By Tara Law
January 21, 2019

Hours after officially declaring that she will run for president, Sen. Kamala Harris opened her campaign depicting herself as a unifier who can appeal to the values Americans share across ideological lines.

Taking questions from the press on Monday, the California Democratic senator implicitly contrasted herself with President Donald Trump, who has cultivated a reputation for his aggressive approach towards his opponents. Harris argued that she will campaign to all Americans – regardless of where they live or their race.

Harris, whose parents are Jamaica and Indian, also appeared to highlight her identity through the timing and location of the event. Monday is Martin Luther King Day, and the press conference was held at her alma mater, historically black Howard University.

Harris said that regardless of where Americans live or their racial background, most can find common ground on different issues. For instance, Harris said, most Americans will agree that it is important to protect the environment, but want to do so without endangering their economic future.

“Every parent wants to know that their child can drink clean water and breathe clean air,” said Harris. “And that same parent wants to know that they’re able to bring home enough money with one job to pay their bills and pay their rent and put food on the table instead of having to work two and three jobs.”

Besides asking her about her platform, several of the reporters also probed Harris’s background as a candidate from California and a former attorney general. Prior to becoming a senator, Harris was a deputy district attorney and Alameda County, a district attorney of San Francisco city and county, and later the attorney general of California.

While Harris has repeatedly said that she acted as a “progressive prosecutor,” some proponents of criminal justice reform have questioned her record. Last Thursday, Lara Bazelon of the Loyola Law School Project for the Innocent in Los Angeles published a scathing editorial in the New York Times, writing that as attorney general, Harris had “opposed reform or remained silent” and that she “fought tooth and nail to uphold wrongful convictions that had been secured through official misconduct that included evidence tampering, false testimony and the suppression of crucial information by prosecutors.”

During Monday’s event, Harris carefully positioned herself as a criminal justice reformer, which will could help to secure the support of many black Democrats. Gaining the support of African American voters will likely be an important factor in her ability to secure the nomination.

“Every person wants to know that there will be a criminal justice system that is fair to all people regardless of their race. Every person wants that a mother and father should not have to sit down with their teenage son and have ‘the talk’ – and tell that child about how they may be stopped or arrested or in some way profiled and potentially shot because of their race.”

Throughout her speech, however, Harris deemphasized her particular identity and instead said that she is speaking for all Americans. She declined to respond directly to a question about how she “described herself” saying that she describes herself as a “proud American” and aims to bring people together.

“Some people would say that in a diverse country, you cannot achieve unity. I reject that notion,” Harris said.

Write to Tara Law at tara.law@time.com.

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