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Biden’s running mate is Kamala Harris, first woman of color on major party’s ticket

Democratic presidential candidates former vice president Joe Biden and California Senator Kamala Harris spoke after a Democratic presidential debate in Houston in September 2019.
Democratic presidential candidates former vice president Joe Biden and California Senator Kamala Harris spoke after a Democratic presidential debate in Houston in September 2019.Win McNamee/Photographer: Win McNamee/Getty

WASHINGTON — Presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden made history Tuesday by tapping Senator Kamala Harris of California to be his running mate, elevating the first Black and Asian Pacific American ever to that role ahead of next week’s party convention.

Biden announced the long-awaited decision via Twitter, calling Harris “a fearless fighter for the little guy and one of the country’s finest public servants.” His campaign said the two will deliver remarks together Wednesday in Wilmington, Del., then attend a virtual fund-raiser.

Harris said in a tweet that she was “honored” to join Biden’s ticket, declaring he “can unify the American people because he’s spent his life fighting for us. And as president, he’ll build an America that lives up to our ideals.”

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Harris, 55, the former attorney general of California and the only Black woman in the US Senate, clashed with Biden on the issue of race during her short-lived presidential run last year. But she later shot to the top of his vice presidential list as he vowed to pick a woman and underscored the importance of experience.

Only two other women have been major party vice presidential nominees, Geraldine Ferraro for the Democrats in 1984 and Sarah Palin for the Republicans in 2008, and neither won.

“The ticket needed a Black woman, he needed a fighter,” said LaTosha Brown, the cofounder of Black Voters Matter, as she joyfully absorbed the news. “This is a milestone moment for Black women.”

In the weeks before Biden’s announcement, Harris was the subject of several negative stories, including a CNBC report that said some of Biden’s allies had told his search committee she was “too ambitious.” Women — including within Biden’s campaign — seized on those comments as evidence of gender bias in politics.

“My statement is this: Thank God that she was ambitious,” Brown said.

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Harris beat out several contenders on Biden’s list, including Senator Elizabeth Warren, former Obama administration official Susan Rice, California Representative Karen Bass, and Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer. Biden, who knows the job having served as Barack Obama’s vice president, stressed he wanted a running mate he felt “simpatico” with, as well as someone who was ready to assume the presidency if necessary.

The child of Indian and Jamaican immigrants, Harris makes for a barrier-breaking pick at a time when many voters are demanding change and equality for Black people amid extensive civil rights protests around the country. She would be the first woman, Black person, or Asian-American to become vice president if elected, and Democratic activists have long pushed Biden to pick a woman of color in a nod to the party’s most loyal constituency.

But her extensive record in law enforcement — formed during the tough-on-crime 1990s — could become a liability for her among Democrats who are pushing for aggressive criminal justice reforms in the wake of George Floyd’s killing. Harris has marched in Floyd protests in Washington and skillfully described activists’ “defund the police” slogan as a reimagining of public safety in America.

Democrats — both progressives and centrists — celebrated the announcement, lauding Harris for her expertise and commitment to Black communities and calling Biden’s decision a bold, historic choice that met the political moment. She immediately becomes a vivid contrast to President Trump’s anti-immigrant policies.

“As the daughter of immigrants, Senator Harris’s story serves as a powerful reminder that through their contributions, immigrants make America stronger,” Marielena Hincapié, executive director of the National Immigration Law Center Immigrant Justice Fund, said in a statement.

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Rashad Robinson, spokesperson for Color Of Change PAC, told reporters that his organization looked forward to working with Harris, who he said had been willing to stay in conversation with activists, even when facing critical feedback. But he cautioned that the symbolic power of a Biden-Harris ticket alone would not be enough to persuade Black voters, and that the two candidates should not expect their “unequivocal support.”

Harris “has to talk about her evolution,” he said of her track record on criminal justice. “She has to talk about the challenges that she has had and talk about where she has moved.”

Adrianne Shropshire, executive director of the progressive BlackPAC, pointed out that the historic moment for Black women came just before anniversaries of the Voting Rights Act, which prohibited racial discrimination at the polls, and the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote.

She called Harris a “fearless champion for justice.”

“She understands the urgency of the moment and will work to restore competent, moral leadership to Washington,” Shropshire said.

Since joining the Senate in 2017, Harris made a name for herself on the left with her pointed questioning of Trump administration officials in committee hearings, and later, with her presidential run. That run fizzled and she dropped out of the race before the Iowa caucuses despite a strong start that included a kickoff event in Oakland with more than 20,000 fans.

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Harris drew headlines and a short-lived polling bump with a blistering debate attack on Biden’s past stance against busing to desegregate schools. Harris said then that she didn’t believe Biden was a “racist,” but that she benefited from a busing program that integrated schools when she was a child. “That little girl was me,” she said during the June 2019 debate exchange in a phrase her campaign quickly pasted over T-shirts. Biden’s wife, Jill Biden, later called that moment “a punch in the gut.”

But Harris repaired her relationship with Biden after dropping out, endorsing him following his Super Tuesday sweep and going to work to raise money and campaign for him virtually during the pandemic. Harris’s friendship with Biden’s late son Beau, who was attorney general of Delaware when she held that post in California, also provides her with a personal connection to the nominee.

The pick marks a watershed moment for Harris, who will now likely be a fixture in the Democratic Party for years to come. Biden’s age — at 77 he would be the oldest person ever elected president — and ambiguity about whether he would seek a second term make Harris likely to be a top contender for the presidency in four years, should the pair win in 2020.

Harris joins the ticket as polls show Biden with a steady lead over Trump, who has battled low approval ratings over his handling of the coronavirus and race relations.

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Trump told reporters Tuesday that he was surprised Biden chose Harris, even though she was viewed as the front-runner, but that he was happy with the choice because he sees her as an easy target of GOP attacks. He accused her of wanting to raise taxes, slash military funding, and of being “nasty” to Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh during his Senate confirmation hearing and to Biden during the primaries.

“She was my number one draft pick and we’ll see how she works out,” he said.

Trump has sought to stir up anxieties among white voters about recent protests for racial justice and the toppling of Confederate and other statues — calling Biden a secret radical who wants to remake the country. But at the same time, Trump’s campaign has run ads aimed at Black voters reminding them of Biden’s key role in passing a landmark crime bill in 1994 that contributed to rising incarceration rates. The Trump campaign — or its allies — could seize on Harris’s past as a prosecutor and attorney general to make similar arguments aimed at suppressing the Black vote.

Harris is still unknown to more voters than Biden or Trump, with one recent poll showing 20 percent of voters had never heard of her. Out of the running mate contenders Biden was contemplating, however, she was the second-most-well-known after Warren.

Democratic activists and political strategists on Tuesday said they were already gearing up to fight attacks against Harris and efforts to depress Black voter enthusiasm from Trump and right-wing political operatives. But Mike Madrid, a longtime Republican strategist and cofounder of The Lincoln Project, a political action committee of disaffected Republicans targeting Trump, called Harris a solid choice for the Democratic ticket and someone who weathered attacks on the national stage for more than a year.

“I think it’s a sigh of relief that says we can finally start to get past some of the regressive nature of the Trump era,” he said.

Representative Ayanna Pressley called Harris a trailblazer whose life "has included many historic firsts."

“In this moment, when our communities face overlapping crises of public health, economic inequality, and systemic racism, Kamala will be a fierce advocate for the policies that will roll back the cruel and callous actions of the current administration, and usher in bold, long overdue change,” she said.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the title of Rashad Robinson of the Color Of Change PAC. He is a spokesperson for the group.


Liz Goodwin can be reached at elizabeth.goodwin@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @lizcgoodwin. Reach Jazmine Ulloa at jazmine.ulloa@globe.com or on Twitter: @jazmineulloa. Jess Bidgood can be reached at Jess.Bidgood@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @jessbidgood.