As one of the most outspoken members of the Senate, who has built a reputation for her fierce and uncompromising attitude during congressional hearings, there’s no doubt Sen. Kamala Harris doesn't lack confidence. And she attributes much of that confidence to her mother, an immigrant from India who came to the U.S. with dreams of becoming a scientist.
When the Democratic legislator was a young girl growing up in Oakland, Calif., she and her sister often spent afternoons and weekends at her mother’s endocrinology lab.
“My mother had two goals in her life: to raise her two daughters and end breast cancer,” Harris told “Morning Joe” co-host Mika Brzezinski Saturday at the Know Your Value conference in San Francisco. “That was all about a passion of knowing what can be, unburdened by what has been, and, you know, that gives confidence.”
Harris said her mother’s example and deep belief that she and her sister could be anything they wanted to be fueled her rise to become the first elected female district attorney of San Francisco and the first Indian-American senator.
Harris, whose father is Jamaican, also spoke about how she faced discrimination as a child — something that has influenced her fight against intolerance and injustice in Washington D.C.
“We've all faced those moments where we're the only one like us in a room, and it may be because we're the only one who looks like us, the only one who has had the experiences that we've had,” Harris said. “And I think what's really important … is when you're in those rooms, you've got to remember, we are all in that room with you, and you are not alone.”
Harris acknowledged that her reputation as being outspoken and persistent on Capitol Hill has resulted in her critics branding her as “hysterical.” But Harris told Brzezinski those reactions come from people who mistakenly believe ambitious women are flawed.
“We have to call it what it is and reject it,” Harris said. “It is an attempt to silence you.”
At several points in the conversation, Brzezinski probed Harris about one of the biggest questions around her political ambitions: Whether she will run for president in 2020.
Harris confirmed she is still considering her options, though is close to deciding whether or not she will actually throw her hat into the ring.
“It’s a very serious decision,” Harris told Brzezinski. “Over the holiday, I will make that decision with my family.”
Harris said she is keenly aware of the challenges a barrier-breaking campaign will entail.
“Let’s be honest. It’s going to be ugly,” Harris said. “When you break things, it is painful. And you get cut. And you bleed.”
“There have been a few potential Democratic candidates for president who've actually suggested that the Democratic Party needs a white man to run against Trump [in 2020],” said Brzezinski at the conference “Where do you even begin with that comment?”
“I think it discounts the intelligence of the American public,” Harris replied. “And it also ignores the midterm elections, where more women, and more women of color, and more women who are outside the mainstream were elected into office. So on two counts, that statement is not well-informed.”
As she contemplates a presidential bid, Harris has been working on a bipartisan effort to ensure elections are fair and free from interference by foreign governments and others who might threaten the U.S. democratic process. The Secure Elections Act, which she introduced in March along with co-sponsor Republican Sen. James Lankford of Oklahoma, would give the Department of Homeland Security responsibility for ensuring secure elections and shoring up election infrastructure against cyberattacks. It would also establish an independent advisory panel of experts to develop guidelines on election cybersecurity.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has not yet brought the bipartisan legislation to the floor for a vote. Harris said she has been told that is at the White House’s request.
“First of all, let’s be clear about the fact Russia did interfere in the  election of the president of the United States,” Harris told Brzezinski. “Flawed though it may be, we designed a beautiful system of democracy, and one symbol of that is that we have free and open elections. When a foreign government chooses to manipulate our democracy knowing that would compromise our strength and our perception of our strength, you would think leaders would say, ‘No, we are going to do everything we can to strengthen and to give ourselves the immunity we need to be free from that kind of manipulation.’ Yet, it’s not happening.”
Though Harris expressed frustration about the slow progress of that bill, she also said she has hope in the strength of the four legs of democracy, which she noted include the three branches of government and a free and independent press.
“We have seen Congress step up, thankless though it may be, in certain situations,” Harris said. “Look at the Affordable Care Act. Remember that moment when the late great John McCain said, ‘No, you cannot turn back one of the most significant public policies that has benefited the greatest number of people.’ Congress acted to stop what was a political agenda. You look at our courts who have stood and said, on things like DACA, on transgenders in the military, ‘No, you've got to stop, you're going too far.’”
Harris also weighed in on the legacy of former President George H.W. Bush, who died Friday at 94 and said there are several lessons Washington could learn from him.
“He is a symbol and an example of the nobility of public service,” Harris said. “I didn’t necessarily agree with every policy he promoted, but I completely respect and am in awe of the dedication he gave to his country and service. What we want most in our public officials is that we respect that when they make decisions, they do it based on what they truly believe is in the best interest of other people, not themselves.”