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On the campaign trail, Kamala Harris energizes women who see themselves in her battles

Kamala Harris leads a packed schedule ahead of the election.
In the final days of the presidential campaign, Joe Biden's running mate Kamala Harris is keeping a packed schedule and motivating a diverse coalition of suburban women. (AP Photo/John Amis)

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The night after Donald Trump won the 2016 presidential election, Janice Robinson made her first appearance at a Democratic Party meeting in her affluent neighborhood of Ballantyne. She had two questions: What are you going to do? And how can I help?

It wasn’t long before Robinson, 60, an occupational therapist, became a precinct chairwoman, organizing Democrats through “A Dem Good Time” happy hours, phone banking, and canvassing in what was once a Republican stronghold.

Nearly four years later, on a warm autumn afternoon at a baseball stadium in Uptown Charlotte, she counted her post-2016 experience as one of the reasons she now feels a kinship with the person she was there to see: Democratic vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris.

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“I’m a big believer in that you get out there and you do something,” Robinson said, as she waited for Harris to take the stage in a socially distanced audience of 150 people — most of them women. Harris’s mother, Shyamala Gopalan Harris, taught her daughters that when something is not right, “you should do something,” Robinson added.

In the final stretch of the campaign, Harris has become a frequent target of Trump and his surrogates, who arguably attack her even more than Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, mispronouncing her name or using language to paint her as the "other.” But Harris is motivating the voters who could provide the fatal blow to Trump’s reelection — a diverse coalition of suburban women like Robinson who see themselves in her story and have been powering Democratic victories up and down the ballot since 2016.

For Black women especially, Harris is a bold choice for vice president and one long overdue, said Robinson, two Biden buttons pinned to a “Black Girls Vote” shirt.

“Black women have been basically carrying the Democratic Party and doing the work,” she said. “It’s been enough disappointment.”

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The high praise comes as validation to the Black political organizers and activists who ramped up pressure on Biden to choose a Black woman as his running mate after days of national unrest over police violence and the killing of George Floyd.

The last time a woman was a major party vice presidential nominee was in 2008 when Republican John McCain picked little-known Alaska Governor Sarah Palin in what many saw as a “Hail Mary” against Barack Obama. In a similar move in 1984, Democrat Walter Mondale chose New York Representative Geraldine Ferraro as he lagged behind President Ronald Reagan in the polls.

But Harris, 56, the former attorney general of California and the only Black woman in the Senate, was chosen by Biden when he was consistently polling ahead of Trump. It was an acknowledgement of the importance of key voter blocs. And Harris has given Biden’s campaign a formidable boost — a “little extra icing on the cake,” as Robinson put it — in a year when women and Black women especially are once again running for the House and Senate in record numbers and Democrats are energized to oust Trump.

As the first Black and Asian-American vice presidential nominee for a major political party and the daughter of immigrants from India and Jamaica, Harris reflects a changing United States. She speaks directly from her own life experience to Black, Latino, and Asian voters, girls and women in particular, long left out of the political process.

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In a virtual fund-raiser this month, Harris gave a nod to that historic nature of her run.

“Many of us — in fact, sadly, most of us — are the first, meaning that sadly we’re still making firsts,” Harris said, alongside comedian Margaret Cho, former presidential candidate Andrew Yang, and journalist Connie Chung, the first Asian-American to co-anchor a nightly broadcast TV newscast.

Her staffers and supporters often point out that there is no playbook for a Black woman seeking national office. That might not be such a disadvantage in a wild, unparalleled election where all sorts of playbooks have been tossed out amid a pandemic, a recession, and a national racial reckoning. Still, as a Black woman, Harris has had a steeper road to define herself, navigating legitimate criticisms of her record alongside racial and gender bias and hateful attacks.

Democrats have picked apart her law enforcement background, her approach to talking about racism, and her ability to lead on causes important to Black voters, many of whom didn’t rally around her own presidential campaign last year. Republicans have sought to paint her as too left for right-leaning voters and too right for those who lean left. And in keeping with a series of racist and sexist strikes on women and women of color, Trump has called her “nasty” and “a monster.”

“No, I don’t comment on his childish remarks,” Harris responded recently when asked about Trump’s attacks.

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Democratic vice presidential nominee Senator Kamala Harris spoke while people took her photo during a campaign event Saturday in Lakewood, Ohio. (AP Photo/David Dermer)
Democratic vice presidential nominee Senator Kamala Harris spoke while people took her photo during a campaign event Saturday in Lakewood, Ohio. (AP Photo/David Dermer)David Dermer/Associated Press

Despite the obstacles, or perhaps because of them, Harris still laughs and laughs a lot. In a viral video — praised and maligned — she danced in her signature Chuck Taylor sneakers under the Florida rain last week to her typical exit song, Mary J. Blige’s “Work That.”

“They can call her whatever they want,” Molly Cook, 33, a communications manager who watched her speak at the Charlotte baseball stadium, said of Harris’s right-wing critics. “But they will have to start calling her vice president soon enough.”

Harris’s first stop in Charlotte last week was the stylish men’s clothing shop Social Status, where she asked owner Jason Whitner about his new line of limited edition sneakers. The sleek white Chucks, etched with the year “2020” and decked in buttons that read “Vote” and “Black Lives Matter," were created by artist Nina Chanel Abney and promoted by local historically Black colleges and universities, he said, to capture the energy of youth culture and “push the idea of voting and connectivity."

Onlookers gathered outside for a glimpse at Harris. Yet, it was at Truist Field where the most devoted fans waited. From the dugout roof, she bubbled with excitement, even as the applause from such a scaled-back crowd could at times sound faint in the emptiness of the stadium. A joke didn’t quite land — she laughed anyway.

But Harris received the loudest approval as she delivered seething indictments of Republican efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act, rush through a Supreme Court nominee, and make it harder for people to vote. She blasted Trump for his failure to handle the pandemic, his refusal to condemn white supremacy, and his disbelief in science and climate change.

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“'Do you think he is a racist?' Yes,” Harris said of Trump. “I don’t say that lightly, one should never say that lightly. But there is a pattern here. Think back to Charlottesville.”

In the stands, Kim Collins, 52, a mother of two, has been thinking a lot about that pattern. She worries for her son when he goes jogging like Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old Black man who was chased and fatally shot by armed white men in Georgia in February. Her daughter attended the same university as Sandra Bland, a 28-year-old Black woman found hanged in a Texas jail cell in 2015 after being arrested during a traffic stop.

As a Black woman, Harris could relate to Collins’s Black family, she said.

“I can see my son and my husband’s face with a knee to their neck,” Collins said, alluding to the police killing of Floyd. “There’s always going to be racism. But since [Trump] took office, it seems it has been given license to raise its ugly head.”

A few rows back, Kirsten Aymer, 40, who is white, has been hoping for a female president since she was 5 and was crushed on election night in 2016 when Hillary Clinton lost to Trump.

“Being a woman of color, being a woman in the law profession, being a woman on the Hill, she’s constantly in places where people don’t want her — and she goes anyway,” said Aymer, 40, a sales director who dropped off her three children with her husband after work so she could snag a seat up front at the stadium to see Harris. “She takes a firm stand, and I really admire that.”

The memory of Clinton’s loss wasn’t too far away from Erica Funk’s mind, or from where she sat with her 19-year-old daughter Kimberly. She and a friend had been at a bar just around the corner in 2016 to watch what they expected to be the election of the first female president.

“The night started with all this energy, excitement, and optimism,” said Funk, 55, a Presbyterian pastor. But hour by hour, as Clinton lost state after state, the cheering stopped, the room grew empty. She drove home in tears.

Funk doesn’t want to set herself up for that devastation again, so she is tempering her excitement for the Biden-Harris ticket. But in Harris, she said, she saw a glimmer of hope she also doesn’t want to lose.


Reach Jazmine Ulloa at jazmine.ulloa@globe.com or on Twitter: @jazmineulloa.