Kamala Harris: Detroit is 'litmus test' for United States

Leonard N. Fleming
The Detroit News

Detroit — The California senator who wants to be president was locked in. Kamala Harris listened intently as Detroit security guard Delores McDaniel described the hardship of trying to make ends meet. 

They laughed. They sighed. Then Harris, clad in white Converse sneakers, jumped on a city bus with McDaniel to get a better feel for the SecurAmerica employee's life as she campaigns for and backs proposals in Congress to try to make it easier for workers to unionize and seek better pay and benefits.

The campaign event came after Harris sparred in Detroit the night before with nine other Democratic presidential hopefuls, including former Vice President Joe Biden. It capped a a week of mostly quiet visits to the Motor City as she makes a serious play for Michigan. 

Experts say while Sen. Kamala Harris has to overcome some challenges, she’s been gaining credibility as a major Democratic presidential contender.

"I love the people of this town and this state," Harris told The Detroit News in a recent interview. "The history of Michigan, the history of Detroit, is America's history. A couple of my best friends in life were from Detroit. I learned about Cass Tech before I ever even visited Detroit. It is familiar to me, I care about it, it is a litmus test for our country, and so I intend to compete hard here."

Michigan "is an important state to win and I will be spending a lot of time here," she said.

The 54-year-old former attorney general of California has emerged as one of the top five polling candidates in a field of 25 hopefuls. Harris tried to capitalize on her successful attacks against Biden in a June Miami debate by campaigning in Detroit from July 25 to Aug. 2 with one quick jaunt to Indiana. But every night was spent in Metro Detroit.

She was in the front row at R&B singer Maxwell's July 27 concert at the Aretha Franklin Amphitheater. She attended Cyclebar spin classes the weekend before the July 31 debate at the Fox Theatre. And she toured the city's Avenue of Fashion on July 29.

Harris spent much of the Detroit debate on the defensive, dealing with attacks from Biden and U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, among others. But supporters and political analysts said they still consider her a strong candidate.

As the vice president of America's first black president, Biden remains a favorite in Detroit's predominantly African-American community, and leaders have praised his civil rights record. But as the only black female candidate in the Democratic race, Harris is hoping to make inroads in the city.

Endorsements gained

Harris picked up the endorsements of the Michigan Democratic Party's Black Caucus and U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence, D-Southfield. She is hoping to win a state where Vermont U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders prevailed over Hillary Clinton in 2016. The Rev. Jesse Jackson won the Democratic presidential caucuses in 1988, becoming the first African American to win Michigan.

Harris has been gaining credibility as a major contender. Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel told President Donald Trump that she could pose a threat in Michigan, according to Politico.

Harris talks with Angela Williams, a security officer, in Detroit. The Democrat supports proposals in Congress to try to make it easier for workers to unionize and seek better pay.

But Harris has to overcome challenges, local and national experts said. She is a former prosecutor trying to appeal to minority communities affected by aggressive law enforcement and faces stiff competition for moderate white voters from Biden and for liberal voters by Sanders and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren.

"I think what she's doing is textbook. She has to spend time in urban areas, especially in places like Detroit that is the comeback city of the nation," said Mario Morrow, a longtime political consultant based in Detroit. "She's got to improve her name recognition. Just because she's been out there for a while doesn't necessarily mean that Mom and Pop in Detroit and Flint and Saginaw know who she is."

Harris' focused campaigning in Detroit was "powerful," Morrow said.

Still, the senator "has an uphill battle given that she's a woman and former prosecutor," he said. "In an urban area, prosecutor to some degree is a bad word."

Harris can overcome many obstacles if she spends enough time here and hires the right staff to get her message out, Morrow said.

"The mistake that these candidates make is they spend time, but they don't spend the money," said Morrow, whose clients have included former Detroit City Council member Gil Hill, state Rep. Martha Scott and former Gov. Jennifer Granholm. "If she has the right formula, the right campaign staff, spends the time and spends the money, I will not count her out."

The Michigan groundwork by Harris is "paying dividends" with the recent endorsements, said Andrew Gillum, the former mayor of Tallahassee who ran unsuccessfully for Florida governor in 2018.

U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris, D-California, shares a moment on  July 29 with Jonathan Merritt, owner of the Narrow Way Cafe and Shop in Detroit. The Democratic presidential hopeful visited a cafe and bakery along Livernois Avenue in northwest Detroit ahead of her presidential debate at the Fox Theatre.

"It's a very diverse state here in Michigan, it's a crowded field...," said Gillum, who was in Detroit two weeks ago as a CNN debate analyst. "This is a state you may be able to carry with 35 to 40% of the vote."

But Sanders will win Michigan, said Cornel West, the famed Princeton University professor and a Sanders supporter going back to the 2016 race. He said he would "be very surprised" if Harris could pull it out.

 "He speaks to the fundamental issues of working people and poor people," said West, a prominent African-American activist. "Kamala is a very talented sister, but she's very much tied to the upper middle class and big money. The days of the old black establishment, which is tied to the larger establishment, are unraveling."

Challenges confront Harris

Keith Williams is a big Harris fan and was a central reason why the Michigan Democratic Party's Black Caucus endorsed her. While he's heard the critics in the minority community who lambaste her record as a prosecutor, the chairman of the black caucus said "her job was to prosecute."

"If Jesse (Jackson) did it, it can happen again," said Williams, a former Wayne County commissioner. "To me, she's got to talk about hope and opportunity for African Americans in this community, education, health care and I think she can find an opening.

"If she speaks to the heart of black people, she can win Michigan. I keep telling people this, don't write her off."

Harris could gain primary votes on the more conservative west side of Michigan given her law-and-order background that includes a stint as a district attorney, he said, "but she's got to do it with a softer touch."

Challenges remain for Harris, said Adolph Mongo, a longtime political consultant for Detroit mayoral candidates going back to the late Coleman Young. 

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris speaks to SEIU Local 1 members and families at a rally in Hart Plaza in Detroit on July 24.

Unlike Jackson in 1988, Harris faces a crowded field that includes five other women, said Mongo, who attended the Detroit debates and was impressed by Harris.

"You've got Elizabeth Warren, you've got a lot of other factors," Mongo said. "You've black people in Detroit saying they support Marianne Williamson because she threw reparations on the table. That's her problem, other women."

Law enforcement candidates have a harder time getting elected to higher office, "and that's something that she's got to overcome," particularly with African-American voters, he added.

But attending the Maxwell concert played well with Detroiters, Mongo said.

"That was a good move," he said. "If she's on the ballot (in March), a lot of people going to vote for her."


(313) 222-2620