How do key Black swing-state voters view Kamala Harris? It's complicated

As a former prosecutor argues her electoral case, some of the United States' most powerful voters are delibera

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As a former prosecutor argues her electoral case, some of the United States' most powerful voters are deliberating over their verdict.

The ex-prosecutor is Kamala Harris, who addressed the Democratic convention Wednesday night in her bid to become the first woman and African American vice-president.

The voters: members of Milwaukee's large Black community.

If Harris's milestone place on a presidential ticket has the power to make a difference anywhere in this election, it's right here in Wisconsin's largest city.

That's because this state is the quintessential example, Exhibit A if you will, of how a small shift in turnout can make or break the presidency of Donald Trump.

Trump eked out a win four years ago in this state by a mere 0.7 percentage points, as youth turnout dropped and Black turnout nosedived.

American swing-state voters hold a history-shaping degree of power this year, should an eye-popping prediction from Barack Obama prove remotely accurate.

In his own convention speech, stark and striking for a former U.S. president, Obama warned that this election could decide the fate of American democracy itself. He argued that Trump's attacks on the press and on voting institutions, and that his use of the military as "political props," present an existential threat to the republic.

Democratic presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden, his wife Jill Biden, U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris and her husband Douglas Emhoff are pictured after Harris accepted the Democratic vice presidential nomination at the Democratic National Convention in Milwaukee. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

Harris then took to the podium after warm personal testimonials from her family, and her speech built up to top-of-mind policy preoccupations.

Harris described the unusually high death rate of Black people during the COVID-19 pandemic as the consequence of structural racism: of unequal education, health care, housing, job security and transportation.

"There is no vaccine for racism," Harris said.

"We've got to do the work. For [victims of police brutality] George Floyd [and] Breonna Taylor, for the lives of too many others to name."

Harris's nomination has been broadly greeted as a political bonus for Biden, drawing positive reviews and a surge in donations to the campaign.

Undercurrents of doubt

But numerous conversations in Milwaukee this week suggested a far more complex conversation is unfolding within the Black community itself, in the northern half of a city still largely segregated by race. 

It reveals an undercurrent of uncertainty.

In short: enthusiasm for an African American woman on the ticket, one with one of the U.S. Senate's most progressive voting records, is tempered by impassioned debates about her record.

"It's split. Some like her and some don't," said Greg Lewis, a church pastor working to turn out Black voters through his group Souls To The Polls Milwaukee.

"[Her critics use epithets like] 'Uncle Tom,' 'sellout,' because she was a prosecutor and she prosecuted mainly Black folks. … And she has to overcome that."

Greg Lewis, a pastor seen here wearing protective gloves during the pandemic, said he hears epithets and smears directed at Harris. (Alex Panetta/CBC)

There's even disinformation being spread online about her ethnicity, he said.

There are lies about her birth certificate, being misrepresented as claiming she's "Caucasian," because that's how it lists Harris's Indian-born mother.

Rhonda Hill described a generational divide.

Older voters, she said, tend to be more excited about Harris's barrier-breaking potential. "[They're like], 'Okay, an African American woman,'" said Hill, who runs an anti-racism consultancy, Race & Faith. 

"But for people my age — I'm 40 — and younger it's kind of like, 'Okay, we're still playing this game?' Just being Black isn't enough. Your policies matter. How you speak for folks that are most disenfranchised [matters]."

Three similar points kept popping up in conversation. And those points are backed up by the available public-opinion data.  

One: Harris expected to increase turnout

Almost everyone interviewed said having Harris on the ticket would probably mean a bump in enthusiasm and turnout for Democrats.

That's supported by polls showing higher approval ratings for her than the three men on the major-party tickets; majority support for her nomination; and a similar number who view her as qualified to be president.

"She 100 per cent does [drive turnout]," said Tejean Neal, 19, a University of Wisconsin student. "I also think that's why Joe Biden picked her. He draws the Black vote from her." 

Tejean Neal thinks Harris will increase Black turnout. Not that he's a fan. (Alex Panetta/CBC News)

It's important to note that Neal himself has deep reservations — about her, and about Biden. He prefers more left-leaning politicians like Sen. Bernie Sanders and congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. 

Yet he's still voting Democrat because he calls it his civic duty as an American citizen to remove Trump from office. 

Milwaukee's city-council president said he's also convinced turnout will increase in the city's African American community.

"I think it certainly does," said Cavalier Johnson, in an interview in his city-hall office.

"For her to … go into that position as a history-maker, I think that also excites people in Milwaukee and other places around the country with communities of colour."

Two: The effect will be modest

Few expect her to single handedly provoke an Obama-level impact. African American turnout smashed records in the presidential runs of the first Black president.

Even at the lower points in his presidency, Obama's approval ratings, within the Black community, existed in their own sky-high orbit — close to, or above, 90 per cent.

"He's like Nelson Mandela or [Martin Luther King Jr.] — people have that type of regard for him," said Neal, next to the counter in the coffee shop where he works. 

Neal cites ingrained sexism as one reason for the weaker support for Harris: "She's a woman." 

But he also attributes it to a more skeptical, and demanding, electorate. Neal's place of work is a reminder that the Obama era didn't resolve historic problems.

Watch | Kamala Harris's opening remarks at the Democratic National Convention:

Presumptive Democratic vice-presidential nominee Kamala Harris had a message for Americans ahead of the night's event. 1:17

The coffee shop is in a business park — one built from the wreckage of a building burned in rioting in 2016, across the street from a police station. 

He said African Americans have already had a Black president and have limited expectations of how much difference a Black VP would make.

Harris's approval ratings clearly exist on a more mortal plane than Obama's.

Two surveys conducted for CNN and The Economist both show good support for Harris, but not astronomical — they range from 44 to 48 per cent support among self-identified Black voters and "people of colour," and disapproval ranging from 21 to 28 per cent.

"My honest answer: I don't know [how much she affects the vote]," Hill said.

Three: Her track record is controversial

Progressives criticize her wobbling stance on Sanders' Medicare For All plan. And for her similarly wavering messaging on law enforcement.

Two books she wrote, a decade apart, evince starkly different attitudes to policing that follow the shifting political winds.

The first, Smart On Crime, extols police officers, and says they make Black communities safer, and she called it a myth Black people oppose police.

The book calls for more police on the streets.

That was years before defunding the police became a widely-known rallying cry on the progressive left.

Rhonda Hill, an anti-racism educator, preferred candidates Bernie Sanders and Andrew Yang to Harris and Biden. (Rhonda Hill)

One devastating moment that damaged Harris's ill-fated presidential run was when a rival accused her of a hypocritical flip-flop on marijuana — from prosecuting pot possession, to now joking about having smoked it.

Harris, on Wednesday night, sought to reframe the story of her time as a California prosecutor and attorney general.

She cast herself as a defendant of the little guy and prosecutor of the powerful: transnational gangs, rapists, big banks and a for-profit college.

At the coffee bar Wednesday, Neal insisted she hasn't earned his vote. 

"She's going to help Joe Biden acquire the Black vote [but] I don't think Black people should be behind her. Because she has not been behind Black people," he said.

Again, he said he would ultimately vote for her, casting his first-ever presidential ballot, simply in the hope of ousting Trump.

Cavalier Johnson, the president of Milwaukee's city council, said he's convinced more people will turn out for Harris. (Alex Panetta/CBC News)

Hill said she wishes her community might aim higher than just beating Trump. She described the incumbent president as a mere baseline, a floor, not a respectable standard for comparison to anyone else.

She said white progressives sound more enthused than she is about Harris and related a recent conversation with a friend: "She's jazzed, pumped and happy, about Kamala Harris."

And she paused to reflect on the fact that the aspiring first Black, female vice-president doesn't have the full support of Black people.

"Everybody's not 100 per cent. And I feel like that's okay. Because we are not monolithic," Hill said. 

"We have diverse thoughts and opinions and we're allowed to have that."
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