I’ve devoted more than 20 years to changing the face of politics by electing more women to executive offices, and I’m thrilled to see presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden choose Senator Kamala Harris of California as his running mate — making history as the first woman of color on a major party presidential ticket.
I’ve been following Harris’s career since her first race for district attorney of San Francisco in 2003. When I finally met her eight years ago, I was impressed by her energy, expertise, and empathy. I’ve watched her connect deeply with everyone she meets. Her performance on the presidential primary debate stage was the latest reminder that she is a star.
Much has been made of the fact that Biden, at 77, would be the oldest first-term president in US history. As his running mate, Harris will be tasked with everything from balancing out a white septuagenarian moderate, to serving as his successor-in-waiting, to representing the future of the Democratic Party.
She also carries the historic weight of being just the fourth woman and second nonwhite person on a major party’s presidential ticket. And this highly charged campaign is taking place against a backdrop of historic polarization, the coronavirus pandemic, an economic recession, and a long-overdue uprising against systemic racism.
If this sounds like a perfect storm of pressure and responsibility, it is. But it’s one Harris was made to meet.
She has already accomplished an impressive list of firsts: the first Black woman elected as a district attorney in California; the first Black person and first woman to serve as California’s attorney general; the first South Asian-American and only the second Black woman to serve in the US Senate.
Breaking these barriers is no small feat. It requires a level of skill and courage few of Harris’s peers can claim. And it’s the kind of superpower she will need to help voters overcome the “imagination barrier” that has long kept them from seeing women as executive leaders.
Many of the challenges Harris will probably face are ones she’s seen before. At the Barbara Lee Family Foundation, our decades of research show women in politics have historically been held to different and higher standards than their male counterparts. That goes doubly for Black women.
To win multiple elections, Harris has already had to prove that she is both likable and qualified. (For men, qualification is assumed, and likability is not required.)
As a Black woman and former prosecutor, she’s accustomed to representing multiple constituencies and navigating double binds, experience that will come in handy as she works to unite a divided party and country.
The elevated standards and scrutiny she’s faced have forged her unique strengths as a leader. Harris has a chance to demonstrate how she will bring those strengths to the White House.
Take crisis management, long cited by voters as a primary concern in women’s electability. Our research, conducted during the COVID-19 lockdown, confirms that voters not only believe that women can lead during crises, but they also have distinct advantages.
Voters pointed to four areas where women executives excel: showing up prepared, effectively leading a team, listening to voters and experts, and understanding communities. Harris checks every box.
Her meticulous preparation has made her one of the nation’s most formidable cross-examiners, dressing down an assembly line of high-level officials, including former attorney general Jeff Sessions, Attorney General William Barr, and Brett Kavanaugh during his Supreme Court confirmation hearings.
Her strong leadership style allowed her to notch impressive victories as California’s attorney general, including her refusal to defend the state’s ban on same-sex marriage as well as her work to reduce recidivism among first-time drug offenders.
However, it’s her ability to connect with voters and speak frankly on issues of race that distinguishes her as our country is reeling from COVID-19 and police brutality — which have disproportionately harmed Black Americans. While some on the left have criticized her record on criminal justice in California, as a senator, she has built a reputation as a powerful advocate for underserved communities and has emerged as a leader in national efforts to reform policing.
It won’t be easy, but nothing Harris has achieved in her career has been. Her ascension to vice-presidential candidate is the culmination of decades of hard-won wisdom and hard-earned accomplishments. Harris has the talent, experience, and insight to drive the Democratic ticket to victory — and help shape the presidency — unlike any vice president before her.
Barbara Lee is president and founder of the Barbara Lee Political Office.