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How Kamala Harris found her groove. And why being vice president is still tough

SAN JOSE, CALIFORNIA - JANUARY 29: U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris speaks in conversation with actress Sophie Bush during a Fight For Reproductive Freedoms event at the Mexican Heritage Plaza on January 29, 2024 in San Jose, California. Vice President Harris is touring the country to raise awareness for reproductive rights. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Vice President Kamala Harris speaks in San José. (Justin Sullivan / Getty Images)

"Proud," Kamala Harris said, elongating the word and stretching its vowels. "PROUD!"

Donald Trump expressed his great delight at choosing three of the Supreme Court justices who overturned the constitutional right to abortion and now the vice president was using his own word — proud — to whip up a labor hall packed with jeering, cheering Nevada Democrats.

"Proud," she said. "Proud for taking the freedom of choice from millions of women and people in America."

With that, her voice rose as though she could scarcely believe the statement issuing from her lips.

"He openly talks about his admiration for dictators," Harris continued in the same tone of wonderment, as some in the audience murmured their disapproval. "Dictators jail journalists. Dictators suspend elections."

"Dictators." She emphasized each word. "Take. Your. Rights."

After a history-making ascent to the vice presidency and a humbling descent into mockery and disdain following her rocky start, Harris finally seems to have found her footing in a role to which she is accustomed and adept: prosecuting attorney.

Read more: Why Kamala Harris prefers Gen Z to millennials, and why it matters

She's become a top fundraiser for Democrats, an emissary to groups that are lukewarm toward President Biden — in particular Black and younger voters — and emerged as the administration's most forceful voice on abortion, women's health and, as Harris frames it, the threat Trump poses to freedom and individual choice.

On a recent three-day swing through California and Nevada, she highlighted the abortion issue and urged Democrats to vote early ahead of Tuesday's Nevada primary.

"Do you believe in freedom?" the vice president hollered, and a crowd of 300 or so partisans inside the brightly lighted union hall screamed in affirmation. "Do you believe in democracy?"

"Are we ready to fight for it? Because when we fight" — and here they joined Harris in a thundering chorus — "we win!"

Her higher profile — as cheerleader, prosecutor, pugilist — is a reset of sorts after Harris' many early missteps and a series of assignments, among them immigration reform and border control, that seemed destined to fail.

Her purpose, and utility, changed when the Supreme Court issued its abortion decision in the Dobbs case in June 2022, overturning Roe vs. Wade.

Even as her approval ratings continue to languish, those in the vice president's orbit say she has grown more assured in a capacity that better suits her skills as a former district attorney and California attorney general.

The abortion issue "taps into her policy background, her political values, her legal training and experience," said Jamal Simmons, who served a year as Harris' communications director, ending in January 2023. "The issue is a comfort zone for her and since Dobbs she has done other things with greater confidence and dexterity."

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The travels of the vice president are intended to be as frictionless as possible.

A blocks-long motorcade glides along freeways closed to traffic and knifes through city streets cleared specially for her path. Invited guests cheer Harris' airport arrival and departure, and reporters are kept at bay by an aggressive squadron of Secret Service agents.

Still, outside events have a way of piercing the bubble.

Read more: Vice president brings abortion rights tour to California as Democrats fight for House control

So the vice president appeared ready when protesters popped up in San José, where Harris appeared as part of her national "Fight for Reproductive Freedoms" tour. Several hundred backers filled a large auditorium at the adobe-style Mexican Heritage Plaza, as Harris fielded questions gently lofted by the actor Sophia Bush.

Demonstrators unfurled banners reading "Free Palestine" and "Ceasefire Now." They repeatedly interrupted Harris, loudly condemning the Biden administration's support for Israel in its war with Hamas.

"You are complicit in genocide," a young woman hollered from the fourth row before being escorted from the auditorium as the crowd chanted, "MVP!" "MVP!" — short for Madam Vice President.

Harris looked on, expressionless. Protest is a fundamental part of democracy, she said evenly. Everyone wants to see the conflict in the Middle East come to an end.

A second outburst followed. Moments later a third. "So," Harris began, then paused at length. "There are a lot of big issues impacting our world right now. Which evoke rightly very, very strong emotions and fears and anger and tears.

"The topic for today," she went on, assuming the tone of an admonishing schoolteacher, "is the topic of what has happened in our country after the Dobbs decision ... and so I’m going to get back to the issue. Because it’s an important one and we should not be distracted."

By the fourth interruption, Harris merely paused and waited as a demonstrator in the balcony was led away. Supporters chanted, "Four more years!" She then picked up precisely where she'd left off mid-sentence, making her case against Trump and the conservative Supreme Court majority, as though nothing had happened at all.

Read more: Inside Kamala Harris and Doug Emhoff's L.A.

Equanimity could well be part of the job description.

As the first female, Black and Asian American vice president, Harris has drawn extraordinary scrutiny and with it an outsized presumption of what she can plausibly achieve.

The vice presidency is, and always has been, inherently limiting — there is no greater trespass than overstepping or overshadowing the president — and that can't help but diminish those holding the job, whatever their place in history.

Even fans of Harris have a hard time comprehending her status and appreciating that gap between expectation and reality.

Mia Casey, the mayor of Hollister, rose before dawn and drove an hour and 15 minutes to see Harris in San José.

"I liked her when she was running with Biden, but I haven't seen a lot of her," Casey said from her perch, 10 rows back and left of center stage. "I expected to see her more visible out there, doing some more meaty things in D.C."

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If Harris' main mission is working to reelect Biden (and herself) in November, another aspect is convincing Casey and others that she's far more than a bit player in the Biden administration — or Biden-Harris administration, as the vice president prefers.

At her Las Vegas rally, Harris delivered a joined-at-the-hip accounting of the last three years.

"President Biden and I canceled more than $138 billion" in student loans, she said. "President Biden and I took on Big Pharma" to cap the price of insulin. "President Biden and I" boosted loans to hundreds of small businesses.

Still, it's often her lot to be eclipsed, or treated as a mere afterthought.

Introducing Harris, Nevada Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto recalled the depths of the pandemic lockdown, when the Las Vegas Strip went dark and unemployment in the metropolitan area soared past 30%.

"It was one president who came and worked with us to ensure that we could turn our economy around and come out of that horrific time," Cortez Masto said. She paused for dramatic effect. "And that was President Biden."

"And," she hastened, "Vice President Harris."

It was a non sequitur, but at least the senator recognized the guest of honor.

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Harris loves to cook, so a pre-rally stop at the Chef Jeff Project in North Las Vegas offered a happy convergence of pleasure and politics.

The program was started by Jeff Henderson, an ex-convict turned celebrity chef, who mentors at-risk youth for careers in the culinary arts. His industrial-size kitchen in a scruffy strip mall serves as a kind of shrine to second chances, so the cramped quarters offered a perfect backdrop for Harris' event. Its theme: the power of redemption.

Standing before a small portable lectern and speaking before a brace of cameras, the vice president announced a change in federal policy that would make it easier for once-incarcerated people to obtain Small Business Administration loans.

Yes, she said over the whir of an ice machine, there must be accountability, especially for criminal wrongdoing. "But is it not the sign of a civil society to allow people the ability to come back and earn their way back?"

Read more: Kamala Harris, the first Black woman in her role, just broke a record held by an outspoken slaveholder

Harris swept through the work area, past tall shelves piled high with plates and pans, stopping where Kam Winslow was stirring a giant bowl of jambalaya. "Let's talk about your process," she said. "Tell me how you did it."

As Winslow explained — dicing chicken, browning andouille sausage, saving the shrimp for last, so it doesn't overcook — Harris punctuated his narration with a series of small interjections. "Yes." "Uh-huh." "Delicious."

"You know what I love about cooking, is the process," Harris told him. "It's about having patience and knowing that it's going to take steps, right? Like it's just not going to be easy to do."

"Same with life," Winslow said.

"Yes, that's exactly right," agreed the vice president, who's learned a few things in recent years about trial and error, mistakes and do-overs. "That's exactly right."

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.