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Harris at NAACP dinner in Detroit: Time to 'speak truth'

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News
U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris of California, right, at the NAACP 64th Annual Fight For Freedom Fund Dinner at Cobo Center in Detroit on May 5, 2019.

Detroit — Democratic presidential candidate U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris said it's time to "speak truth" in America and called for a "new kind of leadership" as she laid out her agenda for the country if she's elected.

Harris outlined her goals, and criticisms of President Donald Trump's policies, in a keynote speech before a crowd of thousands at Cobo Center for the 64th annual Fight for Freedom Fund Dinner.

She said many Americans are "distrustful of our government, its institutions and its leaders." Truth, she said, is "something we don't get out of Washington these days."

The California senator said the moment is right for leaders "who have the courage to speak truth."

She criticized the national economy, despite unemployment figures out Friday that show the lowest unemployment rate in half a century, more than 260,000 new jobs added and higher hourly wages, saying that nearly half of American families can’t afford a $400 unexpected expense. Minimum wage workers working full time, she said, can’t afford a one-bedroom apartment, saying lower wages particularly hurt black families. 

More than a third of black children live in poverty, she told the crowd, and black infants are twice as likely to die than other babies.

Harris vowed to "pass the largest tax cut for middle class and working families in a generation” if she is elected.

“Families making less than $100,000 a year would receive $6,000 that they can access at up to $500 a month,” she said. “It will mean being able to cover that unexpected expense. It will mean food on the table, making rent, or paying for expensive prescription drugs or childcare. It will lift up one in two American households and two in three children — and 60% of black families.”

Harris added that she’ll pay for the cut by repealing Trump’s trillion-dollar tax cut that she said benefited top corporations.

Jubbar Hill of Southfield liked what he heard for Harris' plans for the working class. He said he is a supporter of her tax proposal. She'll be a strong contender in the race based on "her stance on the law and background and education," he said.

Harris also attacked Trump's health care policies, saying nearly 30 million Americans are uninsured. That will  rise, she said, because of Trump's "war to destroy Obamacare.".

“And the fastest growing group of uninsured in America? African Americans. And for me, health care isn’t about politics. It is personal,” said Harris, adding her mother, a breast cancer researcher, died of cancer.

Trump has vowed to produce a better health care plan than the Affordable Care Act and protect pre-existing conditions, but his administration's push for a repeal would remove provisions that protect pre-existing conditions. He has said Republicans will offer a plan to preserve those safeguards, but the White House hasn't provided details. 

Harris, 54, launched her campaign in January, the first black woman to join the Democratic race. She was one of the earliest high-profile Democrats in what has become a crowded field of more than 20 presidential hopefuls in the 2020 race for the White House. 

A first-term U.S. senator, Harris is the second African American woman in history elected to the Senate and was the first to serve as California's attorney general.

She has stood out for her rigorous questioning of Trump’s nominees and regained the spotlight last week during questioning of Trump's attorney general, William Barr, in his appearance for a Senate hearing on Special Counsel Robert Mueller's report.

Harris said she's a supporter of Medicare for all, so “no one has to worry about paying a bill to stay alive” and she spoke of stemming gun violence in America. She'll press for Congress, she said, to take immediate action if she's elected to the presidency. If not, she’ll take executive action to expand background checks and take licenses away from gun dealers who break the law, she said.

She also spoke of the Voting Rights Act and laws that "suppress the vote." She raised the controversy that arose with Georgia Democrat Stacey Abrams, who narrowly lost a bid last fall to become the first black woman elected governor in U.S. history, and Andrew Gillum, the former Tallahassee mayor. Without "voter suppression: Stacey Abams is Governor Stacey Abrams. Andrew Gillum is Governor Andrew Gillum."

"So the truth is, we need a new voting rights act in this country with automatic voter registration," Harris said, noting Americans have to "fight back" against Republicans "who suppress" the right to vote. 

Detroit native Tarasai Karega said she was impressed with Harris’ plans to help the working class and educators, and her focus on changing gun laws is "encouraging."

“It was my first time hearing her in person," said Karega, 31, who lives in Philadelphia and works in sales. "I'm definitely looking forward to as she move through her campaign and seeing her go to other places."

Harris, a prominent voice for civil rights, is set to visit a Dearborn public school Monday afternoon, then speak at an American Federation of Teachers town hall at Marcus Garvey Academy in Detroit.

The two-day swing is Harris’ first campaign visit to Michigan, which she called a battleground state.

Harris’ campaign has said she will “lay out her vision to restore truth and justice in America," as well as a plan "to give the average teacher a $13,500 raise by the end of her first term.”

Attendees pause for a moment of silence for the late Judge Damon Keith at the NAACP 64th Annual Fight For Freedom Fund Dinner at Cobo Center in Detroit on May 5, 2019.

On Sunday, Harris garnered applause as she talked about teachers across the country who are working two and three jobs to pay bills, and how most are taking money out of their own pockets to pay for school supplies.

"And let's be clear — there are two groups of people raising our children: parents, often with the assistance of grandparents and aunties and uncles, and our teachers," she said. "Teachers are helping to raise the next generation of leaders and we are not paying them their value."

Harris also targeted domestic terrorism, and said 2018 was the deadliest year on record for homegrown violence since the Oklahoma City Bombing two decades ago. She'll double the U.S. Justice Department's civil rights division and direct law enforcement to counter the rise in deadly extremism, from black churches and mosques to synagogues.

"If you profit off of hate," she said. "We are going to hold you accountable as a community." 

NAACP Detroit president, the Rev. Dr. Wendell Anthony, called for a continued fight to preserve healthcare, as well as placing fair and impartial judges at every level of the judicial system at at Sunday's Freedom Fund dinner.

NAACP President, the Rev. Wendell Anthony, echoed Harris' call for justice and change on Sunday. 

Addressing dinner attendees, Anthony said Trump and his administration are shredding the Constitution and corrupting the justice system.

"We must not allow anyone to steal the soul of America from the people of America,” he said. 

He said the push to preserve health care will go on, as will the drive to make the judicial system “fair and impartial, and respect the application of the law for all people.”

The Fight For Freedom Fund Dinner was launched in April 1956 beginning with former Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall as the first keynote speaker. Over the years, it has become the largest sit-down dinners, serving approximately 10,000 guests.

Past keynote speakers include former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and presidential candidates Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker last year. 

The Associated Press contributed.