Its playfully decorated, cavernous national headquarters in downtown Baltimore is mostly out of public view, but the Kamala Harris presidential campaign says it picked the city for a reason.
In Baltimore, the Democratic U.S. senator and her campaign chairwoman and sister, Maya Harris, found a city that feels like the Oakland, California, area, where they are from.
“It is like a sister city,” said Maya Harris, interviewed last week at the expansive headquarters encompassing a carpeted upper floor of an office tower with a sweeping view of downtown, the Inner Harbor and beyond.
Still largely empty, the space is beginning to take on a whimsical character. “FEARLESS” is written on one wall in oversized purple lettering. On another side, three pillars 20 feet apart are successively painted KA, MA and LA, spelling the candidate’s name in bright red. The candidate hasn’t been here yet, but she appears in a colorful mural — painted by local artist Erin Fitzpatrick — that greets visitors, showing Harris standing shoulder to shoulder with a diverse group of smiling people.
The headquarters is mostly populated with young staffers, many renting downtown apartments or houses so they can walk to the office and explore the city during their fleeting time off.
Baltimore “has history and it has culture, it is vibrant in myriad ways,” said Maya Harris, a lawyer who was a senior adviser on Democrat Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential bid. "But it also has ways in which it is still coming into its own. There are places where we still have more work to do. That is not unlike where we have grown up.”
The Harris campaign, like Baltimore, says it is focused on what it could become. Baltimore struggles with high homicide rates. Democrat Catherine Pugh resigned as mayor in May in a scandal over sales of her “Healthy Holly” children’s books to entities with business before the city. More recently, the city has been plagued by flooding and a water main break that closed downtown streets and disrupted Light Rail traffic near Oriole Park at Camden Yards.
“You can say it’s the potholes and the sinkholes in Baltimore. Somewhere else it’s ‘We don’t have clean water.’ So, there are critical things that people are facing all over the country,” Maya Harris said. “We are here because we wanted to be in Baltimore.”
While the candidate has shuttled between early such primary states as Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, her staff worked for six months in a temporary office in Stadium Square. They moved into the new space in early June.
For security reasons, the campaign does not publicize its address or place signage in the lobby of the building. Consequently, campaign officials see more of Baltimore than the city sees of them.
A Harris campaign contingent did march in the Baltimore Pride parade in June, waving multicolored signs reading “KAMALA” and “FEARLESS FOR THE PEOPLE.” Her campaign says Harris, a former California attorney general, has married same-sex couples at San Francisco City Hall and favors new federal protections for gay, bisexual and transgender individuals.
“She was an advocate for same-sex marriage and I am a son of same-sex parents, and so her fight was our fight,” said staff member Spencer Perry, who joined the campaign following a stint in the senator’s Washington office the year after graduating from college in 2017. “I moved to Baltimore a soon as I could,” said Perry, who lives near Patterson Park.
Baltimore has logistical advantages as a base, aides said, noting its proximity to Washington and Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport.
Asked how many people it has in the new space, a spokeswoman said only that the campaign is still ramping up.
The campaign said it raised more than $2 million from 63,277 people in the 24 hours following Harris’ strong showing June 27 in the first round of Democratic debates. Polls have shown Harris gaining on front-runner Joe Biden, the Democratic former vice president.
Harris will again be in the same group of candidates as Biden in the next debate, scheduled for July 31.
Harris, 54, grew up in Oakland and is of Jamaican and Indian descent. She was elected in 2016 to the U.S. Senate after serving as California’s attorney general from 2011 to 2017, and as San Francisco district attorney before that.
Harris has made occasional appearances in Maryland politics, most recently endorsing Ben Jealous last summer during his unsuccessful gubernatorial campaign. She also appeared in 2017 at the NAACP convention in Baltimore, where she called for national reform of cash bail and other criminal justice issues.
On last week’s visit to Harris headquarters, a reporter encountered dozens of staff members, divided into such teams as finance, political, communications and advance. Team leaders have small offices off a common space. There is a digital team overseeing Harris’ online presentation, with a digital analytics director studying voters’ internet tendencies.
Maryland Policy & Politics
“I’m interested in anything voters are doing on the internet,” said the director, Jack Welty. “It’s what ads they’re clicking on, what they’re searching on Google, what they’re tweeting about.”
Jordan Uter is on the advance team. The former Hillary Clinton campaign worker analyzes photos and video shot by staff at sites that Harris may visit. The goal is to find spots in which the candidate can easily engage with voters — hopefully in a visually interesting way.
“You can say it’s the potholes and the sinkholes in Baltimore. Somewhere else it’s, ‘We don’t have clean water.’— Maya Harris, presidential campaign chairwoman for Kamala Harris
A recent trip to Gilford, New Hampshire, produced “a beautiful shot of her at a house party outside,” Uter said. “It was the way the backyard kind of elevated a little bit, and she was down under in the center with all the folks in the crowd looking at her. And you have the backdrop of the trees and the sun with some clouds. It was just a beautiful shot.”
Uter, who graduated from college in 2016, is commuting by MARC train from Washington, where he previously worked for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. For convenience’ sake, he plans to move soon to Baltimore. Campaign hours can be long and unpredictable.
“It’s a grind. We work as long as we need to,” said Missayr Boker, the co-political director who is the former campaign director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
She said she moved to Baltimore this year so “I get to focus on what I need to be doing — my work — and not be in the car.” She has managed to see some Orioles games and dine at a favorite spot: Tagliata, on Fleet Street.
The headquarters does include a space — albeit a small one — to take a break. The room labeled “Lactation, Prayer and Meditation” contains yoga mats, a Pilates ball and a sofa. In the hours before watching the candidate’s first debate from the headquarters, campaign spokesperson Kirsten Allen said she and a few colleagues took turns in the room, declaring: "It’s nap time!'”