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Kamala Harris’s controversial record on criminal justice, explained
Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) speaks at Howard University after announcing her campaign for president. | Al Drago/Getty Images Harris has characterized herself as a reformer. But some critics disagree. Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) has earned the reputation of a rising star in the Democratic Party, most recently becoming former Vice President Joe Biden’s running mate in the presidential election. But Harris has also faced questions over her record on criminal justice issues — a record that’s led some critics to describe her not as a progressive reformer but as a relic of a “tough on crime” era going back to the 1990s and 2000s. A generation after Democrats embraced “tough on crime” policies that swelled prison populations, progressive activists are pushing to make the criminal justice system less punitive and racist — and polls show a majority of Democrats support such efforts. Harris has argued that her views align with the new progressive movement. But her record in California, where she was a prosecutor, district attorney, and state attorney general before representing the state in the US Senate, has come under harsh scrutiny and debate since she launched her own presidential campaign in 2019. Harris argues that she’s fought to reverse incarceration, scale back the war on drugs, and address racial disparities in the criminal justice system. But as her star has risen nationally — she’s had several viral moments questioning President Donald Trump’s nominees in the Senate — those more familiar with her criminal justice record, particularly on the left, have increasingly voiced their skepticism. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) rides the Senate subway before a news conference about legislation she is introducing to reunify immigrant families at the US Capitol on July 17, 2018, in Washington, DC. “In her career, Ms. Harris did not barter or trade to get the support of more conservative law-and-order types; she gave it all away,” wrote Lara Bazelon, a law professor and former director for the Loyola Law School Project for the Innocent in Los Angeles, in a New York Times op-ed. Harris’s supporters argue that these criticisms sell her short, missing the times she was ahead of the country and her party on criminal justice issues — such as when she implemented prison diversion programs as district attorney and a “first-of-its-kind” racial bias training for police officers. “Kamala Harris has spent her career fighting for reforms in the criminal justice system and pushing the envelope to keep everyone safer by bringing fairness and accountability,” Lily Adams, a spokesperson for Harris, previously told me. Harris, as part of her previous presidential campaign, also released a criminal justice reform plan that seeks to scale back incarceration, end the death penalty and solitary confinement, ban private prisons, and get rid of cash bail. Biden also backs an aggressive criminal justice reform plan, despite his own mixed record on criminal justice issues as well. A close examination of Harris’s record shows it’s filled with contradictions. She pushed for programs that helped people find jobs instead of putting them in prison, but also fought to keep people in prison even after they were proved innocent. She refused to pursue the death penalty against a man who killed a police officer, but also defended California’s death penalty system in court. She implemented training programs to address police officers’ racial biases, but also resisted calls to get her office to investigate certain police shootings. But what seem like contradictions may reflect a balancing act. Harris’s parents worked on civil rights causes, and she came from a background well aware of the excesses of the criminal justice system — but in office, she had to play the role of a prosecutor and California’s lawyer. She started in an era when “tough on crime” politics were popular across party lines — but she rose to national prominence as criminal justice reform started to take off nationally. She had an eye on higher political office as support for criminal justice reform became de rigueur for Democrats — but she still had to work as California’s top law enforcement official. Her race and gender likely made this balancing act even tougher. In the US, studies have found that more than 90 percent of elected prosecutors are white and more than 80 percent are male. As a black woman, Harris stood out — inviting scrutiny and skepticism, especially by people who may hold racist stereotypes about how black people view law enforcement or sexist views about whether women are “tough” enough for the job. Still, the result is the same: As she became more nationally visible, Harris was less known as a progressive prosecutor, as she’d been earlier in her career, and more a reform-lite or even anti-reform attorney general. Now critics have labeled her a “cop” — a sellout for a broken criminal justice system. How much all of this is a liability for Harris, as a nominee for vice president, remains to be seen, as the Democratic ticket tries to balance support from progressives who have called to end mass incarceration and “defund the police” with support from moderates who may prefer a candidate with “law and order” credentials. How it plays out could help determine whether Biden and Harris can defeat Trump and Vice President Mike Pence in November. Harris as a “progressive prosecutor” From the beginning of Harris’s career in the criminal justice system, she said she saw herself as a progressive working within a system she wanted to change — “at the table where the decisions are made,” she told the New York Times Magazine in 2016. She started out working at prosecutors’ offices in the late 1980s and early 1990s, then became San Francisco’s district attorney, the top prosecutor for the city, in 2004. In 2011, she became California’s attorney general, the top law enforcement official in the state. She held that position until 2017, when she became a US senator for California. Barbara Davidson/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images Kamala Harris celebrates winning her Senate race at her rally in downtown on November 8, 2016, in Los Angeles. In her more recent memoir, The Truths We Hold, Harris described how she saw her role: “The job of a progressive prosecutor is to look out for the overlooked, to speak up for those whose voices aren’t being heard, to see and address the causes of crime, not just their consequences, and to shine a light on the inequality and unfairness that lead to injustice. It is to recognize that not everyone needs punishment, that what many need, quite plainly, is help.” It reflects a view embraced by many progressives in the criminal justice reform movement: that the US puts far too many people — particularly people of color — in prison, typically for way too long, and without doing enough to fight the “root causes” of crime. Parts of Harris’s record match that rhetoric. In 2004, as district attorney of San Francisco, she refused to seek the death penalty against a man convicted of shooting police officer Isaac Espinoza. She faced opposition from fellow Democrats; Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) called for the death penalty at the officer’s funeral. But Harris didn’t budge — an act of principle that cost her key political allies (as she received almost no support from police groups during her first run for attorney general in 2010). Harris also pushed for more systemic reforms. Her most successful program as district attorney, “Back on Track,” allowed first-time drug offenders, including drug dealers, to get a high school diploma and a job instead of prison time. Adams, Harris’s spokesperson, noted that the program started in 2005, “when most prosecutors were using a ‘tough on crime’ approach.” The climate at the time was far less open to progressive criminal justice policy. The year before, presidential candidate John Kerry had run, in part, on hiring more cops, adopting a “zero tolerance” approach to gangs, and “cracking down on drug trafficking.” Crime wasn’t a major issue in the 2004 presidential election, but Kerry’s platform was the legacy of the 1980s and ’90s, when Republicans and Democrats — including President Bill Clinton — competed to see who could be “tough on crime.” “When she became district attorney, no one was talking about progressive prosecutors,” Tim Silard, who worked under Harris at the San Francisco district attorney’s office, previously told me. “She was absolutely an outlier within the California District Attorneys Association, [and] got some pushback and criticism from there.” Ted Soqui/Corbis via Getty Images California Attorney General-elect Kamala Harris holds a press conference to discuss the attorney general race in Sacramento on November 30, 2010. In one instance — her handling of California’s “three strikes” law — Harris was arguably ahead of the time. Under the law, someone who committed a third felony could go to prison for 25 years to life, even if the third felony was a nonviolent crime. But Harris required that the San Francisco district attorney’s office only charge for a third strike if the felony was a serious or violent crime. California voters in 2004, the year that Harris took office, rejected a ballot initiative to implement a similar reform statewide — though the ballot proposal had some problems, leading to Harris’s own opposition. It wasn’t until 2012 that voters approved the change. “There’s been incredibly rapid change in public opinion, in attention to criminal justice,” Silard said, citing his decades-long experience in the criminal justice system and current experience as president of the reform-minded Rosenberg Foundation. “Bringing a reverse lens to that is not fair, and also doesn’t recognize folks who were courageous at that time.” Still, Harris did embrace some “tough” policies while in the district attorney’s office, such as an anti-truancy program that targeted parents of kids who skipped school and threatened them with prosecution and punishment to push them to get their children to class. As she geared up to run for California attorney general in 2010, Harris positioned herself as a criminal justice reformer, focusing on improving support for people leaving prison, and published a book in 2009, Smart on Crime, on criminal justice reform. By this point, Harris wasn’t so much ahead of her time as she was in step with it. Criminal justice reform had spread nationally: Congress passed the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, effectively reducing penalties for crack cocaine. States, facing budget constraints from housing so many prisoners, started to roll back punishments for nonviolent crimes — even in conservative states like Texas and South Carolina. And books like 2010’s The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander drew attention, particularly among white progressives, to a criminal justice system plagued by vast racial disparities. (Harris’s 2009 book, by contrast, was “largely colorblind” and “mentions racial bias in policing just twice,” Molly Hensley-Clancy noted at BuzzFeed.) The progressive prosecutor has also in recent years become much more common, exemplified by Larry Krasner in Philadelphia, Kim Foxx in Cook County (Chicago), and several others. That changing context is part of why many of Harris’s next moves, as California attorney general, disappointed some progressives and criminal justice reformers, including some of her former supporters. Harris’s mixed record as attorney general Based on Harris’s record, supporters easily could have expected her to come into the California Department of Justice as attorney general and really shake things up. But that didn’t happen: Her office’s handling of over-incarceration, the death penalty, and wrongly incarcerated people were among the several issues in which Harris by and large maintained the status quo. She implemented some reforms: She expanded her “Back on Track” program to other parts of the state. After Black Lives Matter took off, she introduced and expanded what her office described as “first-of-its-kind training” to address racial bias as well as procedural justice — earning praise from local newspapers. She made the California Department of Justice the first statewide agency to require body cameras. And she launched OpenJustice, a platform that, among other data, allows the public to track reported killings by police officers. But Harris also allowed many parts of the Justice Department to essentially operate as they long had, which at times led to what many now see as major injustices. In many cases, this led to her office making decisions that Harris, under scrutiny, tried to distance herself from. For example, Harris’s office fought to release fewer prisoners, even after the US Supreme Court found that overcrowding in California prisons was so bad that it amounted to unconstitutional cruel and unusual punishment. At one point, her lawyers argued that the state couldn’t release some prisoners because it would deplete its pool for prison labor — but Harris quickly clarified that she was not aware her office was going with that argument until it was reported by media. Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images Attorney General Kamala Harris speaks at a news conference on May 17, 2013, in Los Angeles. Or consider Harris’s handling of appeals for release by innocent people in prison. In one case, her office argued against Daniel Larsen, who was proven innocent by the Innocence Project, because, Harris’s office claimed, he filed his petition for release far too late after a legal deadline. The court disagreed, allowing Larsen’s release in 2013. (In the New York Times, Bazelon listed several more such cases.) Harris’s supporters argue that Harris likely wasn’t closely involved in these cases because Justice Department policy didn’t require state lawyers to seek approval from the attorney general. As Harris said at a primary campaign event, “There are cases … where there were folks that made a decision in my office and they had not consulted me, and I wish they had.” But Harris could have changed department policy and become more hands-on in pushing reform, if she was willing to risk a potential backlash from the people under her. Then there’s the death penalty. Harris remains personally opposed to the death penalty, and earlier in her career, she’d been willing to incur political backlash by refusing to seek it in 2004. But as attorney general, she told voters she would enforce capital punishment. And she did: In 2014, she appealed a judge’s decision that deemed California’s death penalty system unconstitutional. Harris didn’t have to do this. In another case, she declined to defend Proposition 8, which prohibited same-sex marriage. But in office, she seemed to avoid antagonizing the rank and file — which opposition to the death penalty and other “tough on crime” policies could do. She often described herself as one of them, calling herself California’s “top cop” and writing in her 2009 book that liberals need to move beyond “biases against law enforcement.” Harris also overlooked and defended law enforcement officials accused of misconduct. In one such case, a state prosecutor, Robert Murray, falsified a confession, using it to threaten the defendant with life in prison. After a court threw out the indictment, Harris’s office appealed it, dismissing the misconduct because it did not involve physical violence. Harris also resisted some attempts to hold police accountable for shootings, including a bill that would have required the attorney general’s office to investigate killings by police and efforts to create statewide standards for police-worn body cameras. She also defied calls to have her office quickly investigate certain police shootings in California. “There’s lots of resistance [to reform], both within your own ranks and then from the cops and their allies,” Silard told me. And acting differently in these situations could have upset the rank and file — after Harris narrowly won her election in 2010 by less than 1 percentage point, without the support of most law enforcement groups. But her inaction angered activists. “How many more people need to die before she steps in?” an activist and former supporter, Phelicia Jones, told the San Francisco Chronicle in 2016, regarding police shootings. Jones went on, directing her comments to Harris: “We don’t even know that you care. You have turned your back on the people who got you to where you are.” In the Senate, Harris has championed criminal justice reform Since her Senate campaign in 2016, Harris has tried to avoid the faulty parts of her record, and instead emphasized the reforms she’s supported and implemented over the years. She has adopted sweeping rhetoric about the criminal justice system, arguing that it needs to be systemically changed. Her presidential primary campaign website characterized her as “for the people,” “speaking truth, demanding justice,” and “fighting to fix our broken criminal justice system.” Consider one of Harris’s common lines: She’s described her support for criminal justice reform as pushing for a better return on investment, pointing out that US prisons see recidivism rates as high as 70 percent or more. As Harris told the New York Times Magazine in 2016, “If we were talking about any other system where you have a failure rate of about 70 percent, the investors would say, at the very least, do a wholesale reconstruction, if not shut it down.” This is strong rhetoric — which suggests that Harris’s ultimate aim isn’t to merely tinker with the criminal justice system, but to seriously transform it. This aligns Harris far more with where Democrats are today, as Black Lives Matter, ACLU types, and criminal justice reformers push the party to the left on this issue. In the Senate, Harris has consistently backed reforms, although her leadership role on these issues hasn’t been as extensive as that of some other senators. She introduced a bail reform bill with Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) that would encourage states to reform or replace their bail systems. This is a big part of the criminal justice system: By most estimates, hundreds of thousands of people are in jail right now, before they’ve been convicted of a crime, just because they can’t afford to pay their bail. A lot of advocacy work is now dedicated to getting rid of money bail almost entirely, which some places, like Washington, DC, have done with success. But the bill hasn’t moved far in Congress — although it’s now part of Harris’s presidential campaign platform. In a team-up with Sens. Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Tim Scott (R-SC), Harris also introduced a bill that would for the first time make lynching a federal crime, which has long been a goal for racial justice and civil rights activists. A final version of the bill is currently held up in the Senate. Sarah Silbiger/CQ Roll Call via Getty Images Sens. Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Kamala Harris (D-CA) speak during the fourth day of Brett Kavanaugh’s hearing before members of the Senate Judiciary Committee on September 7, 2018. Harris also voted for the First Step Act, the most significant federal criminal justice reform bill to get through Congress in decades — although she tweeted at length about the bill’s shortcomings. She signed on to Booker’s marijuana legalization bill, introduced her own bill to decriminalize marijuana at the federal level, and voted to legalize hemp. More recently, she also backed more aggressive reforms to US policing, telling Meghan McCain on The View that the country is “reimagining how we do public safety in America” and speaking favorably of shifting resources from law enforcement to addressing the “root causes” of crime, such as poverty and mental health issues. Other Democratic senators, though, have gone a bit further on criminal justice issues. Booker, for one, introduced the Reverse Mass Incarceration Act — an effort, however flawed, to get states to systematically reduce incarceration rates. Harris has yet to introduce bills that are just as sweeping, or any systemic reform bills besides her bail proposal, even as she uses rhetoric decrying the criminal justice system as a whole. Harris’s limited role to this point is perhaps expected for a junior senator, but it may be disappointing for people expecting more from a presidential contender with roots in the criminal justice system and who promised something closer to “a wholesale reconstruction” than tinkering at the edges. But at least when the issue comes to a vote, she’s so far consistently been on the reform side in the Senate — and has made support for reform central to her message as she’s run for Senate, then president, and now vice president. Progressives will have to weigh what Harris is saying now versus parts of her past The question Harris now faces: Are the reforms she pushed for as a prosecutor and attorney general, and her consistently progressive work in the Senate, enough to satisfy progressives and criminal justice reformers? The concern here isn’t merely figuring out whether Harris is an honest person. A constant worry in criminal justice work is what would happen if, say, the crime rate started to rise once again. In such a scenario, there would be considerably more pressure on lawmakers — and it’d at least be easier for them — to go back to “tough on crime” rhetoric, framing more aggressive policing and higher incarceration rates in a favorable way. Given that the central progressive claim is that these policies are racist and, based on the research, ineffective for fighting crime in the first place, any potential for backsliding in this area once it becomes politically convenient is very alarming. This happened before. From the 1960s through the ’90s, crime and drug use were skyrocketing in the US. Americans were much more likely, especially in the early ’90s, to say that crime was the most important problem facing the country at the time. That drove lawmakers, both Democrats and Republicans, to try to find solutions that they could sell to the public — and they by and large landed on a more punitive criminal justice system. But any link to those “tough on crime” policies now could hurt Harris — and Biden — politically. According to a 2016 Vox/Morning Consult survey, around two-thirds of Democrats and a majority of all voters support removing mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenders, reducing sentences for drug offenses in general, sentencing more people to probation and community service instead of prison, and adopting a national law decriminalizing marijuana. Other polls have found even higher support for criminal justice reforms among Democrats and other voters. In response to the criticisms, Harris said during the first day of her presidential campaign that she took “responsibility” for some of the problems: “The bottom line is the buck stops with me, and I take full responsibility for what my office did.” In response to a question about her office’s efforts when she was attorney general, on behalf of the California Department of Corrections, to stop a transgender inmate from getting gender-affirming surgery, Harris elaborated further. “I was the attorney general of California for two terms, and I had a host of clients that I was obligated to defend and represent,” she said. “I couldn’t fire my clients and there were unfortunately situations that occurred where my clients took positions that were contrary to my beliefs.” More broadly, Harris has explained that she rejects what she describes as “the false choice” between criminal justice reform and supporting law enforcement. “I will never make an excuse for saying this, or an apology for saying this: One human being kills another human being, a woman is raped, a child is molested, there needs to be serious consequence and accountability,” she said during a one-hour interview for her memoir in January 2019. “And I’m always going to say that, and I’m going to say America has a problem with mass incarceration, we have been locking up black and brown men in particular, [and] we have built-in biases that are implicit and explicit that need to be addressed.” And after she announced her presidential bid, Harris announced a criminal justice reform plan that would enact an ambitious list of policy changes to scale back mass incarceration, “tough on crime” policing, and the war on drugs. Some argue that Harris might not ever be redeemed, because the past job she took at the time she took it just doesn’t line up with progressive values today. As Briahna Gray, who worked for the Bernie Sanders campaign, previously wrote for the Intercept, “To become a prosecutor is to make a choice to align oneself with a powerful and fundamentally biased system.” Yet some seem to have forgiven Harris. Shaun King, a prominent racial justice advocate and former surrogate for Sanders, told BuzzFeed that he’s come around to Harris, despite her past record. “I was a little slow to trust her as a reformer on criminal justice, but I think she’s proven herself to me,” he said. “I think she’s become one of the better spokespersons for really serious criminal justice reform in the Democratic Party.” King repeated as much after Harris was picked as Biden’s running mate. For Harris, where voters land in this debate could help decide how much she can help Biden defeat Trump. Barbara Davidson/Getty Images A person holds a poster of US Sen. Kamala Harris as people take part in the annual Women’s March on January 19, 2019, in Los Angeles. Will you become our 20,000th supporter? When the economy took a downturn in the spring and we started asking readers for financial contributions, we weren’t sure how it would go. Today, we’re humbled to say that nearly 20,000 people have chipped in. The reason is both lovely and surprising: Readers told us that they contribute both because they value explanation and because they value that other people can access it, too. We have always believed that explanatory journalism is vital for a functioning democracy. That’s never been more important than today, during a public health crisis, racial justice protests, a recession, and a presidential election. But our distinctive explanatory journalism is expensive, and advertising alone won’t let us keep creating it at the quality and volume this moment requires. 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The Kamala Coalition
In the final rally Joe Biden held before COVID-19 shut down the country in March, he clasped hands on a stage in Detroit with a group of emerging Democratic stars. “I view myself as a bridge, not as anything else,” he declared a few minutes later. “There is an entire generation of leaders that you saw standing behind me. They are the future of this country.” Yesterday, Biden took a major step toward redeeming those words when he chose Senator Kamala Harris of California, one of the Democrats on that stage, as his vice-presidential nominee.By selecting Harris, Biden has positioned the Democratic Party for a profound generational and demographic transition, and he’s addressed the fundamental incongruity of his candidacy: the inherent strain of a nearly 78-year-old white man leading a political coalition that relies on big margins among young voters, people of color, and women.Biden represents the Democratic Party of his post–World War II coming of age: a coalition centered on blue-collar white people who worked with their hands, mostly in smaller industrial cities such as Scranton, Pennsylvania, where he was born. From almost every angle, Harris embodies the Democratic Party of the 21st century: a biracial child of immigrants (who is herself in an interracial marriage) who rose to political prominence from a base in San Francisco, a diverse, globalized hub of the emerging information economy.Many obstacles still prevent women and people of color from achieving power in the Democratic Party’s leadership commensurate with their influence in its voting base. But Harris makes the concept of Biden as a bridge more concrete—and potentially more attractive to younger nonwhite voters displaying lagging enthusiasm for him—by embodying the other side of that span: a party that potentially makes more room at the table for people who look like her. “I think Kamala Harris has the potential to activate a voter that otherwise has not seen themself reflected in the Democratic Party,” says Terrance Woodbury, an African American Democratic consultant who studies younger voters.[Read: Why Joe Biden picked Kamala Harris]Many members of the Democrats’ “coalition of transformation,” including professional women, immigrants, and African Americans, can see aspects of their experience reflected in Harris’s life. That could make her a resonant symbol of the Democrats’ embrace of a changing America, and offer a rebuke—not only in her words but through her sheer presence—to a president who has openly wielded racist and sexist language. Yet the fact that she personifies the changing country so clearly will also make her a more tempting target than Biden for Trump and his allies, who are trying to convince the GOP’s “coalition of restoration” that a Democratic victory will threaten to erase the America they have known.Attacks from the right won’t completely muffle complaints on the left either. As Woodbury and other activists note, Harris will “have some things to prove” with younger racial-justice advocates skeptical of her record as the district attorney of San Francisco and as California’s attorney general, particularly her reluctance to pursue prosecutions against law-enforcement officials involved in the killing of civilians. But no one I’ve spoken with disputes the power of Biden acknowledging that Black voters—especially Black women voters—deserve representation at the very apex of the Democratic Party’s leadership. Harris’s new role is especially meaningful because of the possibility that Biden, if he wins, might not run for reelection in 2024, which would position her as a front-runner, if not the front-runner, for the Democratic nomination that year.When Biden made his announcement yesterday afternoon, I was on the phone with Aimee Allison, the founder of She the People, which advocates for advancing more women of color in the Democratic Party. We were discussing her ambivalent feelings about how Biden’s vice-presidential selection process had unfolded over the past few weeks. She considered the large number of Black women, and other women of color, considered for the position an overdue recognition of their pivotal role in the modern Democratic coalition. “For me, the VP discussion reflects a new way of thinking about and valuing the leadership of women of color,” she told me.But she was frustrated and angered that several of the Black women candidates, particularly Harris, had faced what Allison saw as a hazing in the press from some older white male Democrats, including former Senator Chris Dodd of Connecticut, who was part of the small committee Biden had assigned to assess his choices. “What’s very clear is we have political institutions and a political culture that has a very unique way of tearing down women who are standing for leadership, who have impressive experience [and] come with impressive resumes, with a capacity to inspire voters in a way white guys can’t,” Allison told me. “The conversation was very racist and very sexist. It’s a problem. It’s a problem we have with Republicans. It’s a problem with Democrats. It’s bigger than a political party.”Those words had barely left Allison’s mouth when the news broke that Biden had selected Harris. For a moment, she was overcome with emotion. “It’s pretty remarkable. I get emotional—she’s just made history,” she said, her voice cracking. Harris “stands on the shoulders of remarkable generations of Black women who have fought and bled for this moment.” The selection, she thought, showed that Biden meant what he said onstage in Detroit. “She represents a new America,” Allison told me. “She already knows how to speak to that language of solidarity, to that multiracial coalition. She is showing up in the moment we need. This is what the country needs.”[Megan Garber: The world that Kamala Harris will navigate]This ticket always seemed to some observers (myself included) the most logical choice for Democrats in their fight against Trump. That’s because the pairing reflects the party’s promising but tenuous position as demographic shifts inexorably transform the electorate. By any measure, Harris symbolizes a Democratic future rooted in groups and places that are growing as a share of society: the well-educated and diverse voters centered in the nation’s largest metropolitan areas. A massive recent compilation of survey research by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center found that the non-college-educated white voters Biden grew up around now comprise only about three in 10 self-identified Democrats, while white voters with a four-year college degree or more constitute nearly as many. People of color represent the plurality, at about 40 percent of Democrats.But because of lagging turnout among some of those people of color—and also because white voters without a college degree are overrepresented in key Rust Belt states—many Democrats concluded after 2016 that they needed a nominee who could win back working-class whites. A solid majority of Democratic primary voters, including all but the youngest African American voters, in effect hired Biden to perform that very specific job.Polls have generally found that Biden is making at least some progress on that front. But he’s continually struggled to generate much excitement among younger people, especially those who are nonwhite. Many Democrats are hopeful that Harris will provide more of the spark with younger people of color that he has not (within the limits of the vice-presidential nominee’s capacity to influence the race).In 2016, just 60 percent of eligible African American voters turned out, down from 67 percent in 2012, according to the Census Bureau. Kasim Reed, the African American former mayor of Atlanta, told me last night he is confident that Harris’s position—combined with antipathy toward Trump and Biden’s own connections with older Black voters—will ensure a dramatic rebound in Black participation. “I am going on the record that Black turnout is going to exceed President [Barack] Obama’s Black turnout,” Reed said. Harris’s selection “sends a very important message that high achievement and dedication matter.”Others are more cautious about her potential to energize younger voters. Harris is a demographic bridge between Biden and the modern Democratic Party, but she’s not nearly as much of an ideological bridge. Though she ran sharply to the left during the early stages of her unsteady presidential bid, her record, like Biden’s, is fundamentally moderate.Stanley B. Greenberg, the veteran Democratic pollster, told me, overall, he believes that Harris will boost Biden. “I think this will be viewed as real, historic, and likely to be helpful to him in many ways,” Greenberg said. “It will look like a generational change, like someone who is in touch with the country, who can prosecute the case against the administration and against [Mike] Pence” during the vice-presidential debate this fall.[Read: Joe Biden’s vice president could be the most powerful in history]But to the extent that lagging youth enthusiasm for Biden represents ideological suspicion of him, Greenberg said, Harris isn’t likely to solve the problem. Instead, that will probably require sustained engagement from other, more liberal figures in the party, such as Senators Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.Uncertainty about Biden’s and Harris’s commitment to the full slate of ambitious policing and civil-rights reforms pushed by many racial-justice advocates threatens friction if the ticket wins, Steve Phillips, the founder of the advocacy group Democracy in Color, predicts. “These are people who have been strong voices for far-reaching change, and they have found a lot of leaders, including Kamala, wanting,” he told me.But he believes that between now and November, those concerns will be eclipsed by the powerful message Biden has sent about “the centrality of African Americans in general, and Black women in particular” to the Democratic Party. “I think that given the depth and the pervasiveness of the … racism and sexism of this president, to be able to put up a strong, unapologetic, culturally relevant woman of color is really going to resonate with people,” Phillips said.This far into Biden’s career, it’s unlikely that Democrats would have picked him as their nominee in any circumstance other than the pressing need many saw to recapture working-class white voters from Trump. Even in this environment, there’s little chance that the grassroots movements focused on racial justice, climate, and gun control (among other issues) will turn to him for inspiration or direction. “If we look at Biden for leading, we are going to be disappointed,” Allison said. “He himself has evolved as a candidate and a leader, but he needs to be surrounded by especially women of color that can speak to the issues of racial and gender justice in a way that I don’t think he’s able to do.”Biden’s inner circle has tilted heavily toward older white men, but by choosing Harris, he’s taken one significant step toward acknowledging his need to open more doors to younger and more racially diverse leaders. Many activists of color were deeply frustrated this year that, even with the party’s most diverse presidential field ever, all of the race’s finalists were white candidates in their 70s: Biden, Sanders, and Warren. Harris’s selection won’t eliminate all the structural inequities that produced that incongruous result. But whether Biden wins or loses in November, her nomination may be remembered as a moment when the pinnacle of Democratic Party leadership came to more closely resemble the base of voters that elects it to power. Even as the GOP at every level remains dominated by white men—starting with Trump and Pence—the Democrats haven’t nominated a presidential ticket of two white men since 2004. It’s difficult to imagine when they ever will again.
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