Presidential hopeful Kamala Harris on wildfires, health care, and why she’s fallen behind other candidates

The California wildfires now have a presence in the 2020 presidential race. Senator Kamala Harris’ Brentwood home is under evacuation orders because of the Getty Fire, which broke out Sunday night along the 405 freeway in the Sepulveda Pass. 

Harris has said she’ll do everything she can to get California the federal aid it needs. She also wants to hold PG&E accountable for power outages that she says put Californians in danger.

Both PG&E and SoCal Edison have faced heavy criticism for cutting power to millions of residents in an effort to prevent wildfires. It’s unclear whether that strategy has worked. 

“No community in America should be forced to endure an intentional blackout because of what is essentially an outdated electrical grid,” Harris tells Press Play. “I mean these utility companies have failed to adequately prepare for the wildfire and the challenges presented by the wildfire.” 

Health care: an emphasis on choice 

Harris is proposing a version of Medicare For All and a decade-long transition to get there. She would also allow private insurers to offer coverage. 

“I'm going to decouple the employer from the health care plan. And with my Medicare For All plan, the individual then has the ability to choose a public plan or a private plan based on their needs and their desires,” she describes. 

Harris emphasizes that the difference between her plan and those of other candidates is that she’s not taking away people’s choice.

However, Sen. Bernie Sanders’ campaign has called Harris’ plan “terrible policy” and “terrible politics” because it could allow insurance companies to raise prices, and much of it could fall on the government. 

Harris responds, “It's frankly not correct -- because remember that Medicare currently allows people the option of having a private plan as a supplement to whatever they are being offered through Medicare. So this is just like Medicare Advantage. So what my plan does is it allows what currently exists to be available to everyone instead of just a few.”

She emphasizes “the insurers have to play by our rules,” and that her plan eliminates co-pays and deductibles, and curbs what insurance companies from “putting profit over public health.”

Paying for health care

Harris says paying for her plan will involve increasing taxes on Wall Street and understanding that when everyone is covered, costs will drop across the board. 

“When people balk and say, ‘Well, you know, that's going to be so expensive,’ I say to them, ‘Listen, we currently do have a Medicare For All plan. And you know what that is? It's the emergency room.’ And so we want to be smarter with public health policy,” she says. “And by implementing my Medicare For All plan, we do that in a way that we don't raise middle class taxes, everyone is covered, we give people choice, we bring down costs in the most efficient way.”

How does Harris distinguish herself from the other candidates? 

Harris says “justice is on the ballot in 2020,” and that she’s running for president because she’s always fought for justice. 

“I've made a decision early in my career to fight the injustice in the criminal justice system, but also to be a prosecutor where I could defend the rights of women and children who had been the victims of the most horrendous crimes you can imagine. 

I fought for justice when I became the elected district attorney in San Francisco, and sought to reform the criminal justice system, and created national models of what we need to do to give jobs to people who have been arrested for drugs instead of locking them up.

I fought for justice when I was the Attorney General of California, when I took on the five biggest banks of the United States and brought $20 billion back to the homeowners of California who were the subject of predatory lending practices by those banks.” 

Slowed campaign momentum

When Harris announced her presidential run in Oakland, some 20,000 people were in the audience. After the first debate, many people were writing about her strong performance. 

However, she’s slipped in the polls, and she hasn’t raised as much money as the other top contenders. 

When asked if she thinks her campaign has lost some momentum, she responds, “I am spending the time earning the support of people, but introducing myself. The top tier candidates (in the top three) have been on the national stage for decades. And we are still in the process of introducing ourselves. But where we do, we gain support.”

She points out that this race is fluid, and 70% of voters haven’t committed to a candidate. “People have not made up their minds. And when they're introduced and they know we exist, they come to us.”

She adds, “I don't rise or fall with the polls. I'm just not riding that cycle and that roller coaster. It’s just steady as we go. This is not my first experience with folks believing that it's not possible or it can't be done or well nobody like you has done it before… We just push through, and the American people have the ability to see what can be.”

Possible racial bias and trusting voters  

A New York Times article today says there’s racial bias in the Democratic field: the top candidates are all white, and it’s tougher for a minority candidate to break through. Is that the case for Harris?  

She looks back on her record in public office: 

“I was the first woman to be District Attorney of San Francisco. I was the first woman of color to be district attorney in any county in our state of 40 million people. 

When I ran for Attorney General of California, people said there's no way a woman of color from San Francisco -- who is personally opposed to the death penalty -- can be the top law enforcement officer of the biggest state in the United States. I didn't listen. I won. 

But the most important thing is the voters don't listen either. I share all this to say nothing about myself, but to speak about who the American people are. We have the ability to see what can be. Even if we've never seen it before, we have the ability to believe in what is possible, even if it has not occurred before.”

She says what’s required in this election is people’s ability to see that a woman of color can be the president of the U.S., and then work to make it happen. 

“The most important point to be made is that the people have the ability to get over these perceptions about who can do what. That's my life,” Harris says. 

--Written by Amy Ta, produced by Brian Hardzinski