WASHINGTON — The toughest ticket to score in the nation’s capital on Wednesday morning was one that, under normal circumstances, you would hardly expect.
On the 10th floor at the Center for American Progress, the venerable center-left think tank, several hundred policy wonks, reporters from the major networks and news outlets, Hill staffers and other attendees squeezed into a modest meeting room for an event titled “Eliminating Racial Disparities in Maternal and Infant Mortality,” a woefully under-covered yet critical subject. Surely, some in the room had come to hear from a serious panel of experts about a grave public-health crisis playing out in real time across this country. But many more turned out because of who headlined the event: Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA), the Trump-era star of the Democratic Party who is expected to announce her candidacy for the presidency next year.
It was Harrismania. The audience spilled out into the hallways, and the waitlist stretched to more than 100 names. Harris herself entered to huge applause and gave a tight, 10-minute set of remarks. She plugged a piece of legislation intended to tackle the mortality crisis afflicting black mothers and their infants. She tested out what sounded like a possible 2020 slogan. It was the kind of appearance we’re seeing a lot of from possible Democratic presidential contenders, and one that illustrated both the promise and the weakness of a future Harris candidacy.
Two years into her first term as a U.S. senator, Harris commands a massive following, both on her own (a combined two million Twitter followers across her official and personal accounts) and with the Beltway media at large. Just by showing up, she catches the mayfly attention (cough, cough) of the political press corps, pulling reporters away from the latest Trump whatever, bringing much needed coverage to other important issues, such as today’s.
The mortality rates of American black mothers and their babies are staggering and shameful. Harris was moving and convincing when laying out the extent of the problem, and the urgency needed to solve it. “It is a truth that we will speak that black women in America are three-to-four times more likely to die than white women because they choose to become mothers and want to raise those children to be productive members of society,” she said. The United States, she noted, is one of 13 countries in the world where the rates of pregnancy-related illness and death are worse than they were 25 years ago. “This is a truth we must speak,” she said, “so that we can deal with it.”
Harris’ mother was a scientist and breast cancer researcher, and her own interest in health and gender dates back to her childhood, she explained. She recalled the time her mother came home from the lab furious about a doctor who had walked the halls and showed off a tray with a woman’s breast on it that had been removed during a mastectomy. She said she remembered her mother, one of the very few women in the lab, saying to her, “I wonder if it had been a penis, would he have been walking around that way?”
By this point in the story, the audience had gone silent. “It sounds like an extreme example,” Harris said, “but it is an example of what we need to do to understand that women in the health care system must be given dignity. They must be listened to. They must be taken seriously. They must be given respect.” The crowd was in the palm of her hand.
A Harris 2020 run would aim to seize the mantle of truth — her forthcoming book is titled The Truths We Hold — particularly when you consider who she’d be up against in the general election. On Wednesday, her delivery felt genuine and real, backed up by the fact that she’s co-sponsored legislation to address some of the root causes of the maternal mortality crisis, like implicit racial bias in health care delivery and medical school.
As Harris wrapped up the speech, she paused and tried out what sounded like a new slogan. “I’ve found myself saying recently that, if something’s worth fighting for, it’s a fight worth having.”
A woman seated near the front of the room applauded vigorously. The rest of the room remained mostly silent.
Harris repeated the line: “If something’s worth fighting for, it’s a fight worth having.”
It fell flat again.
The promise, the hype and the Huh? were all on display, writ small, on Wednesday. Harris has time to try out her lines and sharpen her message — she’s said she plans to talk with her family about a presidential run over the holidays and decide by early next year. For now, she’s gotten Washington to pay attention to an issue that truly matters, one that doesn’t concern who’s up and who’s down, running or not. That, in and of itself, is a feat.