In today's installment, activist and organizer Natalie Weiss laments what the LGBTQ+ community lost when Kamala Harris announced she was suspending her 2020 campaign.
My name is Natalie Weiss and I'm a trans woman from Lincoln, Nebraska. In September of this year, I made a bitofanationalstir when I lost my job for cursing at a prominent anti-LGBTQ+ bigot who works in my state. In the aftermath of that incident, while I was fielding death threats, wondering how I would pay my bills, and wrestling over whether I would ever be able to effectively advocate for my community ever again, I had a thought. The Polk County Steak Fry was just over a week away. I could go there. I could meet the candidates. I could address the need for them to talk more from their positions as national political figures about the struggles the LGBTQ+ community faces in this country. So that's what I did.
The Polk County Steak Fry is one of the Iowa Caucus' premiere events. Every year, in late summer, the Polk County Democrats host an outdoors steak fry. It's exactly like it sounds: political booths, stickers, balloons, candidates, and fried steak. Think "midwestern political picnic" and you're not far off. Every four years, the presidential candidates show up to shake hands, give speeches, and of course, eat some steak (except for Cory Booker). They're incredibly accessible at this event. As long as you're patient and know where to wait, you can get in front of any candidate you want.
With 17 candidates and over 12,000 attendees, this year's event was a zoo, but I managed to get in front of Michael Bennet, Beto O'Rourke, Tulsi Gabbard, Elizabeth Warren, Andrew Yang, Cory Booker, Pete Buttigieg, and Kamala Harris. I had a feeling a couple of them already knew who I was. Most listened intently and promised to look me up. A couple nodded politely. Buttigieg refused to shake my hand after making eye contact with me no less than three times throughout the afternoon. It was Kamala, however, who hugged me. She assured me she had been talking about trans rights and inclusion and that she had been working on it. I told her I knew that, but we needed more. Then she disappeared into the crowd and I was off to find my next candidate.
I've been following Kamala Harris' career ever since her campaign to be the District Attorney of San Francisco in 2003. During that race, she faced subtle racism, sexism, and good old fashioned political backstabbing, but Kamala beat the pundit projections, threw every punch, and won. She's always been a source of admiration for me. When I got home I decided forwarding my resume to her was worth a shot. I sent it, and her campaign decided to hire me in Iowa.
Being an organizer for the Harris campaign was physically taxing. The caucus is a beast, we had a lot of opponents, and the hours were long, but it was easy. That's what happens when you have a good candidate. Everywhere I went in Iowa -- places like Council Bluffs, Des Moines, Fairfield, Iowa City, Washington, West Branch, and Riverside -- there were Iowans eager to hear about Kamala's record of accomplishments, and once they did, they were eager to commit to caucus for her.
Kamala's record is long, and like any politician with a long career, there are legitimate things to criticize, aspects of that record for which she has apologized, and areas which she is continuing to grow. But her accomplishments in my view should have easily tipped any scale for voters in our party. In one of her very first acts as DA of San Francisco, Kamala refused to seek the death penalty for an individual accused of murdering a police officer following allegations of racial profiling by law enforcement. She suffered politically for it but did it anyway -- because it was right. Also, in her first year in that office, she began the "Back on Track" program to reduce recidivism, which allowed non-violent drug offenders to have their charges dismissed. The program was so successful that California Assembly Bill 750 was signed and enacted by then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2009, allowing similar programs to be enacted statewide. Since then, cities all over the country have used Kamala's program as a blueprint for implementing their own.
Kamala also started a special Hate Crimes Unit in the San Francisco's DA office specifically to investigate hate crimes against LGBTQ+ children and teens in schools and convened a national conference to confront the queer and trans "panic" defense. The latter refers to a legal strategy in which those accused of violence against an LGBTQ+ person attempt to seek a reduced sentence or even acquittal by claiming that discovery of the victim's identity induced a form of temporary insanity.
As Attorney General of California, she continued her work toward LGBTQ+ equity by pushing a bill through the legislature that made California the first state in the country to outlaw the "panic" defense in 2014. Since then, seven more states have followed suit -- most recently New York. She ensured that trans inmates in the California penal system received HRT and mental health treatment and were able to change their name and gender markers on state issued IDs, all first-in-the-nation policies. She also took on big banks, helped bring them to court, secured $12 billion for victims of predatory lending in her state, and introduced the California Homeowner's Bill of Rights, which became law in 2013.
Kamala continued that record of accomplishments after her election to the U.S. Senate in 2016. In her short tenure as a U.S. Senator, she has managed to make Jeff Sessions look like a fool, William Barr squirm, and grilled Brett Kavanaugh on abortion rights, corruption, and the numerous sexual assault allegations against him. She will be a juror in the president's upcoming impeachment trial. I can't wait to see her continue to prove what she's capable of.
Explaining these things to caucus-goers was the proudest moment of my life. Kamala was called the "joyful warrior" in our campaign, and she was. She is the warrior who gets things done, says the things that need to be said, and is committed to finding solutions that would carry the weight of the majority, one that would actually get passed into laws. We were convinced we were going to have a good night on caucus night. We were hopeful and we had reasons to be. We were watching Iowans come to our side, and on the morning Kamala announced her campaign's suspension, none of us saw it coming. But the money had dried up and Kamala wanted to make sure we each received our last paychecks. This editorial -- which was intended to argue why she should be the next president of the United States -- has become an obituary to what could have been.
The tears for me have been hard to push back. I miss the work I was doing, and I miss the candidate and the organization I was working for. Kamala came to Iowa to see all of us in private the night after her announcement to thank us and take a picture with us one last time. She reminded us that in the Harris family, we don't say "goodbye" -- we say "see ya later, or see ya soon, or see ya next time." One thing I remain certain of is that: We will see her soon. This will not be her last race.
Before we parted ways in Polk County, Kamala said something to me. She thanked me. She thanked me for my work and for my advocacy. That was a big moment for me at a time when I was very unsure of myself and unsure of what I should be doing next. Kamala helped me realize I was on the right track. I imagine Kamala right now might be feeling something similar. Kamala, thank you. Thank you for your work and for your advocacy. Thank you for giving me, and so many others, a campaign to work on and be proud of. Thank you for giving millions of Americans a presidential candidate who spoke for them.
In the coming months, I hope you remember your own advice. Never ask someone to lead. Just lead.
Natalie is a Democratic political operative and trans advocate based in Lincoln Nebraska. She most recently was employed by Kamala Harris for Iowa.