Kamala Harris’s Allies Wonder: Will she Have Real Clout?

Vice President-elect Kamala Harris speaks, Saturday, Nov. 7, 2020, in Wilmington, Del. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, Pool)AP

When Kamala D. Harris stepped onstage for the first time as vice president-elect, she spoke emotionally of “Black women, who are often — too often — overlooked, but so often prove that they are the backbone of our democracy.”

But while Black activists remain excited about Harris’s ascent, many now worry that the administration will not deliver much beyond her historic election — a fear sharpened by Democrats’ disappointing performance in congressional races, which has dramatically limited Biden’s maneuvering room.

Their worries are underlined by the ongoing uncertainty over what exactly Harris’s portfolio will be in the Biden administration, and how much freedom she will have to chart her own course on issues like racial justice and immigration.

“I really want her to be a transformative leader. I don’t want her to be transactional,” said LaTosha Brown, co-founder of Black Voters Matter. “What I am hoping is she becomes the lightning rod.”

Brown conceded that will be a challenge amid emerging signs that President-elect Joe Biden’s longtime advisers will hold an array of influential positions in his administration. “The entire political landscape has been dominated by White, male-centered power,” Brown said. “I certainly think there’s going to be a strain within the administration. I think there’s going to be a strain within government.”

All indications are that Harris and Biden are cementing a strong personal relationship. They talk frequently, most often through phone calls and text messages, according to a person familiar with the dynamic, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private interactions. Their connection is built partly on a shared belief in the importance of family, this person said, and on Harris’s friendship with Biden’s late son Beau, who served with Harris when both were state attorneys general.

But it is far from clear how that personal relationship will translate to official roles. Biden has not announced a portfolio for Harris, the way Biden handled the economic stimulus for Obama, and Harris’s allies are watching anxiously to see if she will be allowed to choose her top staffers or if Biden loyalists will be installed.

Many Black activists are not waiting to find out. Patrisse Cullors, co-founder of the Movement for Black Lives, has written a letter on the group’s behalf to Biden and Harris requesting a meeting to convey their demands.

“Black people won this election,” Cullors wrote. “Alongside Black-led organizations around the nation, Black Lives Matter invested heavily in this election. . . . We want something for our vote. We want to be heard and our agenda to be prioritized.”

Not everyone agrees. Some Democrats argue that while Black voters were crucial to Biden’s win, his ability to attract White centrists — who often vote Republican — was equally important. That’s sparked tensions within the party.

Cullors said she had not received a response to her letter. “The fact that we have to ask for a seat at the table, after the way we showed up, shows that Democrats have a lot of work to do when it comes to rewarding and listening to the Black folks that made this victory possible,” she said.

Another complication is that some of Biden’s powerful African American backers, such as Rep. James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.), are also forceful critics of the most far-reaching demands of Black Lives Matter protesters, such as calls to “defund the police.”

All of this has created a swirl of often-conflicting hopes, pressures and expectations around Harris, 56, who will be a vice president like no other.

As a youthful woman of color and daughter of immigrants, she represents an increasingly diverse, liberal Democratic Party — while serving a president who reflects an older, whiter, more centrist America.

In addition, many Democrats are unsure whether the 77-year-old Biden will — or should — seek a second term in 2024. That makes Harris a possible successor and a source of excitement as potentially the first female president, but Biden’s team will want her to focus loyally on his agenda and not her own political future.

Few of these complications have manifested themselves publicly yet, a little over a week after Biden and Harris declared victory in an election their opponent has yet to concede.

Biden has already given Harris unusual prominence. She spoke before him on the night he declared victory — an event usually dedicated solely to highlighting the president-elect. Harris also addressed reporters during a joint event Tuesday on the importance of the Affordable Care Act, and she has participated in internal briefings all week. The two are scheduled to deliver joint remarks Monday on the economy.

Harris’s personal relationship with Biden has been up-and-down. He initially felt close to her because of her friendship with Beau, but when she attacked his record on racial issues at a June 2019 Democratic debate, he and his family felt betrayed.

When Biden was looking for a running mate, he was facing pressure to choose a Black woman — leaving it unclear whether the decision to pick Harris was driven more by confidence or political necessity. But since then, Harris has worked tirelessly for his candidacy, serving as an ambassador of sorts to the Black community, and by all accounts their relationship has solidified.

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SOURCE: The Washington Post, Chelsea Janes and Sean Sullivan