Kamala Harris Goes All-In on Vegas

Mar 9, 2019
10:15 AM

NORTH LAS VEGAS — On the first evening of this month, the city of North Las Vegas hosted a Q&A with Kamala Harris, the Democratic California senator and presidential candidate for 2020. For those unfamiliar with anything beyond the Vegas Strip or at most Fremont, North Las Vegas is where most of the working poor live, which is another way of saying it’s where most of the brown and black people live. Next time you’re in town, drive up Vegas Boulevard, just past Bonanza Road, and you’ll see what I mean. Whenever I give visitors my tour of the Valley (I like showing outsiders that Vegas is way more than the Strip and casinos) and I take them up past Bonanza, they go, “Oh, so this is where all the poor people live, huh?”

I’m not bad-mouthing the people who live in those places —I myself am a brown-black person from one of those places in Chicago (a few of those places, actually, in and around Chicago), and my brown-white mother came from one of those places in Honduras— I’m just giving you a sense of where Kamala Harris came to make her pitch for the presidency.

Most of the kids goofing around outside Canyon Springs High, where the town hall was held, were black. On September 11, 2018, 16-year-old Sakai Kayin French shot 18-year-old Dalvin Brown in the chest near the baseball diamond; Dalvin died at University Medical Center, and still no one knows why Sakai wanted to shoot Dalvin (if they do, they’re not telling).

The school boasts the “Leadership and Law Preparatory Academy,” a program which offers four majors: “Law, Global Leadershi[p], Business Leadership, and Military Leadership” (Nellis Air Force Base being just up the road might have something to do with it). Home of the Pioneers, the school’s colors are Navy, silver and “Columbia” blue, and their school motto is “Start Strong. Stay Strong. Be Strong. Finish Strong.”

Strength, in fact, might have been the theme of Kamala Harris’s March 1 appearance. Her opener, Patricia “Pat” Spearman, is a black state senator representing Nevada’s District 1, and the first openly lesbian woman in the history of the Nevada Legislature. Before that she served in the Army Military Police Corps for 29 years. She’s also the pastor at a local church she founded. Spearman came up on the little stage set up in the school’s gym, wearing a mango-colored pantsuit and matching close-cropped hairdo, and said how she had sworn an oath “to defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic,” and how she was “tired of people giving excuses whenever the Constitution was trampled on,” and “tired of women not being in the Constitution!”—all with a large creaseless American flag hanging behind, and all to roaring applause.

Then Kamala Harris came out in a charcoal-blue suit, looking young. She waved and smiled at a sea of cellphones.

Meanwhile, I had chatted with a large, 50-something white man named Brad —“like Pitt”— wearing a “Trump-Putin 2020” shirt, with “Trump” on top of “2020,” and “Putin” below it. He plopped down on the other side of the old lady to my right gripping a polished wooden cane, who didn’t say or do much but grin and nod her head. I told Brad how I had read his shirt and thought he was serious at first. “I tell people: Read the bottom!” he said, meaning the “Putin” part. “Nobody reads the bottom! Too quick to judge!”

Just as soon as Brad sat down, a younger man in a light collared shirt and Dockers, who we figured was with the press, fingered Brad to step out into the aisle. “We want to ask you a few questions,” the man said. Brad clumped up the row of beige metal folding chairs but came clumping down again a minute later. “They wanted to know if I was going to be a problem, cause an outburst,” he said. “Too quick to judge! That’s why I’m here.” He pointed at the stage. “To see if she’s like the rest of them.”

I got to telling him and the old lady about Harris’s poverty-reduction plans, the two main ones being her tax credit, the LIFT (Livable Incomes for Families Today) the Middle Class Act, and her rent subsidy, the Rent Relief Act, which promise to pull millions of Americans out of poverty, and have been endorsed by a number of the other Democrats already running for president. “Yeah, I don’t know,” Brad said. “I consider myself a moderate, so I’m not too crazy about politicians spending all this money.”

I asked him if he wanted someone to do something about student debt which, at over a trillion dollars and still climbing, is second only to mortgage debt in this country. “I’m not sure we should give everybody free college,” he said. “When you give people something for free, they don’t appreciate it as much.” The old lady between us, who never involved herself in our conversation and looked lost, just kept grinning and nodding.

As I settled back into my chair, the middle-aged black woman sitting on my left said, “Yeah, but how are those kids supposed to build a life when they’re struggling with all that debt?” Her name was either Tammi, like Tammi Terrell, or just Tammy. Tammi said she used to be an elected official on some school committee in D.C. but was born and raised in Nevada. She was also involved in local politics herself, she claimed, having nearly ran for a judgeship when she returned from D.C. “To be a judge before, you didn’t need a law degree or nothing,” she said. “Shoot, had I known, I’d be wearing my robes right now.” She laughed and shook her head. “Going to school out East was such an eye-opener for me. I learned you can be a politician and actually try to make a difference. I went to the same school Kamala did,” she said, pointing at the still empty stage.

Kamala Harris went to Howard, FYI.

An event volunteer offered Tammi and I each a sign to hold up during the rally. One side said “Kamala Harris For The People” while the other read “Kamala Harris Por La Gente” (an organizer also announced that there were translation headsets available for those who needed them). Me and Tammi both shook our heads. “It’s way too early to be waving signs,” Tammi told me.

She also said it was wrong that taxpayer money was being spent on a massive, publicly owned but privately profiting football stadium for the soon-to-be Las Vegas Raiders, when not only is the local education system going down the tubes, but there is an entire town of homeless people living with black rats and blond scorpions in the maze of drainage pipes beneath the city. It’s so bad that, every so often, a heavy rain will rush through and drown somebody down there. And still, a new stadium (and a professional team to go with it) seems too big of a golden-egg-laying goose for the local money-chasers and handshakers to resist.

“All they did was create a lot of low-wage jobs, in construction and stuff,” Tammi said. “We told them before they went back up to Carson City, Don’t vote on this! But all they said was, We can’t go back up and pass on all those jobs.” Tammi swatted the air and shook her head.

As with the rest of the country, Vegas is at a crossroads. This oasis on the edge of the Mojave Desert prides itself on being the “Entertainment Capital of the World,” with gambling holding center stage in the city for the past hundred years. But with the legalization of gambling in other places, and with new generations coming up that would rather spend money playing games on their phones than play the tables or the slots, Vegas is scrambling to offer the new breed what they want. Hence, the new football team, and probably a basketball team and then a baseball team later on. The club crowds have also swelled since the nineties and the advent of EDM (electronic dance music). The lines of people waiting to get inside Hakkasan at the MGM on a Friday or Saturday night are the stuff of legend—and that goes for most Friday and Saturday nights.

And so the grayheads who still run Las Vegas, like the grayheads who still run the U.S. government, are faced with a choice: They can either keep doing what they’ve been doing and risk seeing their shiny empire collapse under obsolescence, or they can get with the times in a bid to stay on top. So far, the Vegas grayheads appear to be way wiser than those in D.C.

In her little spiel before the question-and-answer portion of last Friday’s event, Kamala Harris came out, hand on hip, talking about the need to have a party with a platform (and, presumably, a presidential candidate) that is “relevant.” At 54, Senator Harris has plenty of time before she’s a greyhead herself, and she radiates the spirit of the times better than anyone else gunning for the White House.

“We are better than this,” she told the crowd, insisting that the government needed to “restore opportunity for all people in America.”

Though she looks like a typical light-skinned high-powered black woman, it surprises a lot of people to learn that Harris is actually half Tamil and half Jamaican. Her Jamaican-born father met her Indian-born mother in the early sixties at Berkeley, where both were involved with the civil rights movement and fraternized with the likes of Maya Angelou and Malcolm X. Yet the white grayheads in the audience (there were a lot) didn’t seem to know or care about any of that, waiting for the Senator to say something they could clap at.

Her saying “Let’s talk about truth” made them laugh. She went on to explain how the “American Dream is under attack,” “the concept of justice is under attack,” and how “dark money is fueling elections,” a clear shot at the Koch brothers —maybe even George Soros, though not likely— and other billionaires and corporations who pay for the power to pick the next president. “Let’s speak truth: In America today, the economy is not working for working people,” she said, to which a man behind me muttered, “Definitely not in Nevada.”

The crowd erupted in cheers when Senator Harris called for a repeal of the corporate tax cut the President pushed for as soon as he was sworn in, and they grumbled when she brought up the education system. When she mentioned the fact that one out of for diabetics in the country can’t afford insulin, a gravelly voice in the back went, “Yup!” When she turned to the issue of police violence, there was sustained if muted applause. A dozen or so people stood up and clapped when she touched on school shootings and the climate crisis, calling the latter an “existential threat.” “Nevada knows this well,” she said. “Climate change is real!”

She ended her pitch on the common ground shared by the American people, stressing that “we have so much more in common” than the differences which tend to divide them, increasingly so it seems in the last few decades: “Let’s be the country we know we can be, unburdened by who we have been.”

Then came the questions, mostly of the softball variety and seemingly hand-picked beforehand. The first one asked what the Senator thinks she can get done “if and when” she becomes president and “if and when” the Democrats regain control of Congress. She began her answer by first blowing smoke, saying something about this being “a sophisticated audience that knows all about politics,” to which another man in the back said, “Well…”

The second question came from a teary-eyed mom with four kids, one a graduate of the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, the other three headed for college soon—at least the mom hoped so, explaining how she now has a disability and struggles to cover her medical bills. The mom wanted to know what Kamala Harris plans to do to make higher education affordable for everyday families. The senator said she’s for letting people refinance their student loans and wants to raise Pell grants. She called making community college tuition-free “a good return on investment,” and warned against “devaluing people who don’t go to college,” eliciting a forceful “Hear, hear!” from a brawny, non-college type. “I really dislike this term: unskilled labor,” Harris said—one of the biggest applause lines of the night.

A bald middle-aged white man with glasses said he had read the Senator’s new book, The Truths We Hold: An American Journey, and drove up from Arizona to ask his question: How do we increase voting? Ms. Harris pointed to the misinformation spread through social media during the last election, largely at the behest of Russian operatives. “They tested the things that would make us go at it.” She said she supports same-day registration and even instituting a voting holiday, since most Americans have to go to work on the Tuesday after the first Monday in November, election year or not. The standing ovation she received when she called on the President to “respect the intelligence community over Putin” was nearly eclipsed by the one she got for thanking the audience “for sending Cathy and Jacky to Washington,” referring to Catherine Cortez Masto and Jacky Rosen, Nevada’s two Democratic female senators.

“Cathy” is the Silver State’s first female senator, and the first Latina in the Senate. Nevada now also boasts a Democratic governor, Steve Sisolak, and a Democrat-controlled legislature, where women are in the majority in both chambers—a first for any state in the Union. I asked my new pal Tammi if she was happy about Nevada becoming so blue. “Nevada’s 10 years behind in everything,” she said.

There was a question about Kamala Harris being a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha —a.k.a. “Sorority Incorporated,” the oldest black sorority in the country, founded in 1908 at Howard— and when she was tossed a foreign-policy question, she condemned unilateralism. “Foreign policy should not be conducted through tweet.” A young, gay Latino man named Nick asked her what she was going to do about the psychological abuse inflicted on the thousands of migrant kids being detained at our southern border (only our southern border, mind you). The detentions amounted to “a human rights abuse committed by the United States government,” she said, before voicing an endorsement for DACA. (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), aimed at shielding from deportation the approximately 700,000 immigrants who were brought to this country as children. Later, when a Jamaican woman named Jo asked about immigration, the Senator proposed a path for “non-D.A.C.A. immigrants” through the passage of what progressives and immigrant allies have been demanding for over a decade: comprehensive immigration reform (a demand so persistent and prevalent, it goes by the initials “CIR”).

Harris’s toughest question of the night came from a 17-year-old girl, Blair, who asked the Senator about her policy of prosecuting the parents of kids who skip school back when she was the district attorney of San Francisco. Harris seemed a little caught off guard, but also prepared for such a question, and she did a good job of not coming across as too defensive, quoting the stats from an op-ed she wrote in 2009 in which she claimed that “over 94 percent of all homicide victims under the age of 25 [in San Francisco] are high school dropouts,” and that every two out of three prisoners in California never finished high school. The crises, Harris said that Friday, originate in third-grade classrooms and whether kids were able to read at a third-grade level by the time they were ready for fourth grade. I agree with the Senator in her focus on education as a panacea to cure a lot of the country’s social and economic ills, though I don’t think we should arrest parents for what their children do or don’t do in school. (Lord knows my own mom would’ve caught hell had that been the case when I was a boy.)

The Senator seemed to secure a few more votes when she answered a question about “the President … who’s soon to be a convicted criminal” by promising, “I intend to prosecute that case!” receiving yet another standing ovation. The night landed safely with the final question, posed by a little black girl in braids named Belize who wanted to know what it felt like to run for president and whether Ms. Harris was nervous. The Senator’s response was too sappy to be remembered.

As the crowd began surging out of the gym, I approached a black man with salt-and-pepper hair. He had been anxious to ask a question for the last hour, and I wanted to know the question. “I’m a teacher,” he said, “so I wanted to know about school funding and paying teachers more.” I myself was surprised no one brought up the issue of marijuana legalization and what to do with all those still sitting in a cell for the silly crime of having weed on them. Weed is legal in Nevada after all, though you’re only allowed to spark up on private property.

I told the guy I was sure she would be back. “Oh, she better,” he said. Out in the hallway a couple of punk teens were posted up against a wall, and I heard one of them tell the other, “All American presidents just suck.” They should have told that to the vendors stationed on the curb out in front of the school, who had set up tables where they sold hats and t-shirts and all sorts of campaign paraphernalia. “T-shirts! Get your t-shirts, buttons!” said one. “‘I saw Kamala Harris!’” I leaned over one of the tables. The shirts were going for 10 bucks, but you could get a little button for three—one read “PUSSY POWER,” while another said “NASTY WOMEN.” But with the election a full 20 months away, and still plenty of other candidates to hear from, I figured it was too early for a button.


Hector Luis Alamo is the Editor and Publisher of ENCLAVE and host of the Remember the Show! podcast. He tweets from @HectorLuisAlamo.