HOUSTON — By the time U.S. Sen Kamala Harris, D-California, took the stage here Saturday, the message was clear.
“This is Harris County!” declared a bevy of colorful signs in the hands of supporters in a crowded auditorium at Texas Southern University. And when Harris began to speak during the biggest event of her first major swing through Texas, the native Californian was implicitly communicating much the same message: There may be two Texas Democrats vying for support in this state nearly a year ahead of Super Tuesday, but she isn’t ceding any ground to the state’s native sons.
“I love being in Harris County!” she declared by way of greeting, enjoying raucous applause and, apparently, the alignment between her surname and the name of Texas’ largest county and one of its most diverse. In unveiling a major pitch for raising teachers’ salaries — a proposal her campaign has described as “the largest federal investment in teacher pay in history” — Harris made sure to nod to the last Texas Democrat to occupy the office she seeks.
“[Lyndon B. Johnson] was the last president that made a meaningful investment in public education.” One of his reasons, she said, was “to bridge the gap between helplessness and hope.”
Saturday was Harris’ second public campaign event in Texas after a visit Friday night to the Tarrant County Democrats.
In Houston, on the campus of one of the nation’s largest historically black colleges, she attracted a crowd of some 2,400, including influential area Democrats like U.S. Reps. Sheila Jackson Lee and Sylvia Garcia, as well as state Sen. Carol Alvarado and state Rep. Ron Reynolds.
Rodney Ellis, a Harris County commissioner and major crusader for criminal justice reform, praised Harris as a “career prosecutor, but… a thoughtful prosecutor,” defending Harris against criticisms of her record. When he introduced her, he declared, “I’m endorsing her right now!”
With scores of delegates up for grabs in a state expected to be competitive in the general election for the first time in decades, Harris’ swing looks like a tactical play to capture prized supporters, as well as backing from Texas’ growing communities of color. Harris’ campaign sees major opportunities to recruit support from black and Hispanic communities in Houston and Dallas and has already launched overtures to Texas members of the Congressional Black Caucus, Politico reported this week.
The importance of that representation was clear for supporters in line Saturday. Ron Clark said he brought his 7-year-old daughter, Madison, to Harris’ event “for obvious reasons”: He wanted her to see “someone who looks like her” poised to fight for the country’s top job. She smiled from atop his shoulders, pink sneakers dangling and several teeth missing from the top row.
Other supporters in a line curving out through the campus and onto the street said they’re all but certain to vote for Harris, but most said they had backed her rival, El Paso Democrat Beto O’Rourke, last fall in his closer-than-expected challenge to U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz. Attendees seemed to know less about Texas’ other Democratic contender, former San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro.
There will be “no tears from me” if either O’Rourke or Castro earns the Democratic nomination, said Aaron Rodriguez, a 25-year-old engineer who lives in midtown Houston — “there are a lot of good options.” But Harris, he said, is his clear first choice.
So too for Mirna Gonzalez, a 24-year-old high school teacher in Houston who arrived Saturday eager to hear more about Harris’ education plan.
Without offering details on how she’d pay for her teacher pay plan beyond promising a good “return on investment,” Harris pledged to close the wage gap between teachers and similarly situated professionals within her first term. A fuller rollout of the plan is expected early next week. The issue could find resonance in Texas, where teacher pay is middle-of-the-pack compared with other states and state lawmakers are in the middle of a legislative session laser-focused on overhauling a flawed school finance system.
“I’ve been traveling around, and the crowds seem to look different from one place to another — but I’ll tell you, the issues, the priorities, are the same,” Harris said. “And the truth is, we are a nation and a society that pretends to care about education — the education of other people’s children. And we’ve got to deal with that.”
Gwen Davis, 66, summed up her support for Harris in one word: “equality.”
“I want to see more women in power — no matter what color they are,” said Davis, a nurse.
And then she announced to the rest of the line: “It’s time for a change!”