Some see California Senator Kamala Harris as the ideal Democratic vice presidential candidate, especially now that the African American community is pleading for more leadership in Washington.
On paper, she’s all presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden could want. Three successful statewide campaigns. A US senator from the nation’s biggest state. African American. Indian American.
“She fits the American dream narrative,” said Joel Goldstein, vice presidential expert and law professor emeritus at St Louis University.
Yet her record as a San Francisco prosecutor and California attorney general have raised questions about whether she was tough enough on rogue law enforcement officers. Her 2020 presidential campaign was over in 2019. And does Biden really need a boost in dependably blue California?
The biggest unknown in these scenarios is probably the impact on the African American community vote. While a May 14-28 Quinnipiac national poll found Biden with an 81%-3% lead over President Donald Trump, questions remain about whether African Americans will turn out in big numbers if they’re unenthusiastic about the Democratic ticket.
Harris has repeatedly expressed sympathy for the peaceful protests of recent days triggered by the death of George Floyd, a black man who died after a Minneapolis police officer kept his knee pressed against him as three other police officers did not act.
Tuesday, after three nights of protests that often turned violent, Harris released a brief video in which she read the names of black people who died at the hands of police.
“People are protesting because black people in America have been treated as less than human, by history and today. People protesting in America because our country has never fully addressed historical and systemic racism,” she said.
When asked about the possibility of going on the ticket, Harris told McClatchy in March “I can’t even go there” and said “I am so not focused” on the question because she was swamped with trying to help ease the coronavirus crisis.
Talk about her chances, however, persists. Here’s a list of pros and cons:
Harris for VP
— She’s good one-on-one and in the media. “She’d have no problem taking on the role of chief Trump critic,” said Kathy Sullivan, a veteran New Hampshire Democratic committeewoman. She cited Harris’ down-to-earth style, recalling the senator’s “Dude Gotta Go” line that became a favourite chant at rallies.
African American activists say that the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis reinforces the need for black voices to be not only heard, but a vital part of the power structure.
“My concern with the Democratic Party is they rely a lot on logic to make a good argument. Too often they’re not fighters. Harris brings that,” said Avis Jones-DeWeever, an author and policy adviser for the Black Women’s Roundtable.
— She’s an experienced campaigner. Harris won in 2003 and 2007 as San Francisco district attorney, and in three statewide elections, as attorney general in 2010 and 2014 and US senator in 2016.
She’s had some close calls. In her 2003 campaign, she trailed incumbent Terence Hallinan in the primary but easily won a runoff. And in 2010, Harris narrowly beat Republican Steve Cooley.
That battle-testing has proven to be an important asset for national candidates, as those campaigns are lessons in how to deal with the media, with protesters and anyone else. Harris, said Goldstein, is “comfortable in the public eye.”
— She provides balance to the ticket. Biden was a 36-year Senate veteran who brought Washington gravitas to Barack Obama’s team. Dick Cheney was a former congressman, Pentagon secretary and presidential chief of staff who added Washington know-how to Texas Governor George W Bush’s ticket.
“Senator Harris complements Joe Biden politically,” said Antjuan Seawright, a Columbia, SC-based Democratic consultant and advisor to the 2016 Hillary Clinton campaign.
At 55, Harris is 22 years younger than Biden. She’s from another part of the country. She adds gender and racial diversity.
No Harris for VP
— She’s from a state where Democrats don’t need a boost. “Ideally you want somebody from a swing state,” said Donald Fowler, former Democratic Party national general chairman.
Goldstein figures the campaign will be fought largely in six to 10 states, mostly in the upper Midwest and South. “People will go to New York and California largely to raise money,” he said.
Clinton, the 2016 Democratic presidential nominee, won California by 30 points. The last time a Republican won California’s electoral votes was in 1988.
— She has clashed publicly with Biden. Harris was the big news at the Democrats’ first 2020 presidential debate in July when she angrily told him “You also worked … to oppose busing. And, you know, there was a little girl in California who was part of the second class to integrate her public schools, and she was bussed to school every day. And that little girl was me.”
In the next debate, Biden fired back, saying that when Harris was attorney general “I didn’t see a single solitary time she brought a case against them to desegregate them.”
Harris has since been a Biden ally. She was effusive in praising him when she endorsed him in March, and last month sent out a fundraising email calling him a “dear friend” whose “compassion and courage shine through in everything he does.”
Biden in January told The Bee’s California Nation podcast, “She’s qualified to be president, and I’d consider her for anything that she would be interested in.”
— She has a controversial record as district attorney and attorney general. “Her record as a prosecutor is, fairly or not, viewed sceptically by some criminal justice reform advocates,” said Steve Phillips, host of Democracy in Color with Steve Phillips, a “colour-conscious” podcast on politics.
Harris has called herself a “progressive prosecutor.” Lara Bazelon, law professor at the University of San Francisco School of Law, has argued otherwise. She wrote that did not support state legislation, backed by the Legislative Black Caucus, mandating that police officers wear body cameras.
At a December Democratic presidential debate, Harris boasted how she was “very proud to put in place a requirement that all my special agents would wear body cameras and keep those cameras on.”
She did just that, but the requirement did not include all local police officers in California. She told The Bee in 2015 she did not back statewide body camera standards for officers, saying local agencies should set their own regulations.
Aimee Allison, founder and director of She The People, praised Harris as a “a visible and vocal proponent for the prosecution of the four officers responsible for the murder of George Floyd.”
Allison, though, added that “Women of colour, especially in this moment, will expect a full accounting for her record as a prosecutor and a comprehensive national plan to address systemic police abuse of black people.”
She The People, a national network of women of colour, polled its members about a vice presidential choice. Harris finished second behind former Georgia House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams.
“Senator Harris has garnered support, but a candidate like Abrams who doesn’t have that history may better appeal to the Democratic base in the wake of national protests,” Allison said.
The black vote is likely to be crucial to Biden’s fate. In 2008, when Barack Obama was running for president, black voter turnout was 65.2%, nearly the same as white turnout. Four years later, it was 66.6%, a bit higher than whites. But in 2016, black turnout dropped to 59.6%.
If Harris, or another qualified black candidate, is added to the ticket, most African American political experts see the community as enthusiastic.
“There will never be a perfect candidate or a perfect political record,” Seawright said.
Biden told a fundraiser recently he hopes to name his vice presidential choice around August 1. — McClatchy Washington Bureau/TNS
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