Ending months of speculation, presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Senator Joe Biden announced today that he has selected California Senator Kamala Harris as his vice presidential running mate. With that choice, Harris becomes the first Black woman and the first Asian American to run for the vice presidency on a major party ticket.
To paraphrase Biden during the passage of the Affordable Care Act, that’s a “big fucking deal”.
Harris served as District Attorney of San Francisco and California’s Attorney General before being elected to the US Senate in 2016. Last year, Harris became one of the first Asian Americans in US history to run a viable, national campaign for the presidency when she sought the Democratic presidential nomination for the 2020 election. During that cycle, she briefly won national attention when she stridently challenged Biden on earlier remarks defending critics of school integration.
However, Harris was also strongly criticized by the progressive left for her record as District Attorney and Attorney General. They cited, for example, a law she once considered a signature, and that threatened parents of truant children with fines and possible jail time. That law is viewed as disproportionately criminalizing Black and Brown low-income families. That record, along with Harris’ general law-and-order platform seemed at odds with the current political moment, and its focus on criminal justice reform. Ultimately, Harris failed to secure sufficient Democratic primary support, and she ended her presidential campaign in December before the first primary states cast their vote.
Nonetheless, Harris was one of two Asian American women (along with Senator Tammy Duckworth) to be short-listed by Biden as potential running-mates. I and many others considered Harris to be Biden’s likeliest choice, even as we might have preferred other candidates with bolder and more progressive policy stances. Like Biden, Harris is a moderate Democrat who shies away from progressive policy ideas. She has several years’ experience working in Capitol Hill, where Biden will need his vice president to help push through legislation to reverse the damage of the Trump presidency. As a California Senator, Harris’ vacated Senate seat is unlikely to be flipped to the Republican Party.
As the fastest-growing electorate in the country, Asian American voters are likely to play a significant role in the 2020 presidential election. Harris has a history of engaging with the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community, and she had strong favorability ratings among AAPI voters in California in 2019.
It would certainly be helpful if Harris can boost the Democratic ticket this year, particularly in battleground states where Biden is eking out a narrow advantage. Democrats are hoping that a Biden-Harris ticket will galvanize Democratic and independent voters to defeat Trump. But, they have to also be hoping that voters help to flip the balance of power in Congress where a strong Democratic Senate majority – and a powerful Vice President – will be crucial to help Biden enact his legislative promises, if elected.
Like many progressives, I both acknowledge the historicity of Harris’s vice presidential nomination, while I am also disappointed that a more progressive voice was not chosen. If elected, Kamala Harris will hold the highest elected office of any Asian American woman in history. Even so, racial optics are not enough: we should want our elected officials to not just look like us, but to also speak to, with, and for us.
The Trump administration has done incredible damage — especially to Black, Brown, and immigrant communities. We need to immediately remove Trump from office. And then, we must commit to spending the next four years holding the Biden administration truly accountable towards a progressive vision of the future that is genuinely more just.
Correction: An earlier version of this post erroneously said Harris dropped out after the early primary races. She dropped out before those contests. I regret the error.