By Melanie Mason
Los Angeles Times
Joe Biden has named his one-time rival Kamala Harris as his running mate, the campaign revealed Tuesday, elevating California's junior senator as the first woman of color to appear on a major party's presidential ticket.
Harris, who centered her unsuccessful White House bid last year on a promise to "prosecute the case" against President Donald Trump, was widely seen as a front-runner to be Biden's vice presidential pick. With her statewide experience as California attorney general and four years in the U.S. Senate, Harris was among the most conventionally qualified of the half dozen or so women under consideration in the most diverse crop of contenders ever.
In many ways, Harris, 55, is a safe pick — broadly popular in the Democratic Party and well acquainted with the rigors of a national campaign. But her selection also carries symbolic heft in this moment when race relations are at top of mind for voters, particularly since Harris, who is of Indian and Jamaican descent, had her own highly publicized confrontation with Biden over race during the primary.
Despite her strengths, Harris' selection is not without risk, particularly if the race tightens. She was an inconsistent candidate in her own presidential run and her record as a prosecutor has at times been a political millstone, particularly as attitudes on law enforcement and mass incarceration have dramatically shifted to the left. While Harris has more forcefully embraced criminal justice reform recently, she faces lingering distrust from some in the party's progressive flank, including younger voters of color who did not broadly embrace her candidacy.
Long considered a rising star in Democratic politics, Harris' ascent to the presidential ticket has the potential to position her as a future leader of the party, particularly given that, should Biden be elected president, he would be 78 years old when sworn in. Biden, himself a former vice president, said his choice of a running mate would be a "simpatico" governing partner and someone ready to assume the Oval Office on "a moment's notice."
"It's overdue. It's tremendous," said Angela Rye, a Democratic political strategist and former executive director for the Congressional Black Caucus. "Kamala is not a stranger to making history so it's poetic justice that she'd be making history here."
Rye, who had advocated for Biden to pick a Black woman, said the choice could also prove to be politically strategic by shoring up a constituency that is a must-win for Democrats, but often taken for granted.
"Hopefully it signifies a tremendous shift in the Democratic Party by finally recognizing how important Black people, and most specifically Black women, are to the base," she said. "We don't just mobilize the Black community but we mobilize the party overall."
Born in Oakland, California, and raised in Berkeley, Harris is the older daughter of two immigrants; her mother was an Indian-born breast cancer researcher and her father is an economist from Jamaica. She and her sister, Maya, who is one of Harris' closest political advisers, were raised primarily by their mother, steeped in a hybrid of Indian and Black culture. She attended Howard University, a historically Black college.
Harris would often visit her mother's family in India, usually Chennai, where her grandparents settled later in life. She was especially close with her grandfather, P.V. Gopalan, a civil servant, with whom she would make French toast and play five-card stud poker.
She is a product of the San Francisco Bay Area's competitive political training ground, having worked in the public sector her entire career. She now lives in Los Angeles with her husband Douglas Emhoff, an attorney.
Harris spent 13 years as a prosecutor in Alameda County and San Francisco. She won her first elected office as San Francisco district attorney in 2003 and after two terms, won a tight race to be California attorney general, a role she held through 2016.
Harris was barely halfway into her first term as U.S. senator from California when she jumped into the presidential fray, buoyed by her high-profile prosecutorial interrogations of Trump administration officials in Senate hearings.
Her brisk grilling of then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions in 2017, for example, about his interactions with Russian officials during the presidential campaign a year earlier left him tongue-tied and complaining the pace of her questions made him "nervous."
She immediately established herself as a top-tier candidate with a flashy Oakland launch rally last January. But her campaign flagged in the spring as she struggled to square her law enforcement resume with a Democratic electorate that has lurched leftward on criminal justice issues.
A defining moment of her presidential run came at the first Democratic primary debate, when she challenged Biden for speaking warmly of his collegiality with segregationist senators and his work with them to stymie busing to racially integrate schools.
"There was a little girl in California who was part of the second class to integrate her public schools, and she was bused to school every day," she said onstage, as she angled her body to speak directly to Biden. "And that little girl was me."
Biden appeared flustered by the charge, particularly given his warm relationship with Harris, who had been close friends with his late son Beau.
The confrontation had limited short-term benefit for Harris, whose campaign sputtered out under lagging poll numbers and dwindling fundraising by December, before any primary votes were cast.
Both Harris and Biden insisted there were no lingering hard feelings. Harris, who endorsed Biden in March, has been an enthusiastic campaigner for the presumptive Democratic nominee, making frequent appearances at virtual roundtables and fundraisers.
It is not unheard of for once-fierce rivals to serve as running mates. In 1960, John F. Kennedy chose Lyndon Johnson for the Democratic ticket despite their mutual disdain. In 1980, Republican Ronald Reagan made George H.W. Bush his vice presidential pick even after Bush mocked Reagan's policy agenda as "voodoo economics."
Still, some Biden allies held the debate moment against Harris, arguing that the showdown undercut her ability to be a loyal running mate, particularly if she fixes her eye on succeeding him in the Oval Office (hardly an uncommon ambition for vice presidents).
Harris and Biden have departed on other policy matters, namely health care. Biden is a proponent of expanding the Affordable Care Act to include a public option. Harris backed a version of "Medicare for All," although her shifting stances on whether private insurers should have a role in a government health care plan caused her some blowback during the primary.
At the time, Harris found herself in difficult ideological ground, wedged between centrists like Biden and more lefty rivals such as Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.
Now, that position may offer the benefit of bridging the two wings of the party.
"Kamala is kind of in the territory between Biden and the truly progressives," said Bruce Cain, professor of political science at Stanford University. "That can be a weakness for her but it's also a strength. There's a certain ambiguity as to exactly how progressive she is."
Harris also ends a decadeslong political drought for California, the country's most populous state, which has not been represented on a national ticket since President Ronald Reagan sought reelection in 1984.
Golden State politicians who have tried to make the leap to the White House since then, such as former Govs. Pete Wilson and Jerry Brown, "often had trouble translating their California experience nationwide," Cain said.
"That's not going to be a problem for Kamala," he said, noting she went through nearly a year of national campaigning and five primary debates before dropping out of the race in December.
Once out of the glare of the presidential race, Harris maintained a relatively high public profile. Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, she called attention to the racial disparities in the impact of the coronavirus, and she took a lead on Democratic efforts to reform policing after mass protests over the death of George Floyd.
And while she consistently demurred on vice presidential speculation, she showed off her skills as a Biden campaign surrogate, deftly weaving in pitches for his candidacy even while discussing other topics, as she did last week during an MSNBC appearance slamming Barr.
"Frankly, the best way to address and deal with this is to win this election in November, elect Joe Biden and have a real system of justice in America that reflects our ideals of democracy," she said.