In California, she at times was known for being too cautious during her tenure as attorney general. Now in Washington, Sen. Kamala D. Harris is quickly shedding that reputation.
Since taking the oath of office in January, she has emerged as one of the Capitol’s most outspoken liberals, particularly for a freshman. She has gone toe-to-toe with Homeland Security Secretary John F. Kelly over the administration’s crackdown on illegal immigration, defended President Obama’s legacy and become one of the most adamant opponents of President Trump’s Cabinet picks.
In a city full of anti-Trump lawmakers, Ms. Harris has managed to stand out by building on her decidedly progressive record with a driven, deliberate approach to Washington politics.
“You saw it with Obama. It is a very rare mixture of passion and professionalism that is hard to come across in politics,” said Robert Salazar, a veteran political consultant in California.
How far that approach can take her remains to be seen, but Ms. Harris, 52, is already sparking some buzz — including in Republican circles — as a potential Democratic presidential candidate.
Mike McKenna, a Republican Party strategist, said Ms. Harris has much in common with Barack Obama — “including the weird name.” She’s a biracial minority from donor-rich California and “far enough to the left to make all the true believers in the Democratic Party happy.”
PHOTOS: Top 10 handguns in the U.S.
“So she is like Elizabeth Warren with a better cash situation, a better demographic situation and probably a slightly more pleasant personality in a party that is unlikely to ever nominate a white man again at the top of its ticket,” Mr. McKenna said. “It is a pretty powerful combination. It is just a matter of time before everybody discovers her.”
Ms. Harris, though, downplays talk of a 2020 presidential bid.
“I am not giving that any consideration,” she said at the Code Conference on digital technology last week in Rancho Palos Verdes, California. “I’ve got to stay focused. There is so much happening right now. That is what I am focused on.”
Still, liberal activists say they like what they see on the policy front and suggest she work on outreach to grass-roots leaders at the national level.
“Now that she has gotten adjusted to her new job, her power will be maximized if she takes the time to build relationships and genuine partnerships with national progressive groups and intellectual leaders — and merges her strengths with the strengths of others to move big ideas forward,” said Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee.
He said Ms. Harris has “a powerful voice, a big bully pulpit” and a history of taking on the right opponents as attorney general.
PHOTOS: Conservatives in Hollywood: Celebrities who lean right
Those opponents included the banks at the center of the state’s foreclosure crisis that ended up paying California $20 billion as part of a settlement. Ms. Harris also went after human traffickers and defended the state’s law to address global warming.
In Washington, her chief target has arguably been Mr. Trump and his changes to immigration enforcement, including his demands that federal agents and officers enforce the laws on the books by deporting people who have broken immigration laws.
She opposed the administration’s proposed travel ban, and her first piece of legislation sought to guarantee access to legal counsel for people detained while trying to enter the United States.
All told, Ms. Harris has opposed 32 of Mr. Trump’s 38 nominees in roll call votes. That puts her in an exclusive group of anti-Trumpers along with Ms. Warren and Sen. Bernard Sanders, as well as Sen. Corey A. Booker of New Jersey and Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand of New York.
Ms. Harris painted haunting images of the Trump nominees, arguing that Betsy DeVos lacked the basic competency to lead the Department of Education and saying Jeff Sessions — a Senate colleague at the time — would not fight for the civil rights of all people as attorney general.
“I am going to get mad when we have an attorney general who is trying to reinstate the war on drugs, and he thinks the greatest evil that mankind has ever seen is marijuana,” Ms. Harris said last week at the Code Conference. “Leave Grandma’s medical marijuana alone,” she added with a chuckle.
She was one of 11 Democrats to oppose Mr. Kelly. She said Mr. Trump’s pick for homeland security secretary didn’t give her enough assurances he would not try to deport the young adult illegal immigrants known as Dreamers, and she has criticized the administration’s push to build a wall along the border with Mexico.
In her maiden speech on the Senate floor, she slammed Mr. Trump’s hard-line approach to immigration.
“In the spirit of my mother, who was always direct, I cannot mince words,” she said. “In the early weeks of this administration, we have seen an unprecedented series of executive actions that have hit our immigrant and religious communities like a cold front, striking a chilling fear in the hearts of millions of good, hardworking people, all by executive fiat.”
Ms. Harris took over the seat from Sen. Barbara Boxer, who retired after 24 years. The Harris victory marked a generational shift on Capitol Hill for the state’s huge delegation of Democrats — long ruled by female politicians such as Ms. Boxer, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, 77, and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, 83.
Mr. Obama helped raise Ms. Harris’ profile in 2013 when, while speaking at a fundraiser in California, he called her the “best-looking attorney general.” The president quickly apologized for what some deemed a sexist comment.
Ms. Harris has drawn comparisons to Mr. Obama on several fronts, including their training as lawyers and their biracialism. The senator is the child of an Indian mother and a Jamaican father.
And, like Mr. Obama, Ms. Harris could be eyeing a presidential run during her first term in Washington.
Mr. Salazar said her brand of politics has broad appeal right now to Democrats who are trying to figure out how to unify a party still split from the primary battle last year between Hillary Clinton and Mr. Sanders.
“If there are people who are able to unify your progressive and so-called establishment members of the Democratic Party, it is going to be someone like Kamala Harris,” he said.
Jim Demers, a veteran Democratic Party consultant in New Hampshire, said Ms. Harris is not well-known in the first-in-the-nation primary state but a couple of visits could change that. He said the early chatter among activists is that they want a candidate from the next generation of Democratic leaders.
“I think any legitimate candidate who comes out of California has some advantages,” Mr. Demers said. “One is they have the ability to raise significant money in their home state that can get them off to starting a good campaign.
“I think that she has a reputation for being very articulate, an up-and-coming star, a female, and I think the voters are really going to be serious about dramatic change after four years of Trump,” he said.
Tyrone Gayle, a spokesman for Ms. Harris, said his boss is fulfilling her pledge to fight for Californians.
“Whether it’s protecting access to health care, combating climate change, shielding Dreamers from deportation or getting to the truth of Russia’s interference in the 2016 election, Sen. Harris believes all Americans must speak out when so much is at stake,” Mr. Gayle said.