In her first appearance as Joe Biden’s running mate this week, Kamala Harris repeated a story she is fond of telling.
The California senator, 55, recounted how her mother and father, immigrants to the US from India and Jamaica, respectively, found each other while they were both activists in the 1960s civil rights movement.
“That’s how they met, as students, in the streets of Oakland, marching and shouting for this thing called justice,” Ms Harris said, adding that they would bring her as a child to protests, “strapped tightly” in a pram.
More than five decades later, Ms Harris is now the first black woman and the first Indian-American to be on a major US party’s presidential ticket — and, as such, an embodiment of Democratic hopes to forge a broad coalition to defeat President Donald Trump at the polls in November.
“When you think of who she is, the diversity just in herself and her life, that is what her supporters look like,” said Jon Henes, a partner at law firm Kirkland & Ellis, who was national finance chair for Ms Harris’ failed presidential bid last year. “It is black, white and brown, gay and straight, men and women, old and young . . . that is our country.”
Ms Harris’ brand of autobiographical politics has resonated this week with members of her party. A Reuters/Ipsos poll published on Wednesday showed nine in 10 Democrats approved of her as Mr Biden’s running mate. The survey also found she was more popular among women, younger voters and even some Republicans than Mr Biden, who will formally accept the party’s nomination at next week’s virtual convention.
Perhaps more troubling for Mr Trump, a separate Morning Consult/Politico poll released on Thursday showed nearly half of Republicans said they were worried Mr Biden’s choice would hurt Mr Trump’s chances in November.
Mr Trump described Ms Harris as “nasty” this week and many of his fellow Republicans portrayed her as a radical leftist. But Kellyanne Conway, the often combative counsellor to the president, discussed Ms Harris carefully, congratulating her for being the first black woman on a major party’s presidential ticket even as she took aim at the California senator’s political beliefs.
“I think we can stand up and take a moment to applaud when history is made, and then take a moment to say why somebody who seems forward-looking would actually take us backward as a nation,” Ms Conway said.
When discussing her upbringing, Ms Harris often turns to the subject of her mother, Shyamala Gopalan, who came to California in 1960 from Tamil Nadu, in southern India. A cancer researcher at institutions including the University of California, Berkeley, she married Donald Harris, who later became a Stanford University economics professor. The couple divorced when Ms Harris was young, and the California senator was raised largely by their mother.
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Ms Harris says her mother, who died in 2009, told her and her younger sister, Maya, to not “sit around and complain” but “do something”.
Ms Harris graduated from Howard University, a historically black college in Washington, before earning a law degree from the University of California, Hastings, and becoming a prosecutor. She was elected twice as district attorney of San Francisco and twice as attorney-general of California.
While attorney-general, she met Douglas Emhoff, a partner at law firm DLA Piper, whom she married in 2015, becoming stepmother — or “Momala”, as she says, in a nod to her husband’s Jewish heritage — to his two grown children.
Ms Harris’ coalition-building abilities were demonstrated again when she won the 2016 US Senate race in California, the most populous US state and one of the most diverse. Although her campaign for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination faltered last year, Democrats are hoping she can bolster Mr Biden’s efforts to appeal to a broad base of voters nationwide, as he and Barack Obama did in 2008 and 2012.
“It takes a village to raise a child, but it also takes a village to win an election,” said Antjuan Seawright, a Democratic strategist in South Carolina. “We are going to need every engagement in the village in order for us to be positioned to win.”
The Morning Consult poll showed voters viewed Ms Harris as slightly to the left of Mr Biden, but both Democrats were seen as more “moderate” than Mr Trump and Mike Pence, the current vice-president.
Andra Gillespie, a political-science professor at Emory University and an expert on race and politics, said Mr Biden’s choice of Ms Harris was “very, very important” for black voters, especially after the widespread civil unrest over the police killing of George Floyd.
Black voters turned out in record numbers for Mr Obama, but many did not show up in 2016 for Hillary Clinton. Mr Biden has enjoyed high levels of support among older black voters, but has had relatively less success with younger ones.
Ms Gillespie added that while questions about Ms Harris’ record as a prosecutor — left-leaning critics have accused her of failing to intervene in cases of police violence — meant the Biden campaign would “have to reach out to those whose views on criminal justice are more progressive”, the senator’s CV could also prove an asset.
She said given her experience, Ms Harris may be best positioned to “broker a deal” involving activists and politicians on criminal justice reform. The senator was instrumental in drafting police reform legislation in the Senate this summer, though Mitch McConnell, the chamber’s top Republican, has refused to consider the Democrats’ proposals.
Yet Ms Gillespie also cautioned that with two-and-a-half months to go until polling day, the Biden team “should not assume that just because they put Kamala Harris on the ticket that they don’t have to campaign” to win black votes.
“[Activists] are demanding that black issues not be taken for granted,” she said. “It is not enough to put a black woman in the number-two slot . . . There is still a lot of work to do, but this was an important start.”
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