Senator Kamala Harris brings an aggressive approach to politics and public policy, deep electoral experience and hands-on expertise in the beleaguered U.S. criminal justice system as Joe Biden’s running mate.
Harris, at 55 a full generation younger than Biden, also imparts a youthful persona and diversity, with Jamaican and Indian ancestry that may help Biden, as a 77-year-old white man, energize a Democratic base that is rapidly becoming younger, more female and less white.
But Harris comes with a track record as attorney general of California and district attorney of San Francisco, where she was known as being tough on minority defendants, an issue she will likely need to address in the days remaining in the campaign.
She at times proved a lackluster campaigner in the primaries, which she quit in December after failing to give voters a clear idea of what she stood for.
Here’s a look at the assets and liabilities Harris brings to the Biden campaign. Asset: Electoral experience
Harris has run in statewide elections in California three times and won each time. She was narrowly elected attorney general in 2010 and re-elected by a larger margin in 2014. In November 2016, she won the right to replace outgoing Sen. Barbara Boxer by defeating Rep. Loretta Sanchez.
She was first elected to public office in 2003 when she defeated the incumbent district attorney of San Francisco, Terence Hallinan, partly by branding him “soft on crime.” Liability: Unclear campaign persona
Harris’s presidential campaign was hobbled by her struggle to convey clearly what she stood for in an election in which voters demanded authenticity.
She switched positions on Medicare for All within six months, saying she supported the elimination of private insurance and then backing away from legislation she cosponsored that did just that.
Similarly, she branded herself as a “progressive prosecutor” early in her campaign, despite a record back to 2003 of presenting herself as tough on crime.
The Trump campaign already has dubbed Harris “Phony Kamala.” Asset: She’s ‘simpatico’ with Biden
Harris delivered one of the toughest blows Biden ever took on a debate stage, accusing him of siding with segregationist senators over school busing in the 1970s, and she poignantly described the indignity she suffered going to school across town. “That little girl was me,” she said.
The Biden camp was stunned, especially because Harris had been friendly with Biden’s late son, Beau, when they were both state attorneys general.
Biden, however, repeatedly said he was searching for a running mate he was “simpatico” with, who could replicate the bond he says he had with President Barack Obama. He said more recently he didn’t “hold a grudge” for that debate swipe. And he cited her friendship with Beau Biden in putting her on the ticket.
Biden can use that episode to show that, unlike Trump, he doesn’t punish people who challenge him. And the incident shows their distinct backgrounds — Biden growing up in a white, working-class part of Pennsylvania in the 1940s and 50s, and Harris’s upbringing as the daughter of immigrants in California.
Both paths led to the U.S. Senate. Liability: Mixed feelings among Black voters
Possibly because of her prosecutorial record, some Black voters are ambivalent about Harris. Throughout her own presidential campaign and in the spring, polls consistently showed her lagging both Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Biden himself in support among African Americans.
“The data clearly show less name recognition for Harris than for Warren and less favorability among non-whites,” said Peter Enns, director of the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research at Cornell University.
Yet several experts said that the potent symbolism of an African American woman on the Biden ticket may help counter that skepticism. Asset: Criminal justice experience
Harris has expertise in the U.S. criminal-justice system, which has been under fire as protests raged over the May 25 death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody.
Her visibility on police reform in recent months, including co-authoring a Senate bill to ban police chokeholds and take other steps, helped mute criticism of her record as a prosecutor. She has recently emphasized that she started her career as prosecutor because she wanted to promote reform “from the inside.”
Harris has also stressed that addressing social ills and investing in impoverished communities is also critical — a line of argument that dovetails with Biden’s call for support of what he calls the “Caring Economy.” Liability: Was she too tough?
But Harris’s record exacerbates questions Biden has faced — particularly from Black voters — about the tough-on-crime stands they took in the 1990s. As a senator, Biden co-authored the 1994 crime bill, which advocates now blame for disproportionately penalizing Black defendants.
Harris’s offices fought innocence claims from men of color who turned out to have been wrongfully convicted, defended long prison terms for “three-strikes” criminals convicted of minor offenses and threatened to jail the parents of truants.
Like Biden, Harris has sometimes been tough on Wall Street and the financial sector and is known for a settlement with banks in the aftermath of the 2008-2009 financial crisis in which she held out for tougher terms. Harris is expected to act as Biden’s surrogate in attacks on Trump and Vice President Mike Pence, as she has for the past two months while campaigning for the No. 2 slot.
Just the act of Biden picking Harris as his running mate has powerful symbolic appeal, showing that he, his party and his running mate have the ability to change in a positive way, said Paul Mitchell, vice president of Political Data Inc., a bipartisan voter data company.
“The act of making someone the vice presidential candidate is inherently going to get voters to react to them,” Mitchell said. “In Harris’ case, it might be great for motivation in the African-American community and it also might be really great for white progressives as being an important new step for the Democratic Party to take.”
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