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Could Kamala Harris make it all the way to the White House as Joe Biden’s VP?

In 2016, Kamala Harris was a fresh-faced senator still finding her way around Washington. 

A year later, her role on the Senate Intelligence Committee, which was investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election, earned her the kind of national spotlight almost unheard of for a fledgling senator. 

One of her most notable appearances on the committee was in June 2017, when her feisty exchange with Jeff Sessions, Donald Trump’s attorney general at the time, won her plaudits from Democrats.

Ms Harris’s prosecutorial background was shown to full effect as she questioned Mr Sessions on his contacts with Russian agents during the 2016 election campaign. 

Her questioning, he freely admitted during the televised appearance, made him “nervous”. The exchange was carried live on US cable news and made a political star out of Ms Harris.

Read more: When is the US Election 2020, and what the key swing states?

It was the start of a prominent public profile for the 55-year-old California senator, who has just been selected as Joe Biden’s running mate for the Democratic presidential ballot in 2020.

Ms Harris is a former presidential hopeful herself, entering the Democratic race on Martin Luther King day, carefully timed to highlight the historic nature of her candidacy. It was also a nod to Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman elected to Congress, who became the first black woman to seek the Democratic nomination for president 47 years ago that week. 

When she announced her bid for the Democratic nomination, Ms Harris said she felt a “responsibility to stand up and fight for the best of who we are” and regain America’s “moral authority” in the world.

Despite showing early promise with strong debate performances, her campaign failed to catch fire and she quit the race in early December as money dried up and her poll numbers plummeted.

Her inability to connect with voters in the Democratic primary race remains a concern for some Democrats, as does the lingering idea that she might not be completely loyal to Mr Biden because of a heated confrontation the two politicians had while rivals competing for the Democratic nomination. 

Members of Mr Biden’s inner circle have expressed reservations about the incident during an early Democratic primary debate, when Ms Harris criticised Mr Biden’s past opposition to the policy of busing, which saw children of different races bussed to schools as a way of breaking down segregated education.

The confrontation became the stand-out moment of that debate in June 2019 and reportedly frustrated some in Mr Biden’s camp at the time, including his wife Jill, and had been seen as a potential barrier to Ms Harris’ selection as his running mate.

According to Politico, Ms Harris expressed no remorse over the confrontation when interviewed by Mr Biden’s vice presidential vetting team, joking “that’s politics”. Others in Mr Biden’s campaign played down the significance of the incident and insisted that Mr Biden does not hold grudges.

Kamala Harris was elected to the Senate in 2016

Kamala Harris was elected to the Senate in 2016 but may be a challenger for Donald Trump in 2020

Credit:
Reuters

Meanwhile Ms Harris’ supporters have talked up her merits – highlighting her background as a prosecutor as proof of a strong track record and her rare demographic appeal as a biracial woman.

Tracy Sefl, an adviser to Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, came across Ms Harris through her work in California. She describes her as a “sharp political intellect” and believes her impressive record as California’s attorney general will stand her in good stead in any presidential race. 

“In terms of biography that is an important piece of hers and perhaps a bit of a differentiator among 2020 candidates who are often mentioned in the same breath,” she says.

Senator Cory Booker – a former Democratic presidential rival – put it another way. “When have you seen someone with her qualifications, her competency, her natural gifts as a leader—and who happens to be a black, Asian, biracial woman?” he told Vogue earlier this year. 

America’s first Indian-American senator and California’s first black senator, Ms Harris’ political career has been a succession of ‘firsts’. She was the first woman and first person of colour to be elected both as district attorney in San Francisco, a role she spent seven years in, and as California’s attorney general, a position she held for six years. 

Ms Harris now makes history as the first person of colour to be a vice presidential nominee for a major US political party.  

Ms Harris attended Howard University in Washington, which traditionally has a majority African-American intake, and studied political science and economics. She has previously referenced the institution’s strong legacy of black achievement as a source of inspiration.

She began her career as a prosecutor dedicated to prison reform and early intervention, part of an approach she details in her book Smart on Crime. Her ‘Back on Track’ programme, targeting first time non-violent drug offenders, was largely deemed a success with a reoffending rate of 10 percent, compared with rates of more than 50 percent elsewhere in the state.

As attorney general she controversially threatened to prosecute parents whose children failed to attend school – a move which critics suggested would disproportionately affect black single mothers. Ms Harris defended the tough stance, saying “if you’re chronically truant from elementary school, you are four times more likely to drop out and become a perpetrator or a victim of crime”. 

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She has also at times been accused of putting politics before her principles. When a district attorney she first refused to seek the death penalty against a man convicted of killing a police officer but later defended the state’s right to use capital punishment as California’s attorney general, flip-flopping on a central issue. The LA Times, which endorsed her senate campaign, also criticised her for being unwilling to take a stand on controversial issues, warning: “a bold leader can’t sit out on significant decisions”. Earlier this year she drew criticism from her Democratic peers for waiting to reveal her position on a controversial immigration bill – only voting against it when it was clear it would fail to pass. 

Some in the Democratic Party’s more progressive wing worry that Ms Harris, like Mrs Clinton, is too centrist and willing to talk tough without following through. But her supporters hope that like President Barack Obama, she can create a broad voter base by appealing to both black and white voters.

Indeed, Mr Obama inadvertently boosted her public profile when he described her as “brilliant” and “tough” before adding “she also happens to be, by far, the best-looking attorney general in the country”. The comment led to accusations of sexism and Mr Obama called Ms Harris to apologise for the remark.

Ms Harris and President Obama in 2011

Ms Harris and President Obama in 2011

Credit:
Reuters

Born to an Indian mother and a Jamaican father, Ms Harris has often spoken of how her upbringing in 1960s California was deeply rooted in the civil rights movement. Her mother, Shyamala Gopalan, a breast cancer researcher, and her father, Donald Harris, an economics professor at Stanford University, would often take Ms Harris and her younger sister Maya along on marches as young children. 

Inspiration for her political activism also came from her maternal grandparents, whom she would often visit in India. Her grandfather was active in the country’s fight for independence from British rule and her grandmother was known to take a bullhorn out with her as she went about educating poor women on access to birth control. “Both of my grandparents impressed upon me their conviction that we each have the capacity and the responsibility to work for a better and more just society,” Ms Harris writes in her book.

Ms Harris hasn't ruled out running for the top job

Ms Harris hasn’t ruled out running for the top job

Credit:
Getty

But some have suggested she could be using her position in public office to do more to support African Americans. Jamira Burley, a community activist who has worked on Democratic efforts to engage young voters, says many are enthusiastic about Ms Harris. But Ms Burley thinks she could be doing more for the Black Lives movement, warning many ethnic minority politicians tend to stay away from issues of race for fear of being pigeonholed.

“As a woman of colour, I would love for her to talk more on that,” she says. But she is also hopeful that Ms Harris’ campaign “will reflect the needs and concerns of communities that she represents and that look like her”. 

“While she is a biracial woman here in the US at a time when we’re dealing with so much separation and so much division among large populations of white and black communities, I do think she has the ability to bring communities together to remind people what we are and what we could be as a country.”

Ms Harris' profile has been boosted by her appearances on the Senate Intelligence Committee

Ms Harris’ profile has been boosted by her appearances on the Senate Intelligence Committee

Credit:
AP

While some Democrats continue to have reservations over Ms Harris’ candidacy, Ms Sefl, a long-time Democratic strategist, says the senator has some crucial assets. For one, she comes from the state with the largest number of delegate votes, which Ms Self calls “clearly significant”. 

As the most populous US state, California offers a “huge stage” to its home senator. “It’s worth noting she has a powerful, dynamic presence and audiences have been responding that way to her – that’s the proof point,” she says. 

Finally, Ms Sefl points to one critical factor. In a race that will be defined by how you handle President Trump, she thinks Ms Harris can “tune out Trump noise” to focus on the issues facing voters. “Those aren’t always the things that Trump is talking about,” she says.

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