election to the Senate, where she has emerged as a force to be reckoned with. The rising Democratic star drew national attention late last year for the pointed questions she asked Brett Kavanaugh before his confirmation to serve as an associate justice on the U.S. Supreme Court. Notably, the success of women and non-white Democrats in the 2018 midterm elections could boost Harris' prospects as a candidate who could appeal to female and African-American voters —two voting blocs that are critical to Democrats' path to reclaiming the Oval Office.

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Since she jumped into the 2020 race last month, Harris has come under renewed scrutiny for her criminal justice record, as fellow Democrats have questioned whether she was, in fact, a "progressive prosecutor" during her years as a San Francisco district attorney and later as California's attorney general. Harris, meanwhile, defended her prosecutorial record, telling CNN last month that she has been "consistent my whole career."

During her campaign stop in New Hampshire, Harris on Monday pledged to spend "a lot of time" in the first-in-the-nation primary state. "I'm here because I believe that this is a very important state, and I intend to spend a lot of time here, and I intend to compete for the votes here and I'm going to put a lot of effort into doing that," Harris said after she was asked if the state was a lower priority for her than the other early-voting states in the primary and caucus calendar.

"It's an important state. It is a state of people who have a lot of needs and need to be seen and heard," she said. "It is certainly a state of informed folks who care about the process and are engaged in the process, and I want to be here to answer the questions that are posed and also to listen as much as I talk."


Shira Tarlo

Contact Shira Tarlo at shira.tarlo@salon.com. Follow @shiratarlo.

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