California senator Kamala Harris has been named as Joe Biden’s running mate, making her the first ever Black woman and the first person of Asian descent to earn that position. The choice carries a special weight in this election cycle, as Biden has said he’d be “a transition candidate,” hinting that if health problems arise or if he chooses not to run for a second term, his VP might have a large job fall into their laps. The VP position for Biden is also a chance to invigorate his base after the popular slogan “Settle for Biden” has put a film of malaise on his campaign. Benjamin Wallace-Wells of The New Yorker calls the choice “not an ideological commitment but a thematic one—to the civil-rights tradition and its politics.” Harris’ connection with the civil rights movement of the midcentury has been foundational to her political identity. She is the daughter of an endocrinologist from India and an economics professor from Jamaica who met through civil rights organizing while studying at UC Berkeley. She recalls attending marches and protests “strapped tightly in [her] stroller.” Her connection to the movement paints her appointment as a nod to the current, ongoing protests for the Black Lives Matter movement.
On Wednesday, Harris made her first public appearance with Biden since the announcement, in Wilmington, Delaware. She spent most of her speech lauding her running mate for his quality of character and his relationship with his late son Beau, whom Harris says she was close with while they both served as Attorney Generals for their respective states. She also spoke of the series of “crises” that the Trump-Pence administration has laid out for America, specifically Trump’s mishandling of the Coronavirus pandemic, his peddling of magical solutions, and “flip flopping on social distancing and wearing masks.” Harris also spoke of her work taking on big banks after the mortgage crisis, her work fighting drug cartels and human trafficking as a prosecutor, and pointed to the “John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act,” an effort to honor the late congressman by combatting racist voting policies.
During her time in the Senate, Harris has become notable for her tough interrogation methods during congressional hearings, often seeming to disarm Republicans like Jeff Sessions, Brett Kavanaugh, and William Barr with her sharp debating skills. She also has recently made police reform a platform priority. On The View in June, when asked her thoughts on the widespread call by protestors to defund the police, Harris expressed a need to redirect police funds to boost the health of marginalized communities, prioritizing home ownership, capital for small businesses, and access to healthcare over increasing law enforcement. She called for a dramatic “reimagining [of] how we are envisioning public safety in America.” Part of her plan on this front is a “national standard for excessive use of force,” which she hopes to actualize through the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which recently passed a House vote.
The majority of criticism levied against Harris pertain to her history as a prosecutor, serving both as District Attorney of San Francisco and later Attorney General of California. Many progressives believe her law-enforcement-centric approach to governing is a slap in the face to the impassioned calls to amend the criminal justice system and decrease America’s massive prison population. Some see her commitment to the causes of Black and Brown Americans sanctimonious when considering her decades long work of sending citizens to prison, and “her consistent preference for policing and carceral solutions,” as Wallace-Wells puts it. One of these critics was Representative Tulsi Gabbard, who in a 2019 debate deftly called out Harris’ record for prosecuting citizens for marijuana charges while seeming to treat the substance in a jovial way on the popular radio show, “The Breakfast Club.” It is true that under Harris, convictions of drug dealers increased from 56% in 2003 to 74% in 2006, but her office maintains that the number of defendants sentenced to state prison fell under Harris. The Mercury News has since conducted an in-depth report on marijuana charges while Harris was in office, and the results are complex. In any case, vital to her 2003 campaign for District Attorney and subsequent elections was her reputation for being “tough on crime,” as she promised to raise the conviction rate for the city of San Francisco.
During her time as a state prosecutor, Harris has also come under fire for her role in Norsworthy v. Beard, a case where an incarcerated trans woman sued California for denying her surgical treatment for her gender dysphoria. Harris, as the attorney general, defended the denial, stating, that it could be assuaged with psychotherapy, and that there was “no evidence that Norsworthy is in serious, immediate physical or emotional danger.” As a state prosecutor, Harris also opposed Proposition K, which aimed to end arrests for prostitution, prioritizing the wellbeing of sex works. Harris stated of her opposition, “It would put a welcome mat out for pimps and prostitutes to come on into San Francisco.” Since, though, she has changed her tune and tepidly endorsed the decriminalization of sex work, telling The Root, “when you are talking about consenting adults, I think that, you know, yes, we should really consider that we can’t criminalize consensual behavior as long as no one is being harmed.”
Another pall over her appointment is a history of conflict between Harris and Biden, especially in the primary debates. In June of last year, she strongly opposed Biden’s history of working with segregationists in the senate to oppose busing, quipping the memorable line, “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. And that little girl was me.” In April 2019, she also stated she “believed” a group of four women who accused Biden of inappropriate touching, another tidbit that left- and right-wing critics alike have noted in painting her as a hypocrite. Her appointment, though, has received depths of praise from Democratic high-ups. Barack Obama described her as a woman who has “spent her career defending our Constitution and fighting for folks who need a fair shake,” and Senator Bernie Sanders shared that she “understands what it takes to stand up for working people, fight for health care for all, and take down the most corrupt administration in history.” The conundrum for Harris, for now, seems to lie in that right-wingers see her as a tool of the radical left, and many left-wingers see her as a sycophantic agent of the carceral state, leaving the race for office with even more layers of polarization.
But as Harris alluded to in her speech on Wednesday, the most pressing goal of the Biden-Harris ticket is to beat Trump in November, not necessarily to feed the desires of every offshoot of the Democratic party. And in the face of the three crises Biden and Harris have identified, (the pandemic, the recession, and the demands for racial justice), it is vital to choose a VP whose platform is focused on healing the country’s deep-seated and persistent wounds, wounds that almost every American is acutely feeling right now. “I need someone who understands that we are in a battle for the soul of this nation,” Biden wrote in an email to his supporters, “And that if we’re going to get through these crises — we need to come together and unite for a better America. Kamala gets that.”