Kamala Harris Loosens Up, At Last

Photo Illustration by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/CSPAN
Photo Illustration by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/CSPAN

When your competition has spent several weeks in court on charges related to allegedly paying off a porn star, you can afford to let down your guard.

That’s exactly what Vice President Kamala Harris did on Monday, speaking at the Asian Pacific American Institute for Congressional Studies’ Legislative Leadership Summit in Washington, D.C.

Harris, who has been relentlessly targeted by Republicans, has at times been cautious in her response. But to an audience of about 150 largely Asian American attendees, she was defiant.

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“Here’s the thing about breaking barriers,” Harris said. “There’s breaking involved. And when you break things, you get cut. And you may bleed. And it is worth it every time.”

“Sometimes people will open the door for you and leave it open,” she continued, “Sometimes they won’t. And then you need to kick that fucking door down.”

The audience broke into peals of laughter and cheers. Among the crowd was Cincinnati Mayor Aftab Pureval, who stood up and joined in. Afterwards, he could be heard talking to another attendee near the back of the room. “I’m so glad that the vice president said ‘fuck,’” he exclaimed.

Speaking to The Daily Beast, he laughed sheepishly.

“I think the vice president talks like normal people, and normal people, when they’re trying to emphasize a point, use colorful language,” he said. “So I think her ability to connect with everyday Americans through language or through just showing up is extraordinary.”

With the general election less than six months away, every appearance by a member of the presidential ticket can be classified as a stop on the campaign trail. For Harris, each of these stops is particularly high stakes; her tenure as vice president has been marked by criticism. But with former President Donald Trump’s hush money trial dominating the headlines, Tuesday provided Harris a prime opportunity to take control of the narrative, reach key Democratic voters, and show off her sense of humor.

Just as President Joe Biden has mostly done friendly interviews, Harris was under little scrutiny at Monday’s event. The person selected to interview the VP was stand-up comedian Jimmy O. Yang. “I have no idea why you guys called me to do this, Lisa Ling must’ve been not available,” he joked.

The tone of the event often resembled a family meeting more than a formal talk. There were only three big cameras in the room, and not many more reporters. When Harris appeared, the crowd rose to its feet, with members lifting their phone cameras above their heads as if they were at a concert.

Harris wore a staid uniform—a slate gray pin-striped pantsuit—but she was relaxed. She laughed at herself after dropping the f-bomb and ended the event by snapping a selfie with the crowd. She also demonstrated ease talking about her Indian American heritage. Harris hasn’t always been vocal about the topic, instead steering conversations away from race or foregrounding her identity as a Black American. But on Monday, she knew her audience.

“We know in Asian culture what birth order means—I am the first grandchild, too, I’ll say,” she said, earning knowing murmurs. Later, she grew more serious.

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“I think it is very much part of Asian culture—I think many cultures—that we are taught duty,” Harris said. “And duty is not about whether you have the luxury, or the will. It’s your responsibility, your duty. And you don’t question it. It just is.”

Abortion was central to Harris’ comments on policy, with the vice president emphasizing the sensibleness of her position. She spoke matter-of-factly about how the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision took away “a fundamental freedom.” She talked about how, in the last numbers she saw, 80 percent of Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islanders were in support of “freedom and choice” for a pregnant woman.

“One does not have to abandon their faith or deeply-held beliefs to agree that government should not be telling her what to do,” Harris said. “She will make that decision based on her ability to actually exercise good judgment. Can you imagine these legislators that are supposing their judgment is better than the ability of that individual woman to know what’s in her best interest?”

Harris also planted herself firmly in the middle of the road when it came to guns.

“There’s been a false choice that has been perpetuated, including in this town, that suggests you’re either in favor of the Second Amendment or you want to take everyone’s guns away,” she said. “I’m in favor of the Second Amendment. And I believe we need an assault weapons ban, we need universal background checks, we need red flag laws.”

Her comments seemed to be a direct rebuttal to criticism from Republicans, who have frequently painted Harris as left-wing and incompetent as they stoke fears that she might have to step in for the aging president.

Allies at the event on Monday told The Daily Beast such attacks didn’t worry them.

“It’s par for the course from MAGA extremists who are not interested in substantively trying to improve this country,” Mayor Pureval said. “They’re interested in demonizing people who don’t look like them.”

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Still, many voters aren’t sold on Harris. A poll earlier this spring found that almost as many voters disapproved of Harris as they did of Biden, and that more voters approved of Trump. But Harris still sees high approval ratings among Democrats. She has spent much of this year working to energize minority communities, many of whom are not too excited about the Biden-Trump rematch.

“She plays a critical role,” Vice Chair of the California Democratic Party Betty Yee, who has already launched her 2026 gubernatorial bid, told The Daily Beast. “What she’s doing in terms of her outreach, particularly with young people, with many of our communities of color, and on the issues that really do speak to our fundamental rights, is so critical. So I think she’s a tremendous asset on the ticket.”

Harris’ outreach efforts, and Monday’s event as a whole, presented a stark contrast to the lurid Trump trial in New York that has dominated the headlines. That seemed to be exactly what the president and his allies hoped for.

“This kind of an event is talking about the future of our country, whether it’s representation in leadership, whether it’s policies that the AAPI community feel passionately about,” Pureval said. “And that—what’s happening in New York—is all about one person, not about this country, and not about what makes us special. And hopefully that dichotomy will be very clear come November.”

Harris didn’t draw the contrast with Trump directly, but as she closed her remarks, she did suggest that the audience had an obligation to show up and vote, seemingly picking up her earlier comments about duty.

“This issue is about what’s gonna happen in the next 170-something days, and everyone’s gotta be heard and demand that you be heard,” the vice president said. “And remind our families and our friends and our community of their right and responsibility and duty, dare I say, to answer a fundamental question at this point: What kind of country do we want to live in?”

Read more at The Daily Beast.

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