As First Female Vice President-Elect, Kamala Harris Rewrites Script for Presidential Politics

Vice President-Elect Kamala Harris at a Philadelphia rally on Nov. 2, 2020. (Mark Makela/Getty Images)

The rise of Kamala Harris from underdog candidate for San Francisco district attorney in 2003 to vice president-elect of the United States in 2020 is truly an “only in America” kind of story, and one that may forever transform the notion of what a winning presidential ticket looks like.

“Having Sen. Harris on the ticket was a complete game changer,” said Aimee Allison, founder and president of She the People, a group that advocates for women of color in politics. “You have a situation where the Democrats are dependent on high voter turnout, which is deeply tied to enthusiasm. And here is Kamala Harris, coming from our great state, with her ability to unite a multiracial voting coalition.”

“She brought with her Black women, Latinos, Asian Americans, immigrants. She brought so many people who saw the kind of country, the kind of government they want through her candidacy,” Allison said.

"The pride I feel as a black woman is hard to put into words. Kamala Harris is a friend and mentor, but most importantly, she is an inspiration to so many of us all across this country," said San Francisco Mayor London Breed in a statement.

"I only wish my grandmother, a daughter of slaves and sharecroppers, a woman who raised me to believe that we can all work to make the world a better place, were still alive to see this day," Breed added.

The daughter of immigrants from India and Jamaica, Harris was born in Oakland and inspires a lot of hometown pride, particularly from the city’s mayor, Libby Schaaf, who is a longtime friend and supporter.

“Vice President Kamala Harris will mean everything for a city like Oakland,” Schaaf said. “First of all, to hear her lift up her identity as an Oaklander in such sharp contrast to Donald Trump's every mention of Oakland — a libelous slander of our diversity, of our safety, of our reputation.”

Harris will be both the first woman and first person of color to serve as vice president, breaking a significant glass ceiling that will open up a path for many who see themselves in her, Schaaf notes.

“She never hesitates to celebrate her roots as an Oaklander, her identity as a Black woman, an Asian woman, a daughter of immigrants — that is going to send a message to every little girl, every Oaklander or every person in America that shares that identity,” she said.

Harris is not universally loved, especially here in California where she created a national profile that landed her on the Democratic ticket. As Biden's search committee reached out to Democrats around the state, they heard more than a little criticism of the first-term senator. Some were unhappy with Harris's attack on Biden during their first debate, calling it evidence of her sharp elbows and self-interest. Others felt Harris was simply rising faster than her experience and skills merited.

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But Harris checked all the boxes that Biden and his search team were looking for, including personal chemistry with the nominee, whose late son Beau was close to Harris when they both served as their state's attorney general.

And now that Harris has climbed a mountain no other woman has reached, let alone a woman of color, there are few who will criticize her on the record.

One Democratic insider who has witnessed Harris's rise from the beginning, described her on background as "counterfeit" and "a climber" who will stop at nothing to get what she wants. And she did want to be Biden's running mate, encouraging a lobbying campaign on her behalf, which might also have taken down some of her competition in the process.

Since Biden named Harris as his running mate she has, not surprisingly, faced vicious attacks and name calling, starting with President Trump who called her “a monster” who would be “a terrible thing” for women if she became vice president. She also endured deliberate mispronunciations of her first name by Trump, Georgia Republican Sen. David Perdue, Fox TV talk show host Tucker Carlson and many others.

In anticipation of the nastiness and personal attacks directed at Harris, advocates made a concerted effort to minimize the conservative media’s use of tropes and discriminatory labels to describe her.

“I will tell you, there was a pretty robust campaign of advocates who came out and said literally, we've got her back and really started pushing back on that type of coverage,” said Samantha Corbin, a Sacramento lobbyist, who helped expose the pervasive culture of bias, abuse and sexual harassment aimed at women working in California's state Capitol.

Jodi Hicks, CEO of Planned Parenthood of California, said Harris had to overcome the kind of double standards women in politics often face. “I think if you're a woman or especially a woman of color and you come to a table where we have perpetually decided that your whiteness or your maleness is the norm, then we question how you got there, which we don't do for men,” she said.

California Lt. Gov. Eleni Kounalakis said having Harris in the federal executive branch will bring “a fresh look at the institutions of our country that's really needed right now.”

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Kounalakis, who has been mentioned as a possible successor to Harris, added, “I think it will make a lot of difference because it's a signal that this country is ready to move forward into the 21st century with leadership that reflects the diversity of this great nation.”

Democrats will have a long to-do list on issues ranging from the pandemic to economic recovery to climate change. Allison, of She the People, hopes one area Harris will focus on is lowering barriers to voting.

"Part of what I hope that Kamala Harris champions is to solve the voting problems that we have in the country so that in a couple of years we're not faced with the same kinds of voter suppression," Allison said.

Gov. Gavin Newsom hailed Harris' ascent to the White House as a critical moment for California.

"Today, her ceiling-shattering accomplishment will put wings on the aspirations and imaginations of young women and people of color all across this country and around the world," Newsom said in a statement.

“I just couldn't be more happy for her. And it's profoundly significant for the state,” he said.

The governor will get to name a replacement to serve the rest of Harris's Senate term in the coming weeks, which he called a “vexing decision” because of all the competing interests and considerations.

Corbin, the lobbyist, called Harris’s rise a “pivotal moment” for the nation.

“This will change for generations how young women think about themselves and their place in this country and their place in politics. And that's really an amazing thing.”

Katie Orr contributed to this report.

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