Could a black woman be the opponent to knock out Donald Trump? Kamala Harris hopes so
The slogan has decorated more than one million red baseball caps and provided Donald Trump’s social media warriors with their #MAGA call to arms. But it is going to take more than just a hat to Make America Great Again.
On a rainy night in the college town of Durham, North Carolina, as guests finished plates of salmon and salads at gold-clothed tables, Kamala Harris, top prosecutor, turned Capitol Hill inquisitor, has some questions.
“We’ve got a man in the White House who got elected on a slogan that was about ‘make America great again,’” she said, “which caused a lot of us to ask, ‘again’ exactly, for whom?
“He was talking about going back to something. Which begs the question, back to exactly what? Back before the Voting Rights Act? Back before the Civil Rights Act? Back before the Fair Housing Act? Back before a federal minimum wage? Back before Roe v. Wade? Because we’re not going back!”
As the Democratic party hunts for a candidate who can beat Trump in 2020, her questions are a good place to start.
The long list of hard-won rights Harris reeled off – rights which freed black Americans to vote, and upended segregation; which gave women the choice to have an abortion; and gave workers the chance of a living wage – reveal how she could fight Trump; as a defender of freedoms against a man who has not nearly finished dividing Americans.
Harris seems a natural for the role of bringing down a president who has trampled over women’s rights and given comfort to white supremacists. For Trump’s foes seeking to draw a line under a period they regard as an aberration, there could be a happy ending in seeing him swept out of office by a black woman.
So why is it that her campaign is struggling to catch fire – and she seems to be vying with an elderly white man for the support of black Democratic voters?
Perhaps it’s because most of all in this election cycle, Democrats want a sure bet – and to a lot of people, that means choosing Joe Biden, Barack Obama’s 76-year-old vice president, as their candidate.
Harris only became a senator in 2016 at the same election which saw Trump win the White House, but has made a name on Capitol Hill, using her prosecutorial skills to humble some of Trump’s most conservative appointments, including the highly contentious Supreme Court justice Brett Kavanaugh who was sworn in by a Republican majority despite facing detailed allegations of sexual assault.
On this wet night in North Carolina, there are certainly those who have driven here to see Harris who believe she has the courage to take Trump on. “I think she can really, really stand up to Trump,” says Janine Rouson, 59, a smartly-bespectacled graduate of Howard University, the historically black college in Washington DC. “She’s got the fight.”
Rouson is among the scores of diners to bee-line for the exit as soon as Harris is finished speaking at a dinner gala in downtown Durham. But as others rush past, she lingers on her way out to enlighten me.
“Democrats, and I think to a large extent black voters, until they really, really think someone can win – they stay safe,” Rouson tells me.
Early in 2008 many black voters were all-in for Hillary Clinton because they knew the Clintons, she reminds me; having been staunch supporters of Bill, they were comfortable with Hillary.
“They liked Barack Obama but they were just not sure he could win,” Rouson says. “After he came out of the Iowa Caucuses and won them, they said, ‘Woah, wait a minute – he’s been saying this stuff and now he’s even showing he can win.’ ”
This time around, according to her analogy, Harris is playing the role of Obama – well-liked by black voters but treated with caution – while Biden is the Clinton figure, a safe candidate, with a reserve of goodwill to draw upon.
“The more people get comfortable with the idea that there are more candidates who can meet that ‘electability factor’, the more other candidates like Harris will move up in the polls. We’re starting to see that,” Rouson says. “I think that’s why Elizabeth Warren’s poll numbers are going up, and I think Kamala Harris will see that as well.”
In 2016, when Clinton was pushed hard from the left by her rival Bernie Sanders, Democrats and those on the progressive left, allowed themselves the luxury of a passionate and protracted family argument about policy. Four years on, with Democrats still bearing the scars of Trump’s against-all-odds win, the central issue is not which Democratic candidate has the best policies, but who can beat Trump.
Harris is trying to position herself as that person to beat him, upending historic notions of what it means to be electable. The country has never elected a woman, let alone a black woman, to its highest office. But Harris has spent her career defying norms about what race and gender mean for who can get elected. And she’s undeterred by the fact that racism in America is more evident now than in years.
Born in Oakland, a hub of black activism across the bay from San Francisco, she is the daughter of international students – a Jamaican father and a mother who was the daughter of an Indian diplomat.
She is charismatic and smart – and for Americans looking to decisively turn away from the divisive white loudmouth era, Trump’s polar opposite.
So far in the national spotlight, she left Kavanaugh stammering on Capitol Hill, rocked Joe Biden in the early Democratic debates and has started taking the fight to Trump.
At last week’s Democratic debate in Houston, she opened with a memorable rebuke of Trump’s posturing: “He reminds me of that guy in the Wizard of Oz. You know, when you pull back the curtain, and it’s a really small dude.”
Lines of hers like ‘We are better than this’ which she rolled out in Oakland at the kick off of her campaign, are redolent of Obama’s ‘Yes we can’ mantra and work as a simple anti-Trump rallying cry.
But for the moment, she is struggling to find her position: too moderate for some on the left, and still to convince others that she can win.
Biden in the centre, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders on the left are the widely acknowledged frontrunners in the Democratic nomination race, but Harris seems to be sitting fourth, trying to live up to her mother’s advice: “Don’t let anybody tell you who you are. You tell them who you are.”
In remarks at the Durham Convention Center she made the issue of identity central to her presidential brand. Arguing that accusing Democrats of “identity politics” is the 21st Century way of saying they’re “playing the race card”, she cast herself as a leader of the future and specifically, as the person best positioned to take on Trump.
Harris chose a meaningful place to have the conversation. Durham was known as “Black Wall Street,” a place of relative tolerance in the early to mid-20th century, where black businessmen could thrive despite the toxic politics of the Jim Crow south. The city was the poster-child of Booker T. Washington’s belief that black strivers could get ahead through hard work and perseverance. Even W.E.B. DuBois, who was critical of such notions, which he saw as papering over the need to reform larger structural inequalities, saw something to admire in Durham, even if he couldn’t get onboard with the piecemeal approach to progress.
In Durham, DuBois wrote in 1912, a black man “may earn his living working for colored men, be sick in a colored hospital, and buried from a colored church; and the Negro insurance society will pay his widow enough to keep his children in a colored school. This is surely progress.”
Today downtown Durham memorialises its contributions to black progress and American history. And an effort to “restore black economic greatness to the area” is seeing results in a flourishing downtown.
The Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black Peoples, which is hosting tonight’s gala, is central to such efforts – and a force to be reckoned with politically. As the committee goes, so goes the black vote, so goes North Carolina – at least that’s the story told by the state’s white Governor Roy Cooper, who wrested control from a Republican incumbent, and in opening remarks at the gala thanked the committee for helping to “put me over the top” in his 2016 victory.
And so goes North Carolina, so goes the country? That’s one school of thought for Democrats hoping to win in 2020.
Another more widely accepted view thinks the path to victory runs through the upper-Midwest by winning back working class white voters that Trump peeled away from Democrats in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. That’s the Joe Biden approach and there’s reason to think he has an advantage there (a recent poll out of Wisconsin showed Biden winning by a wider margin than other candidates).
The second path is all about leaning in to demographic changes to boost the turnout of voters from racial minority groups with the aim of overturning diverse but historically Republican states like North Carolina, Arizona and Georgia. That’s the game that Harris is playing.
“Whoever they endorse next year will get a huge lift,” Steve Schewel, the white mayor of Durham tells me.
If Democrats are to win North Carolina, then turnout in Durham will be key. The population is large, progressive and politically engaged, with an African American community that has a legacy of involvement going back a century. Trump won in North Carolina, but in Durham county he got just 18 per cent of the vote to Clinton’s 77 per cent, a wider gap than any county in the state.
The county’s politics are very much an outlier. But Governor Cooper’s victory in 2016 and Obama’s in 2008, show the state is winnable for the right Democrat.
The trouble is, there’s scant evidence Harris is that. And though the Durham audience is receptive tonight – and contains some genuine fans – more often, admirers from the audience seem to damn her with faint praise.
“She’s been a very appealing candidate to me for a long time. She’s always been at or near the top of my list,” said state senator Floyd B. McKissick Jr., a member of Democratic leadership.
America has never had a black woman candidate go on to win the presidency but Harris thinks that’s a positive, not a negative for her campaign.
“There has been a lot of conversation by pundits about ‘electability’ and ‘who can speak to the Midwest?’” Harris said on a trip to Michigan earlier this year. But when they say that, she suggested, they usually put the Midwest in a simplistic box, leaving out working women and minorities.
Nearly three-quarters of Iowa’s Democratic voters have said their over-riding concern is finding a candidate who can beat Trump, according to a Monmouth poll from August.
But who exactly is that person? That’s a source of much debate.
Conventional wisdom has been that a white man, and specifically Biden, best fits the bill. But Harris supporter Pat Spearman, the first openly-lesbian member of the Nevada state legislature, doesn’t buy it.
“I think conventional wisdom works in conventional times but we’re in unconventional times right now,” she tells me. “This is not business as usual. There’s not a playbook that says do this and do that. With the electability question I’ve never heard people say of Andrew Yang or Beto O’Rourke that they’re not electable.”
She adds: “I remember in 2008 when people said an African American cannot win the presidency. Well, we elected him, and then we reelected him in 2012.”
With a Democratic field of 10 on stage for the third debate last week in Houston, leading most polls are the familiar faces – Biden, Sanders and Warren. Harris seems to be climbing, but the question has become less about which candidate people align with, or even who could win. Rather, some voters are tying themselves in knots trying to second guess who they think other people will vote for.
An ABC/Washington Post poll from September found voters still overwhelmingly think Biden’s the candidate to beat Trump, despite lacklustre campaign and debate performances.
A new Washington Post-ABC poll found that while only 29 per cent of Democrats surveyed think Biden would do the best job of running the country, a full 45 per cent of them believe he stands the best chance of beating Trump.
“You may like another candidate better,” Biden’s wife Jill said, while campaigning for him in New Hampshire last month, “but you have to look at who is going to win.”
Harris has argued that such definitions of electability are outdated – 2018 was a banner year for electing women, after all. A new report by The Reflective Democracy Campaign, a project of the liberal Women Donors Network, found that while sitting elected officials are disproportionately white men, they don’t have a monopoly when it comes to electability: women and people of colour were just about as likely to win elections once they were on the ballot, research from last election found.
“Women are just as electable as men,” She The People Founder Aimee Allison tells me, adding that groups like RDC are “showing through their research what we already know in our heart, which is the person who inspires, particularly the person who is able to speak to us authentically, that’s what the measure of success is – it’s not, are you a white guy?”
Besides Allison, adds: “The last time Democrats elected a president it was a black man named Barack Obama. That’s the only Democrat who’s won the presidency in the last 20 years.”
In stump speeches around the country Harris has played up her progressive origin-story, describing herself as the daughter of an Indian mother and Jamaican father who met “during the civil rights movement” while attending graduate school at Berkeley. “My sister Maya and I, we joke that we grew up surrounded by a bunch of adults who spent their time marching and shouting,” she’s often told the crowd to laughs. “For justice.”
Hers is a story of persistence and steady ascent. After attending college at Howard University, Harris returned to the California Bay Area for law school. She failed the bar, then passed the bar, then went to work at the Alameda county district attorney’s office, just across the Bay from San Francisco.
She’s billed herself as a “progressive prosecutor” whose job it is “to look out for the overlooked, to speak up for those whose voices aren’t being heard.”And while the messaging tracks with wooing young, hip voters, it’s somewhat at odds with her more moderate record.
San Francisco’s felony-conviction rate jumped from 52 per cent to 67 per cent during her time as district attorney, the highest seen in a decade, as she once touted on her website, and drug-related convictions saw a similar jump. At the time she served such statistics seemed like a political win but the culture has changed. San Francisco’s board of supervisors recently introduced a proposal that “convicted felons” be referred to as “justice-involved” persons, and in the wake of marijuana’s legalisation, the city has moved to expunge 9,000 related felony convictions dating back to 1975. Later as attorney general of California, she criminalised truancy and oversaw the second-biggest non-federal prison population.
Writing in the New York Times earlier this year, University of San Francisco law professor Lara Bazelon called Harris’ tenure – first as district attorney, and later as the state’s attorney general – actively “regressive,” arguing her narratives mask a troubling record upholding wrongful-conviction cases. Harris’ camp has insisted the op-ed cherry picked cases, failing to take into account the breadth of Harris’ record.
Lateefah Simon a one-time shoplifter-turned juvenile justice advocate who would go on to win a MaCarthur genius grant for her work helping lift young women up out of lives of crime, says Harris is more than the “top cop” stereotype she gets reduced to, recalling how Harris noticed her work before Simon had top accolades to her name and called her up with an invitation to come work in her San Francisco office.
“She walked me through the hall and she had had her staff put up all the pictures of all the people who had held that office prior to her,” Simon tells me. “They were all white men. So she looked and she pointed at her picture and she said, ‘I have to undo hundreds of years of racism’. And she – and it’s so interesting even back then she knew it – she said, ‘They’re going to expect me to undo it in four years, but I can’t. I can’t do it alone. We can inch away.”
So Simon traded in her Pumas for office wear, and street chants for the opportunity to build a program helping young adults charged with low-level felony drug offenses rebuild their lives, a program she saw as an antidote to the drug war.
Of Harris, Simon told me: “She’s like part social worker, part auntie, part hard-ass.”
She added, “I can’t believe we’re having this conversation about Kamala’s prosecutorial record amidst [praise for] the man who created three and a half decades of mass incarceration that have made the United States the number one incarcerator in the world per capita. Come on!”
Simon is talking about Biden’s work on crime bills dating back to 1984, when he first worked across the aisle with segregationist Strom Thurmond – something he’s recently romanticised doing – to pass a bill expanding civil asset forfeiture, which resulted in countless unfair seizures by the police, critics say. Two years later, he authored the bill which ushered in the crack versus cocaine sentencing disparity, whose effect was notoriously racially discriminatory. But his broadest contribution came ten years later when he drafted the 1994 Crime Bill leading to increased police militarisation and the gross expansion of the federal prison system.
Still for many on the left, Harris’ record leaves a lot to be desired.
While she now supports marijuana legalisation, she laughed in 2014 when asked if she’d support legalising it for recreational use, and didn’t warm to the idea of decriminalisation until 2017, when her name was being floated as a potential presidential nominee.
Harris’ answers on marijuana have also drawn scrutiny closer to home. Asked about her opposition to legalisation in a radio interview recently, she joked that of course she supports legalisation. “Half my family is from Jamaica. Are you kidding me?”
That angered her father (with whom she’s known to have a strained relationship), who in February said his Jamaican ancestors must be “turning in their grave right now to see their family’s name, reputation and proud Jamaican identity being connected, in any way, jokingly or not with the fraudulent stereotype of pot-smoking joy seeker” and accused his daughter of trafficking in “identity politics”.
So when, at the gala in Durham, Harris addressed the use of “identity politics” as a way of cutting people down, she was talking about people like her fellow presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg – who’s invoked the term disparagingly – but she was also, perhaps, talking to her father, and how he cut her down.
“People bring it up in a way meant to marginalise the subject. In a way that I believe is meant to say, hush. In a way that sometimes it’s meant to say: shut up,” she said.
Sanders and Warren have gained their status as frontrunners with visionary ideas for a better country. But that may not be a viable brand for Harris, someone who’s made steady progress forward over the course of her career, and at times barely eked out the win she needed to advance. (Her victory over a Republican opponent in the 2010 race for California attorney general was a nail biter.)
Spearman – who served in a combat support arm of the army at a time women were often barred from the job over concerns they couldn’t keep up with the men – thinks Harris’ record of winning tough contests despite barriers of gender and race is proof she can do it again.
“When she ran for attorney general, another barrier broken,” she tells me of Harris, “and when she ran for the Senate seat, another barrier. Each one of those races had a lot of people but she managed to come out on top.”
On a recent Sunday, Harris appeared at the back of St. Joseph African Methodist Episcopal Church in Durham to a standing ovation of iPhone armed spectators, and she proceeded toward the pulpit with all the attendant fanfare of a wedding procession walking down the aisle. As sun streamed in through the stained glass windows, scores of congregants peered in from side rooms or watched live footage from a recreation room down the hall.
They weren’t all there to see Harris, but on the occasion of the church’s 150th anniversary, she played a starring role in the Sunday service. Rev. Jonathan C. Augustine (“Pastor Jay”) told attendees uploading their Harris videos to social media to tag the church and, he added, while he couldn’t tell people who to vote for, he could tell them he would be voting for Harris.
In the hall outside, a volunteer at a table was passing around clipboards registering people to vote.
Campaigning in North Carolina might not seem like an obvious choice (it isn’t an early-voting state like Iowa and New Hampshire) but in fact it’s a move right out of Obama’s playbook; prove your viability by winning over white voters in Iowa, then consolidate support by winning over Southern states with large African American populations.
The trouble for Harris is that so far there’s not enough evidence she can win such voters away from Biden, whose lead among African Americans persists despite his troubling record on criminal justice – and her attempts to highlight it.
She’s frequently been compared to Obama, but she has yet to have anything approaching the kind of standout oratory moment he had at the 2004 convention, which announced him as a special communicator. And critics say that’s because her speeches sound a little too familiar.
Harris, 54, is a polished orator with striking presence (Obama once called her the “best-looking attorney general in the country” before apologising), and her campaign’s kickoff in her hometown of Oakland, drew praise and massive crowds. But despite sounding the right notes early on, nine months later in this gruelling journey towards the 2020 election, its contents feel largely forgettable.
She delivered a strong first debate performance – attacking Biden’s record on race and criminal justice, criticising him for voting against the idea of federal government paying for free bus travel as a move to desegregate schools. “There was a little girl in California who was part of the second class to integrate her public schools and she was bussed to school every day. And that little girl was me,” Harris said. Her campaign quickly tweeted a photo of a young Harris, her hair in pigtails, apparently on her way to school. The attack caught Biden unawares, and helped her surge in the polls. “That little girl was me,” t-shirts were soon on sale.
But she lost the advantage one debate later, after muddling a question on Medicare For All, and enduring a withering attack on her own prosecutorial record.
Her appearance at the CNN climate debate earlier this month left the distinct impression she was more interested in delivering soundbites than responding to questioners’ substance.
In the third debate last week, in Houston, she was back on form, performing powerfully again, that “small dude” Wizard of Oz line bringing the house down.
Clearly, she is unafraid of going after Trump, and ready to go for Biden almost as aggressively. But for those on the left, she is insipidly moderate, at best, unforgivably regressive at worst.
After she released her own health care plan specifics in the wake of the second debate, Sanders’ campaign ripped it as a thing “cobbled together to address various poll numbers”.
But supporters like Rouson in North Carolina see Harris’ moderate approach as part and parcel of good listening, something Sanders isn’t known for. “I think what some of the other candidates are doing is talking talking talking, running really far left because they want to be big and bold,” Rouson says. “Big and bold may get you a lot of attention but it may not be realistic,” she adds.
Voices to the left disagree, arguing that the reason more moderate candidates like Biden have failed to build momentum, even as Biden hovers in first place, is because of his moderate politics.
Allison, from the She The People group, has some clear opinions on the subject. “I think there is an opportunity for politicians to evolve,” she tells me of Harris’ more moderate record. “People don’t really remember that Obama was not for gay marriage when he began and he evolved and evolved into an advocate and now is remembered as a friend of the LGBT community and supporter of their rights.”
Then there’s Glen Capel, 62, who braved the lines to come and hear Harris speak at a gymnasium in Greensboro, North Carolina – and stuck it out to hear her even though she’s running nearly an hour late.
“I like Kamala Harris. But I’m not set on who I’m going to vote for yet. I do know we need a change from the Divider in Chief,” he says, “someone who’s going to do something for all people, not just one set of people.”
Capel, who says he’s been a Democrat all his life, is just the kind of voter Harris is in North Carolina to court. But it isn’t obvious on this mild Sunday that she’s got him convinced.
“I like Joe,” he says, adding that he also thinks Warren has been spot on in debates, and only offers a mild view that he’s “interested” to hear Harris make her case.
“I just want a candidate that can win right now.”
Photography by Getty Images and Logan Cyrus for Tortoise Media