California Unions Give Warm Welcome to Kamala Harris

SACRAMENTO (CN) — Capping off a homecoming weekend campaign blitz that included speeches to Hollywood stars and civil rights groups, Sen. Kamala Harris on Monday night pivoted to pursuing endorsements from California’s influential labor unions.

Kamala Harris, from a film projector at the California Union Legislative Conference on Monday in Sacramento. (CNS photo/Nick Cahill)

The 2020 presidential candidate touted plans to provide nationwide teacher raises and tax breaks for lower middle class families at a yearly union gathering in Sacramento. During a keynote speech, Harris pitched herself as a labor champion for the 2.4 million union members who are likely to play a major role in the state’s Democratic primary.   

“Let’s speak the truth, that the unions of America built America’s middle class,” Harris said. “People have a five-day workweek because of unions. People have sick pay because of unions. People have eight-hour workdays because of unions.” 

Just two blocks from her old digs at the California Department of Justice, Harris appeared right at home during a 19-minute speech interrupted by standing ovations from the estimated 700 in attendance.

The former prosecutor worked the conference hall comfortably and with a confident tone, keeping direct eye contact and speaking without glancing at notes. She punctuated pitches by pointing directly toward the receptive crowd and smiled as she soaked in round after round of applause. 

Shortly after meeting privately with donors and state lawmakers, Harris told the crowd that when elected she would push to repeal President Trump’s 2017 tax reform on day one, with the savings invested in working families and teachers. 

Over the past week Harris’s campaign has focused on organized labor, with her Sacramento visit coming just days after she unveiled a $315 billion plan that would boost stagnant teacher salaries by reducing the threshold for the federal estate tax. With teacher strikes becoming more common across the country, Harris hopes to elevate her standing with a largely female voting bloc.

With the Legislature’s decision to bump up the state’s primary to Super Tuesday in March, California poses an early test for Harris and other Democratic candidates. 

Since kicking off her campaign two months ago in her hometown of Oakland, Harris has returned to the Golden State several times to court high-profile donors. She’s used her home-field advantage to mingle with Hollywood producers and actors and make stops on the late-night TV circuit. 

Harris and her staffers were all smiles Monday night after news that various trips to California, Texas and South Carolina have been fruitful: The fledgling campaign raked in $12 million during the first quarter of 2019.

“This is a campaign powered by the people, focused on making health care a right, putting $500 a month in the pockets of working Americans, and giving every public school teacher in America a raise,” campaign manager Juan Rodriguez said in a statement.

Before the Monday night event at the California Union Legislative Conference, Harris spoke Saturday in Los Angeles at galas sponsored by the NAACP and Human Rights Campaign. She said the country was at an “inflection point” and that it was time for Americans to speak out against homophobia, xenophobia and racism.

While Harris is banking on her name brand recognition with California Democrats — she was the state’s first female attorney general and its first black U.S. senator —she’s not the runaway favorite in the March 2020 primary.

According to a recent nonpartisan poll, 38% of likely California voters said Harris should run for president, with 54% of Democrats backing her bid. Just 17% of Republicans and 35% of independents answered that Harris should have jumped into the crowded race for the White House.   

After wrapping up her California tour, Harris is to meet with teachers and Democratic groups in Nevada on Tuesday.

Despite Monday’s rousing speech, the California Labor Foundation hasn’t endorsed a candidate, said Steve Smith, communications director for the group, which hosted the event and represents more than 1,200 unions.

But there’s no doubt that Harris was in friendly territory Monday night, as many of the labor unions had backed her successful state attorney general and U.S. Senate campaigns. Harris said she was proud to represent a state with such strong union leadership. 

“The leaders in this room are holding it down, not only for this state but for the entire nation, and doing it every day,” Harris said.      

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