Harris back on the road after opening weeks in Washington

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Vice President Kamala Harris gives her order to Germaine Turnbow, while stopping for lunch at Tacotarian, Monday March 15, 2021, in Las Vegas. President Joe Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris and their spouses are opening an ambitious, cross-country tour to highlight the $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief plan and its benefits. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

LAS VEGAS – She needed no introduction, but the vice president offered one anyway.

“I’m Kamala Harris,” she told the women behind a coffee counter at the Culinary Academy, where job seekers learn how to make lattes and other coffee drinks to become baristas.

Harris wasn’t here just for the soy-milk latte sweetened with lavender syrup.

After weeks of swearing in Cabinet members, appearing alongside President Joe Biden and making stops in the Washington area, the vice president was on the road on her first big outing since taking office. She helped kick off the administration's public relations blitz to help people understand how the $1.9 trillion pandemic relief plan can ease their financial pain.

She also wanted them to know something else: who opposed the plan.

“This is supposed to be the job of your government, which is when you’re suffering, when you need a helping hand, when you need a little assistance to just get over a moment of crisis you didn’t create, that’s when leaders are supposed to kick in to say, ‘I’m here. I see you, and I will help you,’” she told employees who had been packing potatoes, tomatoes and cucumbers into food boxes the academy gives the needy.

Harris was talking about Republicans in Congress, who voted as a bloc against the $1,400 payments many Americans are receiving, and the plan's other benefits. Republican lawmakers said the plan cost too much and too little of its money would go toward the pandemic.

Her travels demonstrated how Harris is tending to both policy and politics as she settles into her new role.

Nevada seemed like a natural choice for Harris to open the White House's “Help is Here” tour. It is among states that suffered deeply during the pandemic because it relies heavily on the Las Vegas-based tourism and hospitality industry for revenue.

It's also a swing state that Biden narrowly won in 2020, and where Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak and U.S. Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto are up for reelection next year.

Ken Miller, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, said there is opportunity and risk for the White House in Nevada. Even though the relief plan is popular with the public, it may no longer be top of mind by the 2022 midterm elections, he said.

“They’re worried that people will forget about it,” Miller said about the plan.

Enter Harris, who showed during the presidential campaign that she likes to mix it up. She is scheduled to join Biden at an event in Atlanta on Friday, but it was unclear how often Harris will leave Washington to promote the plan herself after that joint appearance.

Harris traveled this week with husband Doug Emhoff, who split off at points for his own events — including Wednesday in Albuquerque, New Mexico — plugging certain aspects of the plan.

As the first woman, Black person and Indian American to be elected vice president, Harris has plenty of eyes on her in her new position. But there are some roles that Biden performed as vice president that he hasn't asked of his No. 2.

Biden talks often about striking a deal as President Barack Obama's vice president to be the last person in the room with him before a major decision. But he suggested during an ABC News interview broadcast Wednesday that the dynamic isn't exactly the same with Harris.

Asked if his vice president is now the last person in the room with him, Biden said, “Most of the time, yes, as a practical matter, yes, she is.” Biden said “there's a lot more ground to cover" compared to when he was vice president, but added that Harris is doing an “incredible job.”

“She's all over the place,” Biden said.

Biden also talks about the role he played as vice president overseeing implementation in 2009 of a giant economic stimulus package. He said last week that he hadn't looked to Harris to play the same role on the new $1.9 trillion package, and he later gave the job to Gene Sperling, a longtime economic adviser to Democratic administrations.

During this week's trip, Harris promoted another administration priority: getting people vaccinated against COVID-19. She surveyed the scene at a mass vaccination center at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, but the next day was forced to scrap a visit to a clinic in Fort Lupton, Colorado, after she fell behind schedule.

‘You all are the heroes of the moment," she told those administering shots in Las Vegas. “You guys are saving lives.”

She even pumped a few dollars into the local economies.

Harris dropped in unannounced at Tacotarian, a plant-based Mexican restaurant in Las Vegas' art district that she said Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., had spoken to her about, and left with a veggie taco and black bean enchilada. After a discussion with small-business owners at a Denver empanada restaurant, an aide later was seen carrying bags of empanadas back to Harris' plane.

Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a professor of public policy communication at the University of Southern California, said getting Harris — California's former attorney general and U.S. senator — out of Washington and in front of people is an effective way to deploy her. It showcases her having an active rather than passive role in the administration.

“I think she looked more comfortable doing something like that than continually standing behind Joe Biden when he makes a pronouncement,” Jeffe said. “She likes to be out on the trail.”

Being out on the trail does come with some unexpected turbulence.

Harris was thrown off schedule when her plane developed a mechanical problem. Another plane was sent from Washington to take her from Los Angeles to Colorado and back to Washington.

Delays forced Harris to scrap the 90-minute, round-trip drive from Denver to the Plan De Salud Del Valle Inc. clinic in Fort Lupton. She tried to make up for it by speaking with the staff over Zoom audio, praising their work and noting in particular the clinic's focus on helping people from minority communities get their COVID-19 shots.

“We are here to thank you, to let you know that through the American Rescue Plan, we are going to make sure that everyone gets those vaccines,” Harris said, speaking for herself and Emhoff.


Associated Press writer Michelle Price in Las Vegas and Kathleen Ronayne in Sacramento, Calif., contributed to this report.