COLUMBIA — Amid glistening pink and green lights, banquet-style dinners and flowing ball gowns, U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris appeared right at home Friday night at a flashy fundraiser in South Carolina's capital for the local chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority.
The California Democrat and newly minted presidential candidate, who joined the historic African-American sorority while a student at Howard University, said she had been planning to attend the annual Pink Ice gala in Columbia since before announcing her presidential bid this week.
But the timing could not have worked out better for Harris, providing her with an enthusiastic audience of around 3,700 in an early presidential primary state that could prove crucial to her chances of winning the Democratic nomination.
In brief remarks to the crowd, Harris mostly stayed away from political talk, instead hailing the sorority's ethos of sisterhood and service. She is set to formally kick off her campaign Sunday in Oakland, Calif.
"When we look at where we are in this moment in the history of our country, I think our (sorority) founders gave us the right charge," Harris said. "They said stand together, take care of each other and serve your country as leaders, and that's what we do today."
Several of South Carolina's most influential Democrats attended the gala, including U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn of Columbia, who described Harris as "a good friend."
State Sen. Mia McLeod, who joined Alpha Kappa Alpha at the University of South Carolina, called Harris "the real deal" and said her sorority sisters could provide a significant boost to her nascent campaign.
"We are enlightened, informed and engaged — and we vote," said McLeod, D-Columbia. "We're very intentional about it. We're all about service and community and just moving our state and our country forward, so this is a strong base for her."
Asked by reporters about the importance of black female voters, widely viewed as a critical bloc in a South Carolina Democratic primary, Harris said they have proven to be a powerful group across the country, citing victories of colleagues like U.S. Sen. Doug Jones, D-Ala., who credited black women for helping propel him to an upset win last year.
Harris will still likely face hurdles in the black community as she pursues the nomination.
She has already endured some criticism about her record on criminal justice while she was a prosecutor, district attorney and state attorney general in California — an issue that she said Friday would require a more in-depth conversation than just brief soundbites.
State Rep. John King, a past chairman of the S.C. Legislative Black Caucus who has spoken enthusiastically about one of Harris' likely primary competitors — U.S. Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey — dinged Harris for announcing her campaign on Martin Luther King Day, which he considers sacred.
But while attendees Friday night cautioned that Harris' message and policies will matter, state Rep. Terry Alexander, who attended Friday's gala and whose wife is a member of one of the other major sororities for African-American women, Delta Sigma Theta, said the inherent political value of the tight-knit black sororities cannot be understated.
"This gives her a foundation already in South Carolina that a lot of the other candidates don't have, which I think is a huge plus for her," said Alexander, D-Florence.
Harris's visit capped off a busy week for early presidential maneuvering in South Carolina, coming on the heels of visits from three Senate contenders: Booker, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, and Bernie Sanders of Vermont.
As many sorority members recalled, Harris' appearance at the gala was not the first by a presidential candidate. Barack Obama swung by in January 2008, a few days before soaring to victory in the state's primary that gave him a surge of momentum in the race.
"Don't sleep on the AKAs," McLeod said. "We will help you win South Carolina, for sure. I think her visit here is going to be a game-changer."