In Depth

Kamala Harris: will she help or hinder Joe Biden’s campaign?

Establishment Democrats hail ‘historic’ vice presidential pick but some progressives are underwhelmed

Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden has named California senator Kamala Harris as his running mate for the forthcoming election - the first woman of colour ever to appear on a presidential ticket.

Announcing his choice on Twitter on Tuesday evening, Biden said: “I have the great honour to announce that I’ve picked @KamalaHarris – a fearless fighter for the little guy, and one of the country’s finest public servants – as my running mate.” In response, Harris (pictured above) pledged to “do what it takes to make him our Commander-in-Chief”.

As the first black woman and first person of Indian descent to run for vice president in the US, Harris is a historical choice for Biden. But while her wealth of experience in the Senate and moderate stances on many issues makes her a “safe pick”, as The Telegraph puts it, her record as a public prosecutor and her thorny exchanges with Biden during the Democratic primaries may put off some voters.

So will Harris ultimately help or hinder her party’s battle to beat Donald Trump in November’s vote?

Who is Kamala Harris?

Harris was born in the California city of Oakland in 1964 to an Indian-born mother and Jamaican-born father, and was raised “primarily by her Hindu single mother, Shyamala Gopalan Harris, a cancer researcher and civil rights activist”, the BBC reports.

In her autobiography, The Truths We Told, Harris says that her mother “understood very well that she was raising two black daughters” and was “determined to make sure we would grow into confident, proud black women” by closely engaging with Oakland’s large black community.

The future VP candidate served six years as the attorney general of California before arriving in the Senate in 2016, with The Guardian describing her as “among the most prominent black women in American politics, with appeal across the party’s ideological spectrum”.

How will she help Biden?

Harris has already made history as the first woman of colour to serve as attorney general, the top lawyer and law enforcement official, in America’s most populous state.

Her performance in the Senate has been equally impressive, with her intense questioning of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh in 2018 cementing her place as a major force in the Democratic Party.

Now, amid ongoing protests against racial injustice in the US, the hope is that “the senator will help mobilise African-Americans to vote”, particularly since Hillary Clinton’s defeat at the 2016 election was “in part down to the Democrat Party’s first drop in black voter turnout in 20 years”, says Sky News.

Applauding Harris’s nomination, Aimee Allison, founder of rights campaign group She the People, said: “Today is a spark of hope and a watershed moment for black women and women of colour.

“This is one step in a much larger fight for representation towards the multiracial democracy women of color have dreamed of, fought for and bled for, for generations.”

Harris is only the third woman in history to have been nominated for the vice presidency of a major political party. In 2008, then-governor of Alaska Sarah Palin ran alongside the late John McCain on the Republican ticket against Barack Obama, while in 1984 congresswoman Geraldine Ferraro was picked by Democrat Walter Mondale to take on Ronald Reagan.

Both Palin and Ferraro were defeated in their bids for office.

But Democrats hope Harris will have more success, despite her series of scathing attacks on Biden’s policy record while angling for the top job during the televised primary debates last year.

The feud saw her popularity surge while Biden’s faltered, but as The Guardian reports, the two Democrats “indicated they had made amends” after Harris dropped out of the race in December and endorsed Biden’s presidential bid in March.

Why might she hinder Biden?

Biden is currently holding an unprecedented lead in many statewide and national opinion polls, and appears to be odds-on to secure the presidency. Given this strong position, bringing Harris on board seems unlikely to derail his campaign - but Biden’s VP pick does come with some undeniable baggage that may not sit well with everyone.

Harris has been opposed by some progressives for her record in law enforcement and, at times, less liberal positions on other issues. Her campaign for the Democratic nomination brought back into focus a highly controversial truancy law that Harris personally championed while serving as California’s attorney general.

HuffPost reports that the law, enacted in January 2011, “made it a criminal misdemeanour for parents to allow kids in kindergarten through eighth grade to miss more than 10% of school days without a valid excuse”. Critics claim that a number of innocent parents “wound up paying the price” for Harris’s war on truancy, according to the news site.

She has also been accused of flip-flopping by the more progressive wing of the Democratic Party. In a joint statement issued following her VP nomination, political groups RootsAction.org and Progressive Democrats of America said: “As we saw during her own presidential campaign, Kamala Harris is a political weather vane. First she was for Medicare for All, then she wasn’t.

“She failed for years to hold police accountable for gross misconduct in California, then touted her commitment to police accountability in the wake of George Floyd’s murder.” 

These alleged ideological inconsistencies have also provoked attacks from the political right, with President Trump responding to Biden’s pick with a rambling, aggressive press conference in the White House on Tuesday night.

“She’s a person that’s told many, many stories that weren’t true,” the incumbent said. “She did very, very poorly in the primaries, as you know, she was expected to do well and she ended up right around 2%. So I was a little surprised that he picked her.”

Trump also said Harris was “very, very nasty” and “horrible” to Biden during the Democratic primary debates.

Katrina Pierson, a senior adviser to the Trump campaign, added: “Not long ago, Kamala Harris called Joe Biden a racist and asked for an apology she never received.

“Clearly, Phony Kamala will abandon her own morals, as well as try to bury her record as a prosecutor, in order to appease the anti-police extremists controlling the Democrat party.”

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