In selecting Kamala Harris as his running mate, Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden did more than make history by putting the first Black woman and first Asian-American on a major national ticket. He all but anointed an heir, positioning Harris as the future standard bearer of a party in transition.
Biden announced the selection in a text message to supporters Tuesday afternoon. In a series of tweets, the former vice president called the California senator “a fearless fighter for the little guy, and one of the country’s finest public servants,” noting that she had served as a state attorney general alongside his late son Beau. In a fundraising email to supporters, he called her “smart, tough and ready to lead.” The two are scheduled to hold their first official event together on Wednesday in Wilmington, Del.
Harris, who ran against Biden for the Democratic nomination, had long been considered a front-runner for the vice-presidential pick, which was the subject of intense and unusually overt jockeying. Biden took the unprecedented step of pledging to select a woman, and many activists urged him to choose a Black woman, especially in the wake of this summer’s racial-justice protests. The only Black woman in the Senate, Harris, 55, brings both racial and generational diversity to the ticket. More than Biden himself, she reflects a Democratic Party that is increasingly young, diverse and cosmopolitan.
Harris, also on Twitter, said Biden “can unify the American people because he’s spent his life fighting for us. And as president, he’ll build an America that lives up to our ideals.”
Biden’s pick took on outsize importance due to his age. At 77, he is the oldest major party nominee in American history, and has described himself as a transitional figure. More than most would-be presidents, Biden was choosing not just a governing partner, but the woman who would lead the Democratic Party into the future. In Harris, he saw someone who could accomplish three things at once: help him win the November election, help him govern through a national crisis, and help him pass the torch to a new and diverse generation of Democrats.
Analysts described Harris as a sort of Goldilocks choice: not too far left or too inexperienced, she would neither jeopardize a Democratic Senate seat nor give the GOP unnecessary ammunition. “She checks a lot of boxes,” says Democratic strategist David Axelrod, who advised then-Democratic nominee Barack Obama on his 2008 decision to put Biden on the ticket.
Her selection is a nod to the pivotal role that Black voters have played as the engine of Biden’s own campaign, which roared back into contention in the primary thanks to the overwhelming support of Black South Carolina voters. Black voters are seen as crucially important to defeating Trump in November. Black turnout dipped in 2016 when Democrats nominated an all-white ticket, which may have cost the party vital votes in battleground states. Black women in particular are increasingly acknowledged as the party’s most loyal voting bloc: 98% of black women voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016, while roughly half of white women voted for Trump.
The selection comes at a precarious moment for the country. The COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting economic devastation have heightened the stakes of the race; if elected, Biden will assume office during a national crisis. Biden’s experience as a senator and two-term vice president gave him a keen appreciation of what the job entails, and a strong desire for a running mate he could work closely with in the White House. He and Obama didn’t know each other well when they ran against one another in 2008, and their relationship was rocky at points during the fall campaign. But they grew close, and Biden describes their partnership as a model of what he was searching for. As one former Obama administration official put it: “Biden has a template, and the template is Biden.”
Harris’s biography is full of firsts. Born in 1965 in Oakland, Calif., to a Jamacian father and a Tamil Indian mother, she grew up mostly in Berkeley, where she attended a Black Baptist church and a Hindu temple. She went to Howard University, becoming a member of the legendary Black sorority Alpha Kappa Alpha, followed by law school at the University of California, Hastings College of Law in San Francisco. She worked her way up in local district attorneys’ offices before being elected San Francisco District Attorney in 2003. In 2010, she was elected California’s attorney general, becoming the first Black top prosecutor in the state’s history and the first woman to serve in that post. In 2016, she was elected the second Black woman and first Indian-American ever to serve in the U.S. Senate.
In California, Harris—who lives in Los Angeles with her husband and two stepchildren—has long been considered talented but politically malleable. Well-connected and skilled at winning over wealthy donors, she was equally comfortable in San Francisco’s elite parlors and its low-income neighborhoods. She impressed audiences less with a clear ideology than with personal charisma and infectious optimism. As D.A., she angered the San Francisco police union by refusing to seek the death penalty for a young gang member who killed an officer. But she also angered criminal-justice reformers with aggressive tactics, such as threatening to prosecute parents whose kids were chronically absent from school.
As attorney general, she went after big banks and the pharmaceutical industry, for-profit colleges and oil companies. She refused to defend the voter-approved Proposition 8 banning gay marriage, paving the way for the Supreme Court’s 2015 decision legalizing it. But she also backed down from many fights, declining to endorse ballot initiatives that would have reformed the three-strikes law and ended the death penalty. She even appealed a federal court decision striking down the death penalty as unconstitutional, successfully reinstating a penalty she claimed to oppose.
In the Senate, Harris thrilled liberal audiences with her punishing interrogations of Trump Administration officials such as former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, as well as Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. But when she attempted to parlay that appeal into a 2020 presidential campaign, she struggled to articulate her driving values, instead speaking to vague themes of unity and “truth” that left audiences befuddled. She called for abolishing private health insurance in an early interview, then took it back and released a health-care plan that would allow both public and private health insurance.
Many liberals viewed Harris’s prosecutorial record as a strike against her, especially in the era of Black Lives Matter and amid heightened awareness of the criminal-justice system’s brutal disparities. She attempted to retroactively cast herself as a “progressive prosecutor” who was trying to reform a flawed system from within, a description that rang hollow to many who followed her rise. Prominent Black Lives Matter activists say her prosecutorial record is more complex than the caricature. “While there are some valid criticisms of her actions during her time as a prosecutor, I can also say pretty definitively that she was seen as an enemy of the police,” says Oakland-based Black Lives Matter co-founder Alicia Garza, who saw Harris’s policies in California firsthand. “If you were to talk to the police unions at that time, you would have thought that Kamala Harris was Huey Newton, the way they talked about her.”
Harris also sought to convince voters that her experience uniquely qualified her to prosecute the case against Trump. “This guy has completely trampled on the rule of law, avoided consequence and accountability under law,” she told TIME in a September 2019 interview. “For all the sh-t people give me for being a prosecutor, listen. I believe there should be accountability and consequence.”
Harris and Biden have a history. They memorably clashed in their first debate in June 2019, when she attacked him in emotional terms for his opposition to federally mandated busing in the 1970s. “That little girl was me,” she said, leaving Biden struggling to articulate a response to an allegation he considered unfair. But Harris’s subsequent surge in the polls dissipated when she couldn’t answer follow-up questions about her own position on busing, or her plans to end the continuing segregation of America’s schools. By December, languishing in the single digits in polls and running out of campaign funds, Harris quit the race before any votes were cast.
Speaking to the National Association of Black Journalists and National Association of Hispanic Journalists last week, Biden said that he did not “hold grudges” against Harris for the exchange. “It was a debate, it’s as simple as that,” he said. But some in Biden’s inner circle took the attack as a sign of political ruthlessness and worried she would not be sufficiently loyal if selected. Former Senator Chris Dodd, Biden’s close friend and the head of his Vice Presidential search committee, reportedly complained to a donor that Harris “had no remorse” for the debate exchange. Some party operators who disliked Harris pushed instead for Representative Karen Bass, a well-liked Californian with good relationships in Congress who was perceived to be, as Dodd reportedly put it, a “loyal Number 2.”
The efforts to undermine Harris may have ultimately strengthened her bid. Feminist Democrats seized on Dodd’s comment, rallying to her defense and noting a male candidate never would have been slammed for being perceived as ambitious. “It’s undeniable how qualified she is, how symbolic she is, but also just how ready she is to assume this level of leadership,” says Democratic strategist Jess Morales Rocketto, who was pushing for Biden to choose former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams. “She’s aggressive in the best possible way. The leadership style she has is really fitting to this moment.”
Even though Harris’s presidential bid fizzled out, many Democrats saw it as proof that she had been tested by the rigors of a national campaign and would be unlikely to embarrass Biden with scandals or surprises. “You don’t want to throw people into the deep end of the pool,” says Axelrod, who said a similar calculation informed Biden’s selection. Harris also appears politically aligned with Biden: an Obama-style moderate Democrat who mostly refrained from embracing the progressive movement represented in the primaries by Senators. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.
As he weighed his choices, Biden was faced with several competing political realities. On the one hand, the nationwide uprising to demand racial justice in the wake of the killing of George Floyd increased the pressure on Biden to pick a Black woman. A running mate like Warren or Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer would have struck many activists as tone-deaf under the circumstances. And yet the spate of crises the nation faces would make it difficult for a talented but less experienced pol, like Representative Val Demings, a two-term member of Congress, or former National Security Adviser Susan Rice, who has never held elected office, to learn on the job.
But Biden’s chief political priority in selecting Harris was the Hippocratic imperative to do no harm. On the eve of his nominating convention next week, the Democrat holds a steady lead over President Trump in national and swing-state polling; Republicans accuse Biden of avoiding the spotlight as he seeks to keep the electorate’s focus on the unpopular incumbent. That dynamic made it all the more important to avoid picking a running mate who could give Trump ammunition by creating embarrassing scandals or unwelcome political contrasts.
After Harris’s selection was announced on Tuesday, Trump’s campaign quickly published a video that accused “phony Kamala” of “rushing to the radical left.” But any attempt to paint her as a flip-flopper will have to compete with the President’s own record. When Harris was running for re-election as California A.G. in 2014, both Trump and his daughter Ivanka contributed to her campaign.