Iowa PBS Presents Conversations with Presidential Candidates Hosted by DMACC with Sen. Kamala Harris

Oct 31, 2019  | 57 min  | Ep 104 | Transcript

Iowa PBS presents Conversations with Presidential Candidates hosted by DMACC has been funded by Goldman Sachs, which is delivering its 10,000 Small Businesses program in Iowa to help entrepreneurs across the state create jobs and economic opportunity. Additional funding has been provided by the Arlene McKeever Endowment Fund, a fund at the Iowa PBS Foundation, established by a gift from the estate of Arlene McKeever. And by Friends, the Iowa PBS Foundation.  


The future of the American presidency and our nation's economy are key factors in the 2020 race. In Iowa, the nation's first test for presidential aspirants, candidates face questions directly from voters searching for answers impacting the lives of students, small business owners and everyday Iowans. From Des Moines Area Community College in Ankeny, Iowa, Iowa PBS presents Conversations with Presidential Candidates hosted by DMACC. Here is Iowa PBS's David Yepsen.


Yepsen: Welcome to the latest edition of our Iowa PBS Conversations with Presidential Candidates, an in-depth focus on issues relevant to the future of our country and candidates seeking the democratic nomination for President, all hosted here at Des Moines Area Community College. We'll dive into a series of issues, many dealing with ways to improve the economic lives of Americans. Our goal is to help people make a crucial choice in the months ahead. The questions will come from me and from Iowans seated in our audience of students, business owners and Iowa caucus goers. We're joined now by Senator Kamala Harris. She is a former district attorney of San Francisco and later served as Attorney General of California. Harris launched her campaign for president in January and joins us today for this Iowa PBS conversation. Senator Harris, welcome back to Iowa.

Harris: Thank you, it's good to be back.

Yepsen: Thank you for doing that. Let's start with a political question right off the bat. You recently re-calibrated your campaign, a Suffolk/USA Today poll shows 26% of caucus goers are undecided and 63% could change their minds. We've got three months to go. We've got a statewide audience on this network. What is your message to caucus going Iowa democrats?

Harris: Well, I have virtually moved to Iowa. It is a very important state. I am all in, in Iowa, and I have been spending a lot of time here, I will continue to spend the majority of my time here hoping to and working at earning the support of Iowans around a variety of issues that are really about the issues that keep people up at night and need to be addressed and also understanding that justice is on the ballot in 2020. And when I think about justice being on the ballot it's about issues like fighting for quality health care for all people. I've met so many Iowans, and particularly seniors, who are making difficult decisions about whether they fill their prescription or fill their refrigerator. Iowan students who consistently talk about the burden of student loan debt. I met a young woman who with tears in her eyes said, Kamala, you talk about children all the time, I may not be able to have children because I don't think I can afford them and pay off my student loan debt. Iowan farmers who are talking about how this so-called trade policy has harmed them in such a significant way and what they need in terms of smart trade policy. These are all issues of justice as far as I'm concerned. And as you said, David, I've spent my entire career fighting for the people. I've only had one client my entire career and it has been the people. And I intend to fight here in Iowa and earn the support. One of the many things I love about Iowa is Iowans don't sit around waiting for somebody else to give permission to say what's possible. Iowans know what is possible. And that optimism and the optimism of the people of this state is something that motivates me and encourages me.

Yepsen: I want to get to all those points you made later in the interview. I have a political question. One of the issues in any nominating contest is can you win. Why are you the best candidate to beat Donald Trump?

Harris: Well, I'll tell you, when we look at what is that issue in 2020 justice is on the ballot and I have spent my entire career fighting for justice. From the first day I walked into a courtroom I said these words, Kamala Harris for the people, and it meant all the people regardless of race or gender or with whom they registered to vote, it meant fighting for the people, understanding that a harm against any one of us is a harm against all of us. And I do believe we need someone on the stage who has a proven career and a dedication to fighting for the people an also an ability to frankly prosecute the case against four more years of Donald Trump and I'm fully prepared to do that understanding that in so many ways he has really sold out our country around selling out working people with promises that were never fulfilled including a tax bill that benefits the top 1% in the biggest corporations, including selling out the values of our country with policies that have been about putting babies in cages and not to mention selling out our country in terms of national security with a number of examples including taking the word of dictators over the words of the American intelligence community and then most recently attempting to trade American taxpayer dollars with the President of Ukraine for his personal political benefit. And I believe that we need someone who can not only defeat Donald Trump, which I know I can do, but also after turning that page we've got to heal as a country because let's recognize and agree that there has been so much about this presidency that has been about trying to sew hate and division among Americans in an attempt to turn Americans against each other. And we've got to unify around what I know in my heart and soul to be a fact, which is that the vast majority of us have so much more in common that what separates us and we have got to unify around that reality in addressing all the challenges that must be met from, again, health care to education to what we're going to do to support our community colleges and train a workforce to take on the jobs of the future.

Yepsen: One of the major issues in front of the country right now is impeachment. You're a United States Senator. How do you feel about impeachment?

Harris: I believe that this is a process that must be robust and I applaud the process so far. Listen, this is how I think about it, our framers in their brilliance imagined a moment like this. They imagined a moment where there would be an abuse of power. So they designed our democracy rightly that there would be three co-equal, independent branches of government that can be the check and balance on the abuse by any one. And that's what we're seeing right now which is where there has been an abuse of power by in this case Donald Trump the United States Congress is doing its constitutional job to create a check and balance on that abuse of power. So this has to be a process where we are in pursuit of the truth and the facts but there must be accountability and consequence.

Yepsen: Jobs and the economy, one of the most important issues in a campaign, at least in Iowa. I'd like -- how do you create more jobs?

Harris: Yeah, there are a number of ways, but let's start by understanding that it is fundamental that we as part of our culture of who we are Americans like to work and we take pride in our work and we value that we will give working people the dignity that comes with the value of that hard worked. So that is how I think about this issue. And then how do we create jobs? Well, one, we've got to invest in the American workforce, we have to invest in American students, we have to grow the American economy and create all of those as priorities. So what does that mean? It means looking at DMACC as an example and seeing that community colleges are really a jewel of the education system in our country and in Iowa where we have folks who know the community, who are trusted by the community, who understand the job needs of the community and the skills that are required to actually fill those jobs. So it's about supporting our community colleges. It's about creating an economy that will produce jobs. For example, understanding that the climate crisis is real. We know that in all parts of Iowa that have been burdened by floods which have caused basements to flood much less losing a whole season of crops because of the floods. And then talk about my home state of California where the wildfires are burning throughout the state. The climate crisis is real. How are we going to deal with that? Well, part of what we need to do in the not so long-term is invest in renewable energy jobs. That is about wind turbines. Iowa has done such a great job. And that is about installation and maintenance of wind turbines, solar paneling. We need to build back up the infrastructure around water infrastructure. So much of the flooding in Iowa was a result of levees that were breached because they need to be upgraded, roads that need to be upgraded. That is about jobs, building infrastructure, partnering with our carpenters and laborers, the building trade’s folks to build the skills that are necessary to take on those very valuable and important jobs. And it's also about investing in the future of education. I was saying to the President of DMACC that I think for too long when we talk about education we talk about higher education it sounds like college and four-year college. And frankly we have done a disservice in our country because we have suggested of the work that requires that a four-year college degree is more valuable than the work that doesn't require a four-year college degree. Well that's just not so, that's not true. What I like to say is instead of saying higher education, which suggests college, let's talk about education after high school, which for the jobs that need to be filled everyone needs whether it be the education that will get us the certificate to take on the job or for some it may be a cap and gown. But education after high school and so that means investing in all of the tracks that are available for education after high school including our community colleges. But that is how we are going to create jobs and then it is about -- so my infrastructure plan is for $1 trillion, it will create 15 million jobs in America, also a $250 billion investment in water infrastructure specifically. And then what we need to do to transition people from the jobs of today to the jobs of tomorrow so I have an $8,000 tax credit that workers can receive to get the training to transition into the new jobs and that includes covering the cost of training and child care and transportation. These are some of the issues including my specific proposal for rural America around a $10,000 tax credit for any employer for each new job tat that employer creates.

Yepsen: Higher minimum wage.

Harris: Yes, we must do it.

Yepsen: How high?

Harris: Well, $15 an hour. Right now federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour. That's $15,000 a year. Nobody can live off of $15,000 a year in America today.

Yepsen: Senator, a lot of people, a lot of businesses in rural Iowa, small businesses will tell you they can't afford that, it would kill their business and actually diminish job opportunities if they had to pay that high of a minimum wage.

Harris: So -- I appreciate that concern and I will say that when it comes to our small businesses one of the reasons I am so dedicated to all that I'm prepared to do to invest federal dollars in the creation of small businesses and the support of small businesses is that truly in every part of America, including rural America, it is our small businesses that are probably the most significant in growing the economy of a community. And in my personal experience with small business owners they are not only leaders in business but civic leaders. Our small business owners like our friend who now has two coffee shops it is about literally being a community leader and hiring locally and training locally and being a voice for the needs of the community. So investment in small business is important to me and I want to do everything we can to support them. In terms of minimum wage, what we have found is when you look at how it plays out in the states that have raised minimum wage it is not causing small businesses to suffer as a whole because it actually is increasing the buying power of the people in those communities. But we need to transition in a way that does not hurt, much less destroy, the ability of small businesses to exist, much less to thrive.

Yepsen: Let's switch gears. Health care. Medicare for all or public option? You've got your own plan. So why don't you describe it here.

Harris: I do, I do. So Medicare for all is my plan but my plan is different than some of the other folks on the debate stage. So here's my plan. We're going to bring down cost. Everyone will be covered including people with pre-existing conditions. I'm going to extend Medicare to also cover vision, dental and hearing aids, which are very expensive. But a point of distinction between my plan and some of my colleagues on the debate stage is I am not going to raise middle class taxes, and equally important if not more important to many people, I'm not going to take away your option to have a private plan. When I developed our plan it was really in large part because a lot of people came up to me and said, Kamala, I like having a private plan and I don't want that to be taken away, that option to be taken away. So my Medicare for all plan gives people the option while still eliminating copays and deductibles because all is said and done you may want a private plan but those private insurance companies have been jacking up the prices for far too long and getting away with it and in many situations putting profit over public health. And so we're going to reign them in but not take away your choice.

Yepsen: How do you pay for it? More detail, you said you would not hurt middle class taxpayers.

Harris: Correct. So we pay for it by there's going to be an increased tax on Wall Street around stocks and bonds and trading. But also I have to say that in this conversation yes we can look at it in terms of cost and we're going to deal with that but we also have to look at it in terms of benefit, bac to the point of small businesses, a successful business owner knows that the measure of whether something makes sense or not is not just about what is it going to cost but what is the return on investment, ROI. And in this case when we're talking about investing in the public health, investing in health care for Americans, all Americans, we mutually, collectively, are going to get a greater return on the investment because here's the point on this, we do have Medicare for all right now. And do you know where that takes place? It's in an emergency room and it's too expensive. It's expensive in terms of that people are receiving their medical care in a moment of crisis. So it's expensive for the emotional much less physical health of that family and it's expensive for taxpayers. We can do better.

Yepsen: Senator, we've got some questions from our audience and we'll take one now.

Harris: Great.

Hi, Senator Harris. My name is Amy Tagliareni and I live here in Ankeny. I'm a school board candidate so get out and vote next Tuesday. But I am actually here on behalf of my husband today. He is a Type I diabetic and his insulin is like oxygen for you and me, he doesn't live if he doesn't have it. And so I'm just wondering what you're going to do to bring down the cost of all drugs, especially drugs like insulin.

Harris: Yeah, thank you Amy and good luck to you. So one in four diabetes patients in American can't afford their insulin, you probably know that. And to your point it's like oxygen for the people who have diabetes. I have family members who have diabetes. And as you've heard I was Attorney General of California, I ran the second largest Department of Justice in the United States second only to the United States Department of Justice and I took on the pharmaceutical companies and I won and I intend to do that as President because I will tell you and I've seen up close how they have consistently put profit ahead of public health. And it's extraordinary. Again, we have seniors here in Iowa splitting pills because they can't afford to get through their medication and so they are extending it as far as they can. And talk about going into a health crisis because they're not taking it as they should. We've got seniors here in Iowa who are catching a bus to Canada to get their prescriptions. And what's going on there? Well guess what, American pharmaceutical companies have been getting away with charging American consumers more than they charge Canadian consumers. Well how could that be? Well because the people in Washington, D.C. don't have the chutzpah, I'm not going to go into other things, to take on this powerful lobby industry. And so I'll tell you what I'm going to do specifically and again, I have a background of doing this, taking them on in a number of ways. One, suing where appropriate, where there is false and misleading advertising. We can look at the opioid crisis and know what that has been and those CEO's need to go to jail. It is also about bringing down prices. And so you can see my website,, but simply put this is how we're going to do it. One, through our Secretary of Health and Human Services, we are going to require that we basically set drug prices in America in a way that it is fair market price meaning we're going to look at how that same drug is being charged to consumers around the globe and then bring our prices down so they match what people around the globe are being charged. I'm going to tell you the hook on this, I'm also prepared by executive action that if we can't get compliance or any legislation to back that up that for those pharmaceutical companies that are selling drugs that are the product of federal dollars investing in the research and development of those drugs, I will take their patents. Yeah, I'm serious about this.

Yepsen: Thank you, Amy.

Harris: Thank you.

Amy: Thank you.

Yepsen: Senator, I'm going to follow up. You've made an important point about the need for a special emphasis on women's health care. Tell us more about why, what that means.

Harris: Yeah, so my mother was, she had two goals in her life, she raised me and my sister and she was a scientist and her whole goal in life was to end breast cancer. She was a breast cancer researcher. And so from the earliest days of my life I heard my mother fighting for women's health care knowing that women are still not given the kind of dignity and support that they need and deserve. You still look at issues like maternal mortality, you still look at issues like a woman's access to reproductive health care, you still look at the lack of research and funding that is going into women's health care issues. And so this is a big issue for me. And on the issue of access to reproductive health care, for example, and again it's my background perhaps fighting for justice through the courts, I am prepared to say that for any state that passes a law that violates a woman's constitutional right to reproductive health care that our Department of Justice will stop that law from going into effect. I'm prepared to put resources into the research that needs to go into issues like breast cancer, issues like lupus, issues that fundamentally debilitate women that need to be addressed, maternal mortality. Again, there are so many women, in particular poor women, women of color in our country, who are dying in connection with child birth. Here in Iowa, here in Iowa I have met moms who are giving birth at home or have to travel hundreds of miles because there is no hospital in their community to help deliver that baby, facing all kinds of health consequences for the lack of available health care for child birth. So these are issues that I care deeply about and my Medicare for all plan is part of what we're going to do to address it. But it also has to be a priority and it has been long overlooked frankly in our country.

Yepsen: Senator, we've got way too many issues so I'm going to move on to another one and one of them involves a question from our audience involving your proposal that you would do more with executive orders.

Harris: Yes.

Hi, my name is Lisa LaJoie. I live right here in Ankeny, Iowa and actually work on campus at DMACC so I appreciate your position supporting community colleges. So he referenced that you frequently talk about using executive orders to enact key priorities. However, we've seen President Trump easily reverse many of President Obama's executive orders and issue many of his own. So here's my question. Do you support executive orders as a tool knowing that those are easily at risk and can be reversed by the next administration that comes along? Where would you work with Congress to pass legislation which is more difficult for another administration to reverse? For example, we've seen that with the Affordable Care Act.

Harris: Yeah, so I don't accept any false choices and on this one I am fully prepared and eager to find common ground and pass legislation accordingly. So for example, in the Senate right now I am working with what you might think is an unlikely partner, Rand Paul, on the issue, he and I are co-sponsoring a bill that I proposed around reforming the bail system in American to take the money out of it so that we don't have poor people sitting in jail waiting for trial whereas rich people get out. I have a bill that is about upgrading America's elections infrastructure with a republican from Oklahoma, James Lankford, because he and I while we agree on almost nothing we do agree on national security. And so I look forward to finding common ground and getting legislation passed. But you are correct, on certain issues where we don't see movement and we have not seen movement for decades I will take executive action. And I'll give you an example of one, the need for smart gun safety laws. We have been dealing with this for decades and decades and decades. And here's my position on it. It's a false choice to say you're either in favor of the Second Amendment or you want to take everyone's guns away. We need courage and we need people in Washington, D.C. to have the courage to take on the gun lobby and agree that it is in the best interest of the safety of our community, of our babies who are going to school hearing drills every day about how they should hide in the closet, that we have reasonable gun safety laws including universal background checks and the renewal of the assault weapons ban. And so yes, you are correct, I have said and I intend that if the United States Congress after I'm elected cannot pull this together in 100 days and put a bill on my desk for signature I will take executive action and put in place a comprehensive background check requirement and ban the importation of assault weapons into our country. And here's how I feel about it. You are correct about the concern. But you know what, on that issue as far as I'm concerned those babies who are now in elementary, middle and high school, we'll deal with the next person who comes in eight years from now, but during the course of the next eight years I want to make sure they're safe.

Yepsen: Thank you, Lisa.

Lisa: Thank you.

Harris: Thanks.

Yepsen: Climate change, you mentioned it earlier and we're all stunned by what is happening in your home state and our sympathies go out to all your constituents. But what do you do about climate change?

Harris: There's a lot we can do. First, let's acknowledge it. That seems too basic but I'm going to tel you, I've been in Washington, D.C. two and a half years now and I was literally part of a Senate hearing in our United States Congress where the underlying subject was to debate if science should be the basis of public policy. This on a subject that represents an existential threat to who we are as human beings. So what do we do about it? First we acknowledge the science and then next we understand that there is so much of the problem that was caused by human beings and that we can correct our behaviors. But let's start with the biggest offenders who are the big oil companies and the fossil fuel companies who have been polluting for generations. It's not unlike the big tobacco companies where they have done the research, they are aware of what they have been doing, and they still cause the harm. So part of my Green New Deal is that we will go after the offenders and hold them accountable when they are engaged in bad behaviors because there is a piece of this that is about saying that there are a lot of people who have been, especially these big oil companies, who have been polluting knowing of the harm they're creating and there has been no consequence to them because again you talk about the big lobbyists in Washington, D.C. Next, what can we do about it? I've seen even in my home state of California where in some cities like Los Angeles the sky for generations was brown and finally people got sick of the fact that the babies of that community had asthma and low rates of lung development and said hey, leaders need to lead. And so what happened? We put in place laws that were about reducing greenhouse gas emissions. And what do we see now? They sky is blue. IT's about also saying that we have to invest in the fact that this is also a national security issue. Here's why. Drought, the farmers of Iowa know what that means, drought means you can't grow food. When people can't grow food where they live they move to other places. So around the globe we are seeing populations of people moving to another place where people speak a different language, pray to a different God, that results in conflict, conflict results in war, war around the world will visit itself upon America and become a national security issue if we don't take seriously the fact that this is about public health, it's about what we need to do to sustain our economy because if we invest in green jobs we'll actually grow the economy. We need to include our farmers in this conversation. Our farmers are so creative, what they are doing here in Iowa and around the country, around cover crops, let's involve them in it. But we can do something about this and understand that we have the ability here to grow our economy, to deal with what could be a national security threat and also to actually be responsible adults for the children in our lives who are looking at us and have a right to know that we are going to take this thing on.

Yepsen: Senator, all that sounds good but when you talk to people who work in those industries, coal miners, oil field workers, auto workers, farmers when it comes to complaints about methane production, they start to back up. They say, well I've got to worry about putting food on the table this week, I can't be worried about something decades away, and you're taking away my ability to earn a living.

Harris: But here's the thing, so in investing in the economy that is going to actually contribute to reducing the harm of the environmental crisis, things like installation and maintenance of wind turbines. Do you know what the skills are required for that? That's pipe fitters, that's electricians, that's welders. So many of the jobs that currently exist and the skills that currently exist are the skills that we need for those jobs. So that is why my plan is to make sure that we give people an $8,000 tax credit to be able to transition their skills that they have into the jobs that need to be filled. But we also need to do it in a way that thanks the people that you have just listed for the jobs that they have done for generations that have built the economy of our country and understand that this is not about looking down on it, it's just about saying that as we move forward let's transition those folks with the skills they already have that are so valuable into the jobs that need to be performed. I look at our farmers, I've been spending a lot of time with farmers in Iowa, and the kind of -- farmers are some of the most innovative people by nature because they have to adapt. They are never going to sit around singing a sonnet about oh things are changing, they have to deal with it. They're so innovative and I'm so excited about the work that is already happening but that needs to happen more, investment in our land grant universities and colleges around the work that is being done there and including our farmers in what we do to transition in a way that saves our planet.

Yepsen: One way to reduce carbon is nuclear power. How do you feel about bringing that back?

Harris: Here's how I feel about it. The issue with nuclear power is under this administration and before it has been imposed and forced on states without getting consent from those states. And so we need to -- when I look at places like Nevada for example and what has happened there and how this administration and others have forced that, so there needs to be consent among those states that want to engage in it. But ultimately we do have to remove, we have to move into a clean economy, which is why my Green New Deal is about having a clean economy by 2045 and before that having carbon neutral electricity by 2030.

Yepsen: Switch gears.

Harris: Yes.

Yepsen: Social Security. How do we keep it sound?

Harris: Well, let's first by saying and agreeing that we need to keep our promise to our seniors. We have millions and millions of Americans who worked hard every day, who paid into it with a promise that something would be there for them that is substantial and can allow them to live with dignity after they retire. And so we need to keep our promise and that means doing a number of things including not raiding Social Security and Medicare as some of my colleagues across the aisle have suggested they do to pay for that tax cut that has benefited the top 1% and the biggest corporations of America. So start there. Two, we need to increase the folks who are paying into Social Security. So whereas now the cap is on $128,000 I would raise it so that people making over $250,000 are contributing more to help make sure that Social Security is solvent.

Yepsen: Would you eliminate the Social Security tax on lower income workers to make it more progressive too?

Harris: Yeah, I'm actually very interested in that and I'm looking at the details in terms of how that would work. But yeah, I think that's a very interesting and important discussion.

Yepsen: Related to that, pensions. Many in the labor movement are concerned about keeping their pensions and keeping pensions sound. How do you reassure them?

Harris: Well, they're right and this is something I've worked on. When I was Attorney General of California, when for example there were a lot of mergers of anything from grocery stores to hospitals, these big corporations coming in, merging and at the cost of the workers and their pensions. And so I have always stood by labor and fighting for those pensions and it's just a basic point which is, again, these are folks who have worked hard and should be guaranteed with defined benefits, with defined benefits their pensions. And I will tell you as President starting with appointing a Secretary of Labor who comes from labor and understands the importance of the dignity of work and supporting working people around wages and benefits, that is a very high priority for me.

Yepsen: But is there really much the federal government, much more the federal government can do to protect private pensions? We already have pension benefit corporations, we have those things. As a practical matter, what can the federal government, what more can the federal government do?

Harris: Well, let's start with protecting worker's rights and enforcing all of the wage and hours laws and enforcing the laws that have been put in place to protect workers. We're seeing around the country the laws being passed in states, the right to work states, that are stripping workers of their rights including their pensions. So let's start there.

Yepsen: You mentioned student debt a moment ago. Elaborate on that. What would you do to ease the student debt burden?

Harris: Right. So let's look at a quick history lesson. Part of the problem with education and I'm really looking forward as President to saying thank you and goodbye to Betsy DeVos, I have to tell you, because for a number of reasons, not overlooking grizzly bears and that whole fetish apparently, but it is, there has been a move to privatize so much about education. Government has three essential functions, public safety, public health and public education and they should not be privatized. Why? Because it should never be a function of how much money you have that you get access to any of those three services. So on the issue of education over a period of time on student loans we took it away from the federal government and it started to get privatized so you've got then predators in this space who again are profiting off of a student's desire to get an education. So a number of things have happened including the fact that we have so many students in America, including the young woman I told you about, who is with tears saying she may not be able to have children because she can't afford it, students who within five years of coming out of school owe more than the loan they took out. Here's what we do about it. One, it's about free community colleges, it's about debt free college and it's about interest free student loans and it is about, as I have done before as again in my background, going after the predators in this space including the for-profit colleges. I took out of business one of the biggest for-profit colleges in the United States, put them out of business, got a $1 billion settlement because they were predatory and basically taking money from students and in a way that was debilitating to those students and their lives.

Yepsen: Do you forgive student debt? Do you wipe it out?

Harris: Not for Donald Trump's kids.


Harris: Student loan forgiveness for families or individuals that are making less than $100,000 a year but not beyond that.

Yepsen: Switch gears to questions of criminal justice reform.

Harris: Okay, good.

Yepsen: What will you do to change the criminal justice system? And talk a little bit too about restorative justice.

Harris: That's great. So my background includes that I am a daughter of parents who met when they were active in the Civil Rights Movement and I went to law school because the heroes of that movement included Thurgood Marshall and these lawyers who fought for justice and I wanted to be a lawyer for that reason, to fight for justice. And then when I got out of law school I made the decision to become a prosecutor because I said I want to be in a place where I can be a voice to protect the most vulnerable and I want to be in a place where I can reform a system that I know is in desperate need of reform. And so I did the work for years prosecuting in particular crimes against women and children. But I also created some of the first in the nation programs that were about reforming the system. So for example, an initiative that was about taking mostly young men who were arrested for drug crimes and giving them jobs and counseling knowing that the war on drugs was a failure and led to America's mass incarceration. So there are a number of things that we need to do that are about ending the mass incarceration issue in America. We incarcerate more human beings than any other so-called civilized country. We need to deal with accountability where there has been misconduct and that's about law enforcement accountability, it's about accountability by prosecutors, by the whole system, and we need to deal with issues like restorative justice, to your point. Restorative justice is basically it's about saying that, you know what it is, when we talk about redemption, redemption is an age old concept, it transcends religions. But it basically presupposes that everybody will commit, everyone will make a mistake and to some that will rise to the level of being a crime. But is it not the sign of a just society that we allow people an ability to earn their way back. And I believe in that, I believe in redemption and the power of that. And so let's think about how we construct our system in a way that does that. Restorative justice more specifically is about allowing, these are examples of allowing a survivor to talk with the offender about what happened and what that caused and in that way restoring a sense of justice frankly in a community.

Yepsen: You're a former prosecutor and your critics say that in part things you did as a prosecutor are responsible for some of these problems that we have. Senator Klobuchar, another prosecutor, gets the same criticism. What do you say about what you did?

Harris: I went in the system to fix it because I knew it was broken. So there's no question it was broken when I was in the system, there's no question it was broken, I was in there to fix it. And look, I decided to go up the rough side of the mountain, there's no question about it. But here's the thing, we cannot truly ever reform systems unless some of us are willing to roll up our sleeves and dive in there because it's really easy to stand by the sidelines and tsk, tsk, tsk about what is going on as someone sits on their couch sipping on their chardonnay. It's a whole other thing to say hey, let's dive in there, into that place that is broken and get in there because it has got to be fixed and we need to be in there instead of just on the outside eating popcorn and talking about how bad it is.

Yepsen: We have an audience question related to the issue of gun violence in our society.

Hi, Senator Harris. My name is Mary Gjullin and I'm a resident here in Ankeny. Gun control debates have gone on for far too long in this country. And I was wondering what your position is on mandatory buy backs and also providing better access to mental health care that has declined so greatly in the last decades in this country with regards to helping with our gun violence problem.

Harris: That's great, Mary, thank you. I support buy backs and I think we have 5 million assault weapons on the streets of America and we have 5 million assault weapons on the streets of America and assault weapons have been designed to kill a lot of human beings quickly. They are weapons of war and there is no place for them on the civil society, on the streets of a civil society. I'm so glad you talked about mental health. I strongly believe that this is one of the greatest, if not the greatest, public policy failures of the United States which is the failure to address mental health. We talk endlessly, at least in this election cycle we have been, about health care rightly. And you know what we're talking about, the body from the neck down, instead of understanding that we need to deal with the health care as it relates to the body from the neck up because we have so many people who are suffering, family members that are suffering, communities that are suffering and we have failed to fund the resources that are necessary for detection much less treatment, we have allowed the stigmatization to occur because not understanding this is a health issue and we have caused families to suffer in silence and individuals to suffer in silence. It's one of the biggest public policy failures and it's something I'm so passionate about and so looking forward to being President to address. We've got to deal with this.

Yepsen: How mandatory is your gun buyback program?

Harris: It's mandatory.

Yepsen: Second Amendment?

Harris: Second Amendment, listen, we're going to have to do it the right way, there's no question about that. But we don't have, we have to get these guns off the street. But I also have faith in the American people to know that we want to comply with our laws and I know that to be true. So I think that when we pass a law that says that assault weapons are banned I have faith in the American people.

Yepsen: Another question in this campaign is immigration. We have an audience question about that.

Jean Jones: Hi. Senator Harris, I want to say thank you for running. As a woman business owner I employ 12 employees, my company is Little Brother Construction, and in the construction field whereas we only hire W2 employees there's a number of companies that will hire people and just have 1099's. We take all of our employees and put them through the e-verify system. We do pay for benefits for our employees and our competitors a lot of them are not doing that. And so how do you see that you can level the playing field for those people that are hiring both legal and non-legal immigrants? And what can you do to level the playing field there?

Harris: That's great. And congratulations. Where is your business so we can give you a little plug?

Jean: Here in Des Moines.

Harris: Okay, great, there you go. Congratulations and thank you for being a business leader and a community leader. The best way that we level the playing field is we pass comprehensive immigration reform with a pathway toward citizenship. We have approximately somewhere between 11 and 12 million undocumented immigrants in our country and there is literally no path because of frankly what has been happening in Washington, D.C. especially over the last few years which is just a wholesale vilification of who immigrants are. And we've got to, we've got to -- I just want us to be practical. Maybe you can see that's a theme about how I think about most issues, let's just be practical, right, let's just do the right thing. So on this we have the almost 12 million people, most of whom are working hard, paying taxes, the kids are in school, they're following the laws and let's just create a pathway to citizenship and stop talking about building a wall and talking about rapists and murderers and vilifying people. Let's end a practice that has been a violation of our morals as a country when you're putting babies in cages and separating children from their parents in the name of border security when in fact it's a human rights abuse being committed by the United States government. We have to pass comprehensive immigration reform and then all of that will be addressed.

Yepsen: In the interim or in the meantime or in addition, is illegally crossing the border, should that be a crime or should that be a civil penalty?

Harris: It should be a penalty and there should be consequence and people should have to go to court, people should be removed if they're violating our laws and we certainly need to have border security. But I will tell you that I also want to take a tool away from, particularly in the hands of Donald Trump, that has been about putting babies in cages.

Yepsen: How do you do that? How do you stop that?

Harris: You stop that by -- elect me. Let's start there because it also is about frankly there's so much of this administration that has been about testing the bounds of what otherwise would be considered ethical or moral and so we didn't have to necessarily have certain rules in place because we assumed that the people who hold these most powerful positions, especially the President of the United States, we assumed that yeah we may disagree with somebody but that there would be a guiding principle that was grounded in our ethics and our morals. But we have seen Donald Trump really test the parameters of that and that is why there are so many things that we are now talking about that are about maybe we need to have a really specific rule in place because if you have a certain kind of office holder who takes advantage of or abuses the discretion and the authority it leads to places that we're not comfortable with and that don't reflect our values.

Yepsen: I want to switch gears. Thank you, Jean, for your question. Infrastructure, you mentioned that a moment ago.

Harris: Yes, let's talk about that.

Yepsen: Senator, everybody is for doing something about infrastructure and yet nothing happens.

Harris: Which is why is nothing getting done? I know.

Yepsen: So what is the secret thing in your plan that is going to --

Harris: The President of the United States needs to use her power to make that the highest priority and one of the first priorities of her administration and I will do that. And I'm going to tell you why. Okay, so there is a data point, a statistic that I talk about all the time. Almost half of American families cannot afford a $400 unexpected expense, it will topple the stability of that family. Okay. Do you know how much four tires cost? Right. Why do people need new tires? Because they're driving over roads and bridges that are falling apart. Infrastructure, it relates to everything that has to do with just living. It has to do with the ability of people to commute, people to move commerce, people to move their trucks from one place to another to take products to market, it relates to the creation of jobs, by investing in our infrastructure that is literally for my plan 15 million jobs in America being produced.

Yepsen: Do you raise the gas tax?

Harris: I don't think we need to at this point.

Yepsen: Well, how do you make a meaningful dent in the infrastructure problem without raising gas taxes?

Harris: It's about an investment in the economy and we grow the economy.

Yepsen: Where does the money come from for the investment?

Harris: Where is the money coming from for a tax cut for the top 1% and the biggest corporations in America? One, we get rid of that. But here's the thing, David. I think that when we have these conversations where is that question being asked when we're passing these tax cuts? Where is that question coming when there has been a lack of investment in the American people and again in our infrastructure? Let's put the money in our infrastructure. It will pay huge dividends in terms of a return on that investment.

Yepsen: I want to switch to rural America.

Harris: Yeah, let's do that.

Yepsen: Democrats, it's almost a political question, but it goes to what you want to do to help rural America. Democrats have to do better in rural America. The Electoral College math requires democrats to do better in rural America. So what do you say to a caucus goer who might not think a California politician knows much about rural America?

Harris: I do, I actually do know a lot about rural America. People may not realize sometimes in California one of our most thriving and probably most significant economies and drives of our economies are our agricultural communities. The farmers of California will boast, I think it's kind of true, that we produce half the fruits and vegetables consumed by the whole country. So this is a very familiar issue for me and I actually have a whole plan for rural America, which again you can see it on my website, but I'll tell you specifically.

Yepsen: And the website is?

Harris: I appreciate you, thank you. And so it's a number of things. Rural America, one, let's talk about the fact that we are, I look at it from a number of perspectives and starting with families. So the jobs are leaving rural American which means the kids are leaving to go catch the jobs. So what does that mean? It means that the parents are there, they're left there, the kids want to come back home when they start to have their own children because they want the kids to be near grandparents but there are no resources or jobs there. So we're talking about families breaking up. What are we looking at in terms of rural America? We're looking at the fact that because the populations are relatively small and because the economy is not growing we're looking at a lot of people who rely on Medicaid to have health care and Medicaid is not sufficient to keep hospitals open so hospitals are closing down. So see earlier point, moms who are about to deliver have to go hundreds of miles away to actually deliver their children. IT means that in a family where a family member is suffering an acute illness, let's say cancer, I went through this with my mother and that family member because there is no specialist in that area has to be medevacked out, which means that when it comes to caring for that family member and knowing that one of the greatest sources of comfort for anyone who is going through an acute illness is to have by their bedside a family member, those family members can't afford to be with them. So this is how I think about rural America through that experience. So here's my plan, it's a number of things. One, it's about broadband. So, so many communities in rural America do not have access to broadband. Children in rural America cannot do homework without broadband, garnered the days of Encyclopedia Britannica. And so what is happening? Our kids in rural America if they are high school kids they're driving to sit in the parking lot near the McDonald's or near the library after it's closed to get access to the public Wi-Fi. So despite the big brains those kids have they are at a handicap as compared to kids in other parts of America. Let's talk about in terms of small businesses. There is not a small business that can thrive without access to high speed Internet. We can talk about it in terms of access to health care. Physicians, public health professionals will tell you the second best option if the service provider is not there is telemedicine. If you don't have broadband you don't have that. So I have a $100 billion plan for broadband and I think of my plan as the same plan that America had to make sure everyone in America had electricity. It's that fundamental.

Yepsen: Senator, a big issue in rural America is trade with China and we have a question from, our last audience question about trading with China.

Harris: Okay, good.

Hi, Senator. I'm Terry Haney from Johnson. Donald Trump was initially praised for confronting the trade deficit with China and the theft of intellectual property. Under your administration how would you address that?

Harris: Well, I'll start with speaking truth and being honest about these things. So trade policy with China, first of all, trade by definition means you are not acting alone because you've got to trade with somebody. And in an increasingly globalized world it's usually not just two people. So trade agreements usually include at least two if not more. So I will tell you in the Harris administration first of all I will not approach trade policy in a unilateral way that is about just randomly making decisions without consulting with the partners around the world much less the people who are going to be impacted and in the case of Donald Trump's trade policy farmers, auto workers, people of that who were reliant on and counted on the fact that he would keep a promise to working people. Second, as it relates specifically to China we have to understand that we have to hold China accountable for trade theft, IP theft, intellectual property. We have to hold them accountable for dumping substandard products into our economy including substandard steel. But we also need to have agreements with them where when we have those agreements we keep our end of the bargain and we do it in a way that our highest priority is about exporting American products and not American jobs. And so that overall is how I will inform trade policy going forward. But the Trump administration has been so highly irresponsible on this issue, so highly irresponsible to the point that now we're looking at farmers in Iowa that are looking at bankruptcy. There are over300,000 jobs already in America that because of those tariffs have been lost, not to mention that American families are spending more than $1,000 more on everything from clothing to washing machines because of those tariffs.

Yepsen: Senator, we've got one minute left and I'll give it to you for a commercial.

Harris: Oh, okay.

Yepsen: What is the most important thing you want Iowa caucus goers to remember about you as they walk in to caucus?

Harris: That I'm fighting for them, I'm fighting for them and that I do believe this is, that justice is on the ballot in 2020 and it's about justice for all people and that the people of Iowa, I'll say this also, one of the things I love about the people of Iowa, I was here, I participated in the caucuses in '07 in Des Moines. And one of the things I love about the people of Iowa is that you don't wait for anyone's permission to say what's possible. You are a real leader in our country in showing people what's possible and making it happen. And so I derive so much optimism from the people of Iowa and I hope to earn their support and I ask that you will stand in Kamala's corner on caucus night. So thank you.

Yepsen: Senator Harris, thank you for taking time to be with us today. We appreciate it.

Harris: Thank you, it's great to be with you. I appreciate it.


Yepsen: I want to thank Senator Harris for joining us for our series of Conversations with Presidential Candidates here on Iowa PBS. For our audience of Iowans and our entire Iowa PBS crew here at Des Moines Area Community College, I'm David Yepsen. Thanks for joining us today.


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Iowa PBS presents Conversations with Presidential Candidates hosted by DMACC has been funded by Goldman Sachs, which is delivering its 10,000 Small Businesses program in Iowa to help entrepreneurs across the state create jobs and economic opportunity. Additional funding has been provided by the Arlene McKeever Endowment Fund, a fund at the Iowa PBS Foundation, established by a gift from the estate of Arlene McKeever. And by Friends, the Iowa PBS Foundation.  

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