WASHINGTON — Influential Black political organizers and activists are ramping up pressure on presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden to select a Black woman as his vice presidential running mate after days of national unrest over police brutality and the killing of George Floyd.
“We are past this just being about a VP pick,” said LaTosha Brown, cofounder of the Black Lives Matter Fund, calling Floyd’s death in police custody in Minneapolis “a turning point for the presidential election.” "We need a unifying voice, a voice who will have appeal across the political spectrum and who will be able to speak to the pain and anger of Black America right now.”
Biden’s selection was always going to be consequential. Now it’s even more so.
The vetting process has been taking place in the midst of a pandemic that has ravaged Black, Latino, and Asian Pacific communities, and many believe Biden’s choice will be crucial to energizing key portions of the electorate that Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton failed to excite in 2016. But the latest crisis over racism and police brutality has upped the stakes.
Biden, who said he plans to reveal his choice around Aug. 1, had previously pledged to pick a woman. If elected, she would be the first woman ever to hold the position. But he has not made any further commitments, saying only that he is looking for someone in sync with his personality and approach, and who has strengths where he doesn’t.
Pressing Biden on his choice on Monday, the Rev. Shanika Perry, a youth pastor at Bethel AME Church in Wilmington, Del., reminded Biden that “representation matters.” “We have qualified Black women who are able, who are capable of helping you lead this country,“ she said.
“I promise you there are multiple African-American candidates being considered, as well as Latino, as well as white, Caucasian,” Biden responded.
Among the top names floated are prominent Black women politicians California Senator Kamala Harris, Florida Representative Val Demings, and former Georgia state representative Stacey Abrams. But the unrest has complicated the cases for Harris and Demings, who both have law enforcement backgrounds and could face difficult questions about their records, such as their handling of complaints about excessive use of force by police.
Harris in particular has come under scrutiny over her resistance to investigate deadly police shootings while she was California’s attorney general. Others have argued Harris, the daughter of immigrants, and Demings, a descendant of slaves and the first in her family to attend college, have since put forth proposals for police reforms and have the credentials to make them happen.
Another person believed to be on Biden’s short list, Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar, has seen her prospects sink because of the outrage over Floyd’s death after a Minneapolis police officer kneeled on his neck for nearly nine minutes. Klobuchar, who is white, has been criticized for failing to address police violence in Minneapolis when she was a top county prosecutor there.
“His choice does not have to be a Black woman, but who it can’t be is someone who is going to turn off voters,” Adrianne Shropshire, executive director of the progressive BlackPAC, said of Klobuchar.
Black and Latino leaders had been calling on Biden to choose a woman of color before Floyd’s killing. They said it would serve as a powerful message about the inclusion of voters of color in the Democratic Party, and help close the “enthusiasm gap” with voters who stayed home or voted third party in 2016, as well as with young people who did not support Biden during the primaries.
Black voters, who are a reliable core of the Democratic Party, along with Latinos and Asian Americans, stand to play pivotal roles in the presidential election, though they have long been taken for granted by the national party machinery. And many believe Biden did not go far enough to engage with young Black voters and Latinos during the Democratic race.
“To have a president and a vice president who are both white in a party that is half people of color — that doesn’t compute to me,” said Aimee Allison, founder and president of She the People, a national network focused on empowering women of color.
A Black running mate would acknowledge the important role Black women have played in Democratic wins since 2016 and in Biden’s string of victories in March that helped drive his rivals from the race.
Some analysts said Biden also still has ground to make up with Black voters, citing criticism over the punitive crime bill he championed in 1994, his handling of Anita Hill’s testimony against Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas, and several clumsy or controversial remarks on race. The most recent was last month, when Biden told Charlamagne Tha God, cohost of the nationally syndicated “The Breakfast Club” radio show, that “you ain’t Black” if he didn’t support him over President Trump in November.
Biden has since hired more senior Black and Latino staffers and brought on a prominent surrogate, former US housing secretary Julián Castro, to help him address police brutality issues.
Still, some Black and Latino leaders said not all candidates who excite their communities are Black or Latino. In the key swing state of Michigan, Governor Gretchen Whitmer has generated enthusiasm among Democratic voters across racial and ethnic lines for her response to the pandemic, as she weathered attacks from Trump.
Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren polls higher with young and Black and Latino voters than any other top vice presidential candidate under consideration. She is often praised for proposals — including her plans to implement Medicare for All and a wealth tax — that would make substantial progress to improve the lives of Black, Latino, and Asian Pacific Americans.
“A lot of people here are talking about Stacey Abrams, Warren, and Harris,” said Chris Walton, chair of the Democratic Party of Milwaukee County in the battleground state of Wisconsin. “But whoever the nominee is, she will be the person we intend to make the vice president of the US.”
Analysts said the last time a vice presidential pick mattered this much was when John F. Kennedy chose Lyndon Johnson, who delivered his home state of Texas in one of the closest presidential races in history. Historically, vice presidential candidates have had little influence on the outcome of presidential contests.
“They matter at the margins, and they matter for certain groups,” said Kelly Dittmar, a professor at the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.
But Biden’s choice will have outsize impact because he has suggested he will be a one-term president if elected, “a bridge” to a new generation of Democratic leaders. And this presidential election is likely to be close and won at the margins.
A Black woman on the ticket could help increase voter turnout in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Georgia, where depressed Black voter turnout hurt Democrats in 2016, while a Latina could help drive Democrats to the polls in the battlegrounds of Arizona, Florida, and Wisconsin, pollsters said.
Barack Obama won the White House with a coalition of white working-class voters and people of color. The irony hasn’t been lost on some that Obama picked Biden as running mate to expand his appeal to white working-class voters. This time, Biden is looking for someone who can help with the other part of that coalition.
“Being bold and picking a woman of color would herald that he hasn’t forgotten why Barack Obama won his election,” said Domingo Garcia, president of the Latino political advocacy organization League of United Latin American Citizens. It would be a mistake, Garcia added, for Biden to make a safe pick like Clinton did with Virginia Senator Tim Kaine. Democrats billed him as a popular choice to draw Latinos because he spoke Spanish.
“Nice guy, but I don’t think anyone voted for Hillary because of him,” Garcia said.
Democratic political strategist Angela Rye said Biden choosing a Black woman would be “an easy first step but only the first step.”
“What many of us are saying is, ‘We bet on you, now it is time for you to bet on us,’ ” said Rye, who along with Brown and other leading Black activists penned an open letter to Biden in May with advice on how to show his commitment to Black voters. “Reinvest in us, in the same way we have reinvested [in the Democratic Party] for decades without any return in that investment.”