JUST THE RIGHT TICKET

Kamala Harris reshapes the Biden presidential bid

By J Brooks Spector 13 August 2020

Democratic candidate for the US vice presidency Senator Kamala Harris. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Etienne Laurent)

The new Democratic Party’s vice-presidential candidate, Senator Kamala Harris, stepped out in front of the US, with the head of the ticket, Joe Biden, to explain who she is, how she came to be that way, and how she and the head of the ticket will carry their fight to the incumbent president for the 3 November presidential election.

My wife woke up this morning, on Thursday 13 August, to say with a smile in her voice, “America now has hope, a chance to redeem itself soon, after the past four years of its national nightmare.” The world seems to be celebrating as well.

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Unsurprisingly, my wife had stayed up to watch, live, on television, the formal introduction of Senator Kamala Harris as Joe Biden’s running mate in the race for the US presidency. After a really busy Wednesday, I had dropped off to sleep early, electing to watch the replay in the morning, rested, and with fresh eyes and ears. And so I did.

Watching the two candidates together, it became clear that, despite crossed swords in some of the early multi-candidate debates, over the subject of school desegregation efforts in the 1970s, going forward, it is obvious that this is going to be an actual partnership between the two. No, they are not exactly equals, since Biden is the lead candidate, but they are both experienced adults with well-thought-through ideas and a willingness to express them in complete sentences, with actual meaning in them. And their styles seem to complement one another. With the constraints of the Covid-19 shutdowns, they may well opt for a large number of virtual joint appearances, focused on issues and topics of the greatest interest to the nation right now.

By contrast to the Donald Trump-Mike Pence team, Biden-Harris was not going to pair up a fawning, forelock-tugging, obsequious sycophant, eager for a morsel of nourishment or word of praise, with the incumbent president. Trump, of course, is that preening, sociopathic, narcissistic dweller of his own fantasy world; a place populated by imaginary, evil conspiracies and equally make-believe dragons.

Instead, with Biden-Harris’ first joint performance, it has been a relief to watch a pair of normal people who, if they are a little bit lucky, might – in just a few months – gain control over the US government and all its power and influence. And, just by the way, of those nuclear launch codes.

And so it came to pass that on 12 August, in Wilmington, Delaware, Joe Biden’s home-town, inside a school gymnasium festooned with the national flag and the flags of the 50 states arrayed behind the microphones, with journalists seated with due regard to Covid-style social distancing, launched the Biden-Harris ticket. It was done without the usual banners, the cheering crowd of supporters, or a band or prerecorded patriotic music – or perhaps something drawn from the well-known pop music repertoire as the campaign’s theme music. (There was some pre-recorded music that sounded like a mash-up of soul, R and B, and smooth jazz – and I’ll bet they will never use that particular soundtrack again.) But the real focus of the event was to be the words and chemistry of the occasion, and in neither case would it be a letdown.

Joe Biden spoke first to set the scene for his newly announced running mate, Kamala Harris, saying of her, “Kamala knows how to govern. She knows how to make the hard calls. She’s ready to do this job on day one.” He also described his relationship with Barack Obama when Biden had served as his vice-president, saying Obama had promised him that he, Biden, would be the last person in the room for the big decisions, and that Biden’s advice would be the last one Obama heard before going forward. Should he become president, he said, he looked forward to his and Harris’s relationship being very similar, thereby answering the question of whether her role as vice-president would be as a show horse, a workhorse, or simply ignored when the tough choices were to be made.

And she returned the favour, praising her new running mate (and presumptive boss) and their respective families (including her well-known friendship with Beau Biden when he was Delaware’s attorney-general before he died). She defined herself as the product of two immigrants, a father from Jamaica and a mother from south India, who had come to the US – like so many other immigrants – to further their dreams of the best possible education in their respective fields. Settling in Berkeley, California, they had met amid civil rights and human rights campaigns and marches, fell in love, and then married.

The candidate also spoke of her own commitment to the welfare of the common (wo)man in a career that had taken her from law school to the San Francisco district attorney’s chair, then on to the California attorney-general’s office, and then, most recently, to the Senate as the state’s junior senator.

Reporting on Harris’s first speech as the vice-presidential candidate, CNN wrote, “the senator from California shredded Trump’s White House record with the agility that comes from her years as a courtroom prosecutor. Yet she delivered those critiques with bright notes of hope and optimism – accentuated by the smiles that are expected from female politicians.”

As the candidate herself said:

“The president’s mismanagement of the pandemic has plunged us into the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, and we’re experiencing a moral reckoning with racism and systemic injustice that has brought a new coalition of conscience to the streets of our country demanding change.” 

She added, “America is crying out for leadership. Yet we have a president who cares more about himself than the people who elected him. As someone who has presented my fair share of arguments in court, the case against Donald Trump and Mike Pence is open and shut.” Nothing like not beating around the bush, right?

It was a first performance designed to showcase Harris’s political deftness and why she likely will be a tough adversary for both Trump and Pence, given her ability to connect with the experiences of how average Americans are struggling in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic and the economic collapse. 

In her remarks, drawing a vivid contrast to Trump who had recently shrugged off the thousands of US Covid-19 deaths with an “It is what it is”, Harris highlighted Biden’s qualities of “empathy, his compassion, his sense of duty,” and she added that she and he had been “cut from the same cloth”.

By contrast, Trump’s failure to take the virus seriously, to get coronavirus testing up and running, and to offer a national strategy for ending the pandemic has now resulted in 16 million people without jobs, and “a crisis of poverty, of homelessness afflicting black, brown, and indigenous people the most”, with “more than 165,000 lives cut short, many with loved ones who never got the chance to say goodbye… It didn’t have to be this way.”

But there was more. She pointed to the “complete chaos” facing average Americans as they and their local and state governments wrestle with dealing with the new school year in the US. 

“Mothers and fathers are confused, uncertain and angry about child care and the safety of their kids at schools – whether they’ll be in danger if they go or fall behind if they don’t,” she said.

And there was still more. Excoriating Trump administration leadership failures, she said the incumbent president had “inherited the longest economic expansion in history” from the Obama administration “and then, like everything else he inherited, he ran it straight into the ground.” Boom. “Take that, Donald”, she seemed to be saying. “Answer that!” These and other charges are setting up a no-quarter-given electoral battle, beginning even before the formal nominations for the two parties take place later this month.

For his part, Trump quickly responded with the jibe that she is “nasty”, his favourite put-down, and charged she is somehow helping shove Biden towards the radical left agenda of some of Trump’s other enemies such as his chief bête noire, Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Moreover, in Senate confirmation hearings of Trump appointees such as Judge Brett Kavanaugh (her questions apparently made him shed tears), she had failed to treat them with sufficient respect, almost as if they were delicate flowers in danger of wilting under rigorous questioning.

Meanwhile, other critics – including some Republicans – having been sniping that her liberal-centrist credentials as a prosecutor and attorney-general are in dispute; claiming she has really been a closet “law and order” fan. Pushing back quickly, Niki Solis, a San Francisco public defender who often faced Harris during her days as a San Francisco prosecutor responded in a column in USA Today.

Solis argued, “Simply put, Harris was the most progressive prosecutor in the state. This is not an anecdotal opinion. It is based on facts. As San Francisco DA, Harris refused to seek the death penalty – even on a case where a very respected police officer was tragically killed. Marijuana sales cases were routinely reduced to misdemeanors. And marijuana possession cases were not even on the court’s docket. They were simply not charged. Unless there was a large grow case, or a unique circumstance, this was the reform-minded approach then-DA Harris’ office took.…

“Sen. Harris’ progressive approach did not end with marijuana prosecutions or lack thereof. She co-founded the Coalition to End the Exploitation of Kids. She then spearheaded a task force combating the human trafficking of girls. Upon her invitation, I went to the task force meetings to speak on behalf of one of my juvenile clients. My client, a beautiful teenage girl, had aspirations of joining the military. She was selling her body to earn money when her life was cut short; she was found dead in a San Francisco dumpster.

“…Unlike her predecessors, she did something about it. She stopped prosecuting young girls for prostitution – acknowledging that they were victims who needed treatment for trauma and not criminals who needed to be incarcerated.

“Harris also formalized a court for young adults charged with felonies that resulted in them avoiding a conviction and getting a second chance. She brought in a stalwart progressive community organizer by hiring Lateefah Simon to lead that initiative, a diversionary program called Back on Track that set nonviolent offenders on a path to a new job and helped them rebuild within their communities. Back on Track still exists today and has been a pathway for many young adults to avoid the ravages of a felony conviction or incarceration.

“…She implemented and expanded programs that are now the staple of many DA offices up and down the state. Just last month in California, Santa Clara County DA Jeff Rosen said he would no longer seek the death penalty. This comes 16 years after Harris took the same stance in San Francisco.”

Okay, then. Got it. Harris is a radical-centrist-unremitting-law- and-order-progressive.

But what of the other half-whispered accusation that somehow, in some manner, she isn’t an authentic enough African American, given her South Asian-Jamaican heritage. Barack Obama, of course, had undergone some similar whispering back in 2008, what with his white mother, a Kenyan father, and a childhood largely spent in Hawaii and Indonesia. The thing is that, increasingly, the US is no longer – if it ever really was, despite the old, informal “one drop rule” – a simple racial binary. The statistical data is clear that more and more children are being born to racially integrated families, and immigration into the US has – or at least had until the Trump administration came into power – come to include a much wider swathe of the world’s diversity.

Although physiognomy plays a role, obviously, racial identification, to a significant degree, is also a social construct. Obama’s Hawaiian grandparents had worked hard to include African Americans among the people the young Barack Obama interacted with, even in Hawaii with its plurality of the population drawn from East Asian immigrants or their children and grandchildren. By the time he was ready to go to university, he deliberately picked a large urban university in Los Angeles (later transferring to Columbia University in New York City). After law school, he worked in a community action project in a minority neighbourhood in Chicago, and once he had met his future wife, he was drawn increasingly deeply into the US’s urban black community, social and cultural life.

For Kamala Harris, it seems something of the same journey may have occurred. Yes, her parents took her to rallies and marches as a small child, but courtesy of school integration, she attended a primarily white elementary and middle school in Berkeley. And then, when her parents divorced and her mother took up a university position at McGill University in Montreal, she attended high school in that city, where she remembers she had her struggles with French. By the time she was ready to go to university at the age of 17, however, she deliberately selected Howard University in Washington, DC, rather than, say, Stanford, where her father had had a position.

Since its founding in 1867, Howard University has been the (or one of the leaders) of the historically black colleges and universities in the US. Harris was drawn to this school for its location close to the action in Washington, but also for its centrality in the African-American experience and its intellectual frisson. Before she had graduated, she had joined the leading sorority – Alpha Kappa Alpha – a connection that has been a feature in her life since that time. As Washington Post writer Robin Givhan (a journalist who has focused often on the black experience in Washington) described this journey:

“Kamala Harris wanted to go to a black school. That’s what black folks called Howard University in the early 1980s when Harris was a teenager considering her future.

“Harris, she would say later, was seeking an experience wholly different from what she had long known. She’d attended majority-white schools her entire life – from elementary school in Berkeley, Calif., to high school in Montreal. Her parents’ professional lives and their personal story were bound up in majority-white institutions. Her father, an economist from Jamaica, was teaching at Stanford University. Her mother, a cancer researcher from India, had done her graduate work at the University of California at Berkeley, where the couple had met and fallen in love. And Harris’s younger sister would eventually enroll at Stanford. Harris wanted to be surrounded by black students, black culture and black traditions at the crown jewel of historically black colleges and universities.

“ ‘When you’re at an HBCU,’ Harris says, ‘and especially one with the size and with the history of Howard University – and also in the context of also being in D.C., which was known forever as being “Chocolate City” – it just becomes about you understanding that there is a whole world of people who are like you. It’s not just about there are a few of us who may find each other.’

“Students were drawn to Howard, once called the ‘black Harvard,’ because of its legacy. They believed in its conservative values of racial uplift and personal responsibility. A generation of post-civil rights movement children, whose college choices were hindered only by their grades and finances, picked Howard for a lot of reasons, but all of those reasons touched on self-identity – on how they saw themselves moving through a predominantly white world.

“At Howard, Harris would be studying in the same classrooms as Toni Morrison and Zora Neale Hurston, Stokely Carmichael and Amiri Baraka, striding past the law school that educated Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall and civil rights activist Vernon Jordan.

“It was where Harris could become the woman that her mother always knew her to be: unquestionably, simply, black.

“ ‘Her mother was Indian,’ says Lenore Pomerance, who was a close friend of Shyamala Gopalan [Kamala Harris’ mother], ‘but in the ’60s, you were either black or white. There was no real distinction between Caribbean or Indian.’

“ ‘Howard would be a place to solidify her identity as a woman of color,’ Pomerance says.

“As Harris campaigns for the Democratic presidential nomination, Howard is central to the 54-year-old senator’s personal narrative and her political identity. To those who see her white husband [attorney Doug Emhoff, a Jewish American], question her time in California as a prosecutor in a criminal justice system that disproportionately punishes people of color and wonder about her empathy for black men, Howard is her rejoinder. It’s her knowing nod to black voters, her character witness for anyone who would say that her personal heritage is disconnected from the story of African Americans and this country’s lineage of slavery.

“ ‘When people challenge her blackness, I always say, “If she went to Howard, it means she’s one of us,” ’ says Howard grad and Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Jenice Armstrong. ‘She comes from there. No one should challenge her blackness.’ ”

Beyond these important aspects to her rise and rise, Kamala Harris is being described as well-placed in the mainstream of Democratic foreign policy values, internationalism and strength, and opposed to the kind of crassly transactional, go-it-alone attitude and policies now the norm with the Trump administration. That puts her fully in the camp of presidents Clinton and Obama, and on back through Harry Truman’s presidency. 

It will be particularly interesting to watch how she describes a new administration’s approaches when Harris makes her first forays into discussing foreign policy in a Biden administration. And it is going to be wildly entertaining to watch her in her debate with sitting Vice-President Mike Pence. DM

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