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Kamala Harris and Oakland: A Love Story?

Oakland is the messy present of the Democratic party. If Kamala Harris can make it there, she can make it anywhere.
January 28, 2019
Kamala Harris and Oakland: A Love Story?
(Mason Trinca/Getty Images)

If you are looking for a campaign launch site that is a microcosm of the Democrat party itself, you could do a lot worse than Oakland, the birthplace of Kamala Harris and the site of her presidential campaign kick-off on a sunny East Bay Sunday.

Unlike Iowa and New Hampshire, the East Bay is home to every color and income group. Though its ideological diversity is slightly less expansive—Oakland gave President Trump a whopping 4.63 percent of the vote in 2016—it’s a near perfect distillation of the Democratic party’s disparate elements.

Nate Silver wrote recently about the five corners that make up the Democratic party and there’s a base from all five just a BART ride away from the Frank H. Ogawa plaza Harris campaign kickoff.

  1. Party loyalists: No Democrats are more loyal than in the Bay Area, who have been voting with the party for two generations
  2. The left: Hello Berkeley!
  3. Millennials/Cosmopolitan Friends: Plenty of Silicon Valley tech employees are now Oakland urban pioneers.
  4. Black voters: The traditional Democratic old Oakland voting block.
  5. Hispanic + Asian voters: Are now 25 percent of Oakland’s population with Chinatown just a few steps from today’s rally.

So on Sunday I took the 20 block jaunt from my slowly gentrifying West Oakland neighborhood to see Kamala Harris’s big rally. (It was the first time I’ve ever attended a Democratic political event without being there to bird dog or bracket.) I wanted to see which of Nate Silver’s five quadrants would show up for the senator who is, at least as of today, the next great hope for Democrats.

To appreciate just how representative Harris’ kickoff is of the Democratic coalition, first you need to understand a little bit more about my adopted home.

Oakland itself is bifurcated, with the wealthier whites living in the Oakland Hills communities of Rockridge and Piedmont and poorer minority residents in the flat land along the San Francisco Bay. And both of these worlds lie sandwiched between the epicenters of the new progressive order—with San Francisco’s oligarchs in their corporate-industrial-parks-turned-millennial-Disneylands on one side and the old guard liberals in Berkeley—with their Piketty-for-thee but no affordable housing near me ethos on the other.

The city has become both a beneficiary and a victim of the dynamic change and stubborn resistance of these two powerful neighbors. There’s been an influx of wealth as people were priced out of San Francisco and went looking for more affordable housing. But an unwillingness on the part of many East Bay communities—Berkeley in particular—to increase housing stock to match the demand has resulted in skyrocketing cost of living in a town that historically been looked at the way Brooklyn was until about 20 years ago. And as in Brooklyn today, with its massively accelerating housing prices, the result in Oakland is older African-American residents being priced out of the city: The black population fell from 35 percent in 2000 to 28 percent in 2010. It is expected to be even lower come 2020, as working class and poor residents are pushed out to Richmond, Pittsburg, and beyond.

During this time, the city has become a hipster haven for creatives and a landing place for increasingly white and Asian HENRYs with young families facing the same financial pressures. It is the overflow housing for twenty- and thirty-something tech company employees whose RSUs aren’t worth enough for a flat in the Mission.

It’s also a hotbed of social activism, in the spirit of the Black Panthers, who were founded here in 1966. There is a robust queer/trans/lesbian community (that is subversive in a way that Boystown or Logan Circle are not), as well as significant refugee activist groups and residents, and—despite the gentrification—a resilient core of black community organizations.

The result is a city in transition, where at the monthly “First Friday” street party downtown you can take a walking tour of every slice of our national salmagundi—race, creed, age, economic background, gender identity—mashed together in an only-in-America carnival. But it’s also a city where tensions between police and black residents have flared and where cost of living pressures are creating massive stress for anyone whose family income isn’t in the top quintile

The cross-pressures facing the people of Oakland locally mirror to what the Democratic party is facing nationally: highly diverse, fits of radicalism, upwardly mobile, but losing its grip on the working class.

Perhaps that’s why Kamala Harris decided to kick off her campaign and open an office here: Because to win the Democratic nomination in 2020, a candidate is going to have to bridge some of these divides and unite some of the party’s factions.

And on this score, for Harris the day was at least a partial success. Her crowd was huge and certainly looked as though it drew from all segments of the party. The signage—contrary to the views of some troglodytes—was perfect for the event: distinct from your traditional campaign vibe, with colors and fonts that immediately jump out as being an homage to black leaders and culture.

The playlist touched all the bases from Tribe to Chance to Tina to Hamilton to, finally, two girl power anthems: “Girls” by Beyonce and “This Girl is On Fire” by Alicia Keys. Boxes checked!

Harris’s speech was full of biographical touchstones paired with a laundry list of progressive totems, though without much narrative. She hit abortion, climate change, equal pay, and—in what might be a first for a presidential announcement speech—a reference to transphobia. She tossed out some catnip for the “game theory” stans with a crowd pleasing reference to foreign powers “infecting the White House like malware.”

Though interestingly enough, Harris’s biggest applause line was a promise to roll back the Trump tax cuts on “corporations and the one percent.”

The speech also included several efforts to offset her potential vulnerabilities with the left: Namely that she had a reputation as being too tough-on-crime as a prosecutor but went easy on banks by going along with a settlement on fraudulent foreclosure practices.

As for the crowd: What I saw was an indication that she might be uniquely suited within the party to attract from all corners.

The party loyalists were represented by a woman wearing a “be sure about your answer, sir” t-shirt. (A reference to a moment I had completely forgotten from the Kavanaugh hearings where Sen. Harris pressed the judge with a vaguely ominous reference to a conflict of interest with the Mueller investigation.)

There was also a sizable number of black attendees, many of them women repping their sorority letters and colors who told me their alma maters were HBCUs like Dillard in New Orleans and Howard in D.C. And there were no shortage of millennials and their cosmopolitan friends: Plenty of twenty- and thirty-somethings from SF poured out of the BART replete with Nasty Women tees.

The only contingent not conspicuously present was the populist left. The audience was littered with “friend of the pod” tees but nary any Chapo gear. (Though they may have inspired the one older woman in a red “Impeach The Motherfucker” hat.) And when Harris was talking about the bank settlement, an aging hippie in long-grey hair walked by and muttered aloud “they should’ve been prosecuted!!”

The other piece that seemed to be missing was a clear indication that any of these groups were especially excited to be with Kamala. The danger for her is that when you’re something for everybody, with a checklist speech, and paeans to girl power, your production winds up with a distinct Hillary-ish vibe.

While Hillary-ish is not my go-to compliment, for Kamala, it may sound pretty darn good. After-all she won the nomination and the popular vote. And in an 89 person field, putting together a coalition similar to Clintons in 2016 would be enough to put her on a collision course with the bad hombre-in-chief. (Should he be the nominee.) But it also leaves her vulnerable to a candidate who can genuinely channel the passions of the times and tap into the palpable grassroots energy.

In 2007, then-candidate Obama came to the same Oakland stage, where he forcefully argued against the war in Iraq and drew a massive crowd looking to be inspired by the first black president. His life story and his message matched the moment. At that event Marcus Gary, a 38-year-old construction supervisor brought his two sons, Kunta and Neranti. “For him to be here in Oakland means a whole lot. This is the first guy who has motivated me. He’s new. He’s different. And we’ve been doing the same thing for too long.”

Maybe the Democrats won’t produce a nominee this time around who can embody their hopes in the same way Obama did. And maybe they won’t need to. In 2020 the path to the presidency might be as simple as being able to touch all five Democrat corners and then being acceptable enough to defeat a deeply-unpopular president.

Tim Miller

Tim Miller is The Bulwark’s writer-at-large and the author of the best-selling book Why We Did It: A Travelogue from the Republican Road to Hell. He was previously political director for Republican Voters Against Trump and communications director for Jeb Bush 2016.