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Madam Vice President: The extraordinary political career of Kamala Harris

With her ascension to the vice presidency, Harris will become the first woman and first woman of color to hold that office, a milestone for a nation in upheaval, grappling with a damaging history of racial injustice exposed, yet again, in a divisive election.

By: New York Times |
November 8, 2020 12:51:19 am
kamala harris vice president, indian american kamala harris, joe biden us president, us presidential elections, us elections biden kamala harrisVice president-elect Sen. Kamala Harris, speaks at a campaign event in Las Vegas. (File/AP)

By Lisa Lerer and Sydney Ember

From the earliest days of her childhood, Kamala Harris was taught that the road to racial justice was long.

She spoke often on the campaign trail of those who had come before her, of her parents, immigrants drawn to the civil rights struggle in the United States — and of the ancestors who had paved the way.

As she took the stage in Texas shortly before the election, Harris spoke of being singular in her role but not solitary.

“Yes, sister, sometimes we may be the only one that looks like us walking in that room,” she told a largely Black audience in Fort Worth. “But the thing we all know is we never walk in those rooms alone — we are all in that room together.”

With her ascension to the vice presidency, Harris will become the first woman and first woman of color to hold that office, a milestone for a nation in upheaval, grappling with a damaging history of racial injustice exposed, yet again, in a divisive election. Harris, 56, embodies the future of a country that is growing more racially diverse, even if the person voters picked for the top of the ticket is a 77-year-old white man.

That she has risen higher in the country’s leadership than any woman ever has underscores the extraordinary arc of her political career. A former San Francisco district attorney, she was elected as the first Black woman to serve as California’s attorney general. When she was elected a U.S. senator in 2016, she became only the second Black woman in the chamber’s history.

Almost immediately, she made a name for herself in Washington with her withering prosecutorial style in Senate hearings, grilling her adversaries in high-stakes moments that at times went viral.

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Yet what also distinguished her was her personal biography: The daughter of a Jamaican father and Indian mother, she was steeped in racial justice issues from her early years in Oakland and Berkeley, California, and wrote in her memoir of memories of the chants, shouts and “sea of legs moving about” at protests. She recalled hearing Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman to mount a national campaign for president, speak in 1971 at a Black cultural center in Berkeley that she frequented as a young girl. “Talk about strength!” she wrote.

After several years in Montreal, Harris attended Howard University, a historically Black college and one of the country’s most prestigious, then pursued work as a prosecutor on domestic violence and child exploitation cases. She speaks easily and often of her mother, a breast cancer researcher who died in 2009; of her white and Jewish husband, Douglas Emhoff, who will make history in his own right as the first second gentleman; and of her stepchildren, who call her Momala.

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It was a story she tried to tell on the campaign trail during the Democratic primary with mixed success. Kicking off her candidacy with homages to Chisholm, Harris attracted a crowd in Oakland that her advisers estimated at more than 20,000, a tremendous show of strength that immediately established her as a front-runner in the race. But vying for the nomination against the most diverse field of candidates in history, she failed to capture a surge of support and dropped out weeks before any votes were cast.

While she struggled to attract the very women and Black voters she had hoped would connect with her personal story during her primary bid, she continued to make a concerted effort as Biden’s running mate to reach out to people of color, some of whom have said they feel represented in national politics for the first time.

Many witnessed — and recoiled at — the persistent racist and sexist attacks from conservatives. President Donald Trump has refused to pronounce her name correctly and after the vice-presidential debate, he derided her as a “monster.”

For some of her supporters, the vitriol Harris had to withstand was another aspect of her experience they found relatable.

“I know what I was thrown into as the only African American at the table,” said Clara Faulkner, the mayor pro tem of Forest Hill, Texas, as she waited for Harris to address a socially distanced crowd in Fort Worth. “It’s just seeing God move in a mighty way.”

While some members of the political establishment professed outrage at the insults, friends of Harris knew that her pragmatism extended to her understanding of how the political world treats women of color.

Sen. Cory Booker, a colleague and friend of Harris’ who has known her for decades, said in an interview that some of her guardedness was a form of self-protection in a world that has not always embraced a barrier-breaking Black woman.

“She still has this grace about her where it’s almost as if these things don’t affect her spirit,” Booker said. “She’s endured this for her entire career and she does not give people license to have entrance into her heart.”

The Democrats’ down-ballot defeats tempered the celebratory mood a bit, as did a wistful sense among some activists and leaders that this historic first still leaves women in second place — closer than ever to the Oval Office, sure, but not in it.

The end to a presidency that inspired waves of opposition from women, many politically engaged for the first time, has left the “highest, hardest glass ceiling” intact. Democratic primary voters, including a significant number of women, had rallied behind Biden, eschewing the women and people of color in the race because they believed Biden would be most capable of beating Trump. Scarred by Hillary Clinton’s defeat four years ago, many believed the country was not quite ready to elect a female commander in chief.

Harris’ presence on the ticket will forever be linked to Biden’s explicit promise to select a female running mate in an acknowledgment that the party’s future probably does not look like him.

Harris now finds herself the most clearly positioned heir to the White House. Perhaps more than any other vice president in recent memory, she will be carefully scrutinized for her ambitions, a level of attention that is perhaps inevitable for the No. 2 of the oldest incoming No. 1 in history.

Biden understands this, Booker said: “He is really bringing us to the next election.”

Kimberlé Crenshaw, a prominent Black progressive scholar, hailed Harris’ ascension to the vice presidency and described her as “well positioned to weather the storms that will definitely come now that she has broken through the glass ceiling.”

But amid the joy and sense of empowerment in seeing a woman of color as the nation’s second-highest elected official, she also cautioned that the history-making moment should not distract progressives from continuing to push their agenda.

“This is still the Biden administration — what Kamala Harris thinks or does has to be recognized as being part of that administration,” she said. “So we cannot let the pedal to the metal be slowed in any way because we’re celebrating the fact that we’ve had this breakthrough moment.”

For others, that moment has been a very long time coming.

Opal Lee, 94, paid a poll tax when she first went to vote, choosing between casting her ballot for the Democratic candidate or buying food for her four young children. Decades later, Lee, a former teacher and activist from Fort Worth, celebrated at President Barack Obama’s inauguration.

Despite the health risks from the coronavirus pandemic, Lee has no intention of missing Biden’s inauguration in Washington this January — to witness Harris.

“I want to be able to tell my great-great-grandchildren how it felt for a woman to be vice president,” she said. “I just got to go.”

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