COLUMBIA, S.C. — As Americans commemorate Martin Luther King Jr., Democratic presidential hopefuls are fanning out across the country to honor the civil rights leader and make themselves heard on the national stage.
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Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., used the holiday to launch a presidential campaign that, if successful, would make her the first woman and the second black candidate to become president.
And an annual rally to observe King’s birthday, held in the capital of South Carolina, a critical early-voting state in the Democratic primary, brought out two senators expected to seek the White House in 2020, Cory Booker of New Jersey and Bernie Sanders of Vermont.
Former Vice President Joe Biden, who’s weighing his own presidential bid, is set to speak at a King holiday event in Washington alongside former New York mayor and possible 2020 rival Michael Bloomberg. Two candidates who have already opened exploratory committees — Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York — will also appear at King-centered events.
While the Democratic field for 2020 is only beginning to take shape, the year that would have marked King’s 90th birthday gives the party’s prominent members a valuable opportunity to address race and, potentially, draw a contrast between their own views and those of President Donald Trump, whose approach to questions of racial justice has sparked criticism from multiple minority groups since he took office.
How Democratic contenders, both those officially in the race and those still mulling campaigns, celebrated the King holiday:
Sanders is citing King’s “incredible courage in taking on virtually the entire political and economic establishment of his time” in prepared remarks for the South Carolina rally.
“Racial equality must be central to combatting economic inequality, if we are to build an economy that works for all of us, and not just the top one percent,” Sanders said in excerpts obtained in advance by The Associated Press.
The Vermont independent senator lost the state’s 2016 Democratic primary to Hillary Clinton by more than 40 percentage points. His presence at a Columbia church service Monday and a rally after, as well as several other events in the state, signaled that he plans to redouble efforts in South Carolina should he launch a second White House bid in 2020.
“If we end racism in the criminal justice system and in the voting booth, there is no limit to what we can accomplish,” Sanders planned to say.
Harris, a first-term senator and former California attorney general known for her rigorous questioning of Trump’s nominees, opened the holiday by declaring her bid on ABC’s “Good Morning America.” She abandoned the formality of launching an exploratory committee, instead going all in on a presidential campaign.
“I love my country,” she said when asked what qualifies her for the presidency. “And this is a moment in time that I feel a sense of responsibility to stand up and fight for the best of who we are. And that fight will always include, as one of the highest priorities, our national security.”
Harris, 54, grew up in Oakland, California, a daughter of parents from Jamaica and India who were active in the civil rights movement.
King, she said, “was aspirational, like our country is aspirational. We know that we’ve not yet reached those ideals, but our strength is that we fight to reach those ideals. And that inspires me because it is true that we are a country that, yes, we are flawed, we are not perfect, but we are a great country when we think about the principles upon which we are founded.”
Harris also cited her years as a prosecutor in asserting: “My entire career has been focused on keeping people safe. It is probably one of the things that motivates me more than anything else.”
The senator plans a formal campaign launch in Oakland in a week and will have her headquarters in Baltimore. She’s already planning her first trip to an early primary state as a declared candidate. On Friday, Harris will travel to South Carolina to attend the Pink Ice Gala in Columbia, which is hosted by a South Carolina chapter of the Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, which Harris pledged as an undergraduate student at Howard University. The sorority, founded more than 100 years ago, is a stronghold in the black community.
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