By Terrance Turner
August 11, 2020 (updated Aug. 12)
Democratic presidential frontrunner and former Vice President Joe Biden has chosen Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) as his running mate. Biden announced his VP pick on Twitter. In an email to supporters, he wrote: “I need someone working alongside me who is smart, tough, and ready to lead. Kamala is that person.” Harris is the first Black woman AND first Indian-American on a Democratic presidential ticket. (Or any major-party ticket, for that matter.)
It is the latest of many firsts for Harris, 55. The daughter of an Indian scientist mother and a Jamaican economist father, she is the first person in her family born in the United States, according to ABC News reporter Terry Moran. Harris was the first woman to be elected as district attorney for San Francisco in 2003. She later became the first Black person and first woman to serve as California Attorney General in 2010. (Harris won re-election in 2014 with 57% of the vote.)
When she was elected to the U.S. Senate in 2016, Harris was only the second African-American* woman to serve in that house. As a member of both the Senate Intelligence and Senate Judiciary Committees, Harris earned attention for her tough, probing style of questioning, underscoring her record as a prosecutor. Those skills were on special display during the contentious confirmation hearings of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh.
Though she is the fourth woman on a presidential ticket (Clinton, Palin, Ferraro), Harris is the first non-white woman, according to The Sunday Times. Now, Kamala Harris could become the first Black woman (and first South Asian) to serve as Vice President of the United States of America.
Moran said today that Biden and Harris will appear together tomorrow in Wilmington (in Biden’s home state of Delaware). It is the first step in what once appeared to be an unlikely partnership. At a Democratic debate last year (in Miami), Harris went after Biden for waxing poetic about working with segregationist senators. “It was hurtful to hear you talk about the reputations of two United States senators who built their reputations and career on the segregation of race in this country,” she said.
But Harris also went after Biden for his stance opposing federal funding for desegregated busing. Under the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the federal government could withhold funding from districts that refused to integrate blacks and whites — integration including school busing. Biden opposed that approach, arguing that it would lead to racial unrest. He teamed up with segregationist Sen. Jesse Helms for a failed anti-busing amendment in 1975. The next year, Biden moved to bar the Justice Department from pursuing busing-related cases. The New York Times revealed that between 1975 and 1982, Biden introduced several pieces of legislation aimed at limiting courts and the feds from mandating busing.
Harris took Biden to task for that — and for working with senators like Helms. “And it was not only that, but you also worked with them to oppose busing. And, you know, there was a little girl in California who was a part of the second class to integrate her public schools, and she was bused to school every day,” she said, growing emotional. “And that little girl was me.”
Biden, apparently blindsided by the comment, argued Harris had mischaracterized his position. His wife, Dr. Jill Biden, was also hurt, saying that Harris’ attack was a “punch to the gut”. But Harris endorsed Biden in March. And just two weeks ago, at a speech in Wilmington, Biden offered a telling clue. As he approached the podium, Biden’s handwritten notes were snapped by an Associated Press photographer. Sen. Kamala Harris’ name was scrawled across the top. Right under her name, Biden had written: “Do not hold grudges.”
Today (Aug. 12), the two made their first joint appearance as running mates in Delaware; both shed some light on what brought them together.
One key factor in Biden choosing Harris was her friendship with his son Beau Biden (who died of brain cancer in 2015). Harris and Beau Biden were attorneys general during the same time period. “They took on the same big fights together. Kamala in California. Beau here in Delaware — big fights that helped change the entire country,” Joe Biden said today. “I know how much Beau respected Kamala and her work, and that mattered a lot to me, to be honest with you, as I made this decision.”
“Beau and I spoke on the phone practically every day — sometimes multiple times a day,” Harris said in her remarks this afternoon. “Beau was the kind of guy who inspired people to be a better version of themselves. He really was the best of us. And when I would ask him, ‘Where’d you get that? Where did this come from?’ He’d always talk about his dad. And I will tell you, the love that they shared was incredible to watch.”
Beyond their heart-tugging memories of Beau, the two bonded over mutual goals and mutual admiration. Biden praised Harris as smart, tough, and experienced. “She knows how to govern,” Biden said, “and she’s ready to do the job on day one.” Harris in turn praised Biden as warm and compassionate. “His empathy, his compassion, his sense of duty to care for others is why I am so proud to be on this ticket,” Harris said.
But they both also saw this election in dramatic, game-changing terms. Biden reiterated that the 2020 election is “a battle for the soul of the nation”. Harris was similarly sweeping: “This is a moment of real consequence for America,” she said. “Everything we care about — our economy, our health, our children, the kind of country we live in — it’s all on the line.”
And, of course, they both took aim at Donald Trump. Biden called out Trump for his low-blow attacks on Harris (he called her “nasty”, “phony”, and “disrespectful” yesterday). “Is anyone surprised that Donald Trump has a problem with strong women?” Biden said. He added some jabs at the president’s work with the economy, too: “Trump is on track to leave office with the worst jobs record of any American president in modern history.”
Harris, too, lacerated Trump’s economic record. “The President’s mismanagement of the pandemic has plunging us into the worst economic crisis since the great depression,” Harris said. “He inherited the longest economic expansion in history from Barack Obama and Joe Biden. And then, like everything else he inherited, he ran it straight into the ground.”
“This is what happens when we elect a guy who just isn’t up for the job,” Harris said. “Our country ends in tatters and so does our reputation around the world.”
Of course, they both discussed the topic of race. Harris said that “we are experiencing a moral reckoning with racism and systemic injustice that has brought a new coalition of conscience to the streets of our country.” Biden noted that today is the third anniversary of the Charlottesville rally, which featured Nazis, Klansmen and white supremacists marching down streets of Virginia. The event led to racially charged violence: a group of white nationalists beat up a black University of Virginia student and then sued him for assault. (Trump famously defended the white supremacists as “very fine people”.) That moment, which spurred Biden to enter the race, came into sharp relief today.
But Biden cited Harris’ presence as a racial balm. He painted her momentous VP nod as an opportunity for Black women. “And this morning, all across the nation, little girls woke up, especially little Black and Brown girls, who so often feel overlooked and undervalued in their communities, but today — today, just maybe — they’re seeing themselves for the first time in a new way, as the stuff of presidents and vice presidents,” Biden said.
“As a child of immigrants, [Harris] knows personally how immigrant families enrich our country, as well as the challenges of what it means to grow up Black and Indian-American in the United States of America,” said Biden. “Her story is America’s story.”
Born in Oakland, California in 1964, Harris was the daughter of immigrants. Her mother was a breast cancer scientist; her father was an economics professor. What brought them together, Harris said today, was the civil rights movement. “And that’s how they met, as students in the streets of Oakland,” she said today, “marching and shouting for this thing called justice, in a struggle that continues today. And I was part of it.”
Harris grew up in Berkeley. She was in kindergarten when the second year of integrated busing began there in 1969. Berkeley undertook its busing program voluntarily, requiring both white and black families to travel into unfamiliar neighborhoods, per the Los Angeles Times.
Harris entered more unfamiliar territory when her family moved to Montreal in the seventies. She graduated from high school in Westmount High School, near the Canadian city. Her Westmount high school classmate Hugh Kwok remembered: “She was a sweet, kind person. Very happy, very social.” Indeed, a survey of her Westmount colleagues in the Toronto Star revealed warm memories. “They remember the California senator, now 54, as an assured, cheery teenager who thrived both in school and on the dance floor,” wrote Washington bureau chief Daniel Dale in 2018. He wrote that Harris maintained popularity across a diverse student body, in spite of her presence in a brand-new country.
She entered new territory again by going to Howard University in Washington, D.C. She double-majored in political science and economics there. Before graduating from the historically black college, Harris was on the debate team and joined Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc. She was even elected to the liberal arts student council. “Running a campaign at Howard was tough!” NBC News quotes her as saying. “I remember walking up to strangers, asking them to vote for me.”
Harris earned her juris doctorate from the University of California, Hastings College of the Law. Then she launched her career as a deputy district attorney (part of a D.A.’s team of prosecutors). It was just the start of what would be a star-making career. Now, she has a chance to not only advance her career but alter the course of history
*Carol Moseley-Braun was the first, in 1992.