Their eight-year relationship was one of trust, candor and respect, he says, a bond forged as fellow senators and presidential campaign rivals-turned-friends. As Biden told supporters recently, he wants someone who is “simpatico with me, both in terms of personality as well as substance.”
It is in many ways a conventional standard recited by generations of presidential candidates before him, with a premium usually placed on deep Washington experience, particularly membership in the Senate or leadership in the House, or executive experience at the state level.
But as Biden enters the final stretch of a decidedly unconventional search process — he has promised to pick a woman, and is vetting several African American contenders who would make history amid a growing racial justice movement — the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee is facing growing pressure to break from an old playbook that has resulted in white men being tapped all but two times in the country’s history.
Few black women have had the opportunity to serve in the nation’s highest state and federal elected jobs, stymied by a history of systemic racism and sexism in U.S. politics. Only two black women have ever been elected to the Senate and none have ever won a governorship.
“Hopefully the political class will have evolved sufficiently to understand that some of the rules that they set out are no longer applicable,” said Carol Moseley Braun (D-Ill.), who in 1992 became the first black woman elected to the Senate. “The fact of the matter is we’ve never had black women in a lot of these positions so how can you go to say experience in it is the prerequisite? Otherwise, what you get is that old circular firing squad and you wind up never getting anybody.”
Putting aside the old standards could prove especially challenging for Biden, 77, whose long Washington career means many of his deepest political alliances are with people of similar backgrounds, mainly white men.
“He has to recognize that even his set of relationships, I’m quite sure, are geared toward his world,” said LaTosha Brown, co-founder of Black Voters Matter, which educates and mobilizes black people to participate in the political process. “This isn’t about just who he aligns with.”
“Maybe 20 years [ago], having somebody like he said, ‘simpatico,’ that might have been enough,” Brown said. “That’s not enough in the moment that we’re in right now. In the moment that we’re in where every single system is on the brink of crumbling . . . he does not have the luxury of his white male political relationships to move him forward.”
The killing of George Floyd, a black man who pleaded for his life as a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes, has forced the nation to confront institutional racism and discrimination in a way that it didn’t even during the tenure of the first black president. Some activists have said that by choosing a black woman, Biden would make a statement about moving the country toward greater equity for marginalized groups. Practically, it would also acknowledge the contribution of black women as the Democratic Party’s most loyal group of voters.
Only one black woman on Biden’s reported list — Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) — has won statewide elections. Harris, who ran unsuccessfully for the presidential nomination, is the only other black woman beside Moseley Braun ever elected to the Senate.
Other black women said to be in the running include Rep. Val Demings (D-Fla.), who was one the managers of the House’s impeachment proceedings against President Trump; Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.) chair of the Congressional Black Caucus and former speaker of the California State Assembly; Susan E. Rice, a former national security adviser and Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms (D).
Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), who is of Thai and Chinese descent, has emerged as a strong contender. New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D) who is Latina, is also being considered.
Georgia’s Stacey Abrams (D), the first black woman to win a major party nomination for governor, is said to have fallen off the list, with many citing the fact that the highest office she held was a Democratic leader of her state House chamber. When asked about her readiness to be vice president, Abrams has asserted that she believes she has the experience to do the job.
Since Shirley Chisholm (D-N.Y.) became the first black woman elected to Congress in 1968, 47 black women have served in Congress. Although black women have chaired subcommittees and held deputy posts in the House Democratic caucus, only two have chaired standing committees and none have served as caucus chair or whip.
In Biden’s home state of Delaware, it wasn’t until 2016 that voters sent the first African American and first woman to Congress. Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester (D) is a national co-chair of Biden’s campaign and one of four co-chairs of his vice presidential selection committee. Blunt Rochester declined to be interviewed for this article. She also declined last month during a Facebook Live town hall with black women leaders to say whether she thinks Biden should choose a black woman. She said that she was “humbled, I’m honored, I am going to be blunt and I recognize the times that we are living in.”
“I can tell you my own heart and what goes into it for me. We all know we have a lot of qualified black women that are being considered . . . and that needs to be stated up front,” she said during the event hosted by All In Together, a group aimed at increasing civic participation among women. “Ultimately, it’s going to be his decision, but I will carry with me Fannie Lou Hamer, I will carry with me Harriet Tubman, I will carry with me my grandmother Lucille, who was a union leader, and my grandmother Helen Blunt, who raised four kids in the projects of Philly, who was a nurse. I will carry all these people with me, including my 31-year-old daughter.”
Ruby Woolridge, a candidate for an at-large seat on the Arlington, Tex., city council, says that for black women the institutional, financial and social barriers are much harder than glass. She describes it as a “cement ceiling.”
“You’ve got to overcome the culture gap. You got to overcome the experience gap. You’ve got to overcome the ‘You don’t look the part’ gap,” Woolridge said during a recent interview. “It’s not something you can shatter, because it has been cemented and it has set over generations.”
Mosely Braun said political culture is harder on black women. “It’s terrible,” she said, adding that even in political reporting “black women’s candidacies always get relegated to second place. Nobody thinks we’re capable of doing this stuff and the political class resists seeing you coming.” She said she hopes that “all these kids out here marching in the streets are going to help change it.”
Nadia Brown, an associate professor of political science at Purdue University, said black women in politics are “invisible and hyper-visible at the same time.”
“We don’t pay attention to their policy issues, we don’t take them seriously when they say things on the campaign trail or even on the legislative floor,” Brown said. Yet, she adds, “anytime black women are present people feel uncomfortable, intimidated” in ways that they don’t feel toward white women. Black women run up against both racism and sexism in politics, which continues to be dominated by white men, especially in higher office.
Women, who make up more than half of the nation’s population, hold 23.7 percent of the 535 seats in Congress, including 26 percent in the Senate and 23.2 percent in the House, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University’s Eagleton Institute of Politics. Among the nation’s 50 governors, nine are women.
Late congresswoman Geraldine Ferraro (D-N.Y.) became the first woman to be chosen as a vice-presidential nominee in 1984, when Walter Mondale tapped her for the Democratic ticket. The second was former Alaska governor Sarah Palin, who ran with Republican John McCain in 2008.
The only other time a woman appeared on a major party ticket was 2016, when Hillary Clinton a former senator and secretary of state, won the Democratic presidential nomination. Her running mate was Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine (D).
Karine Jean-Pierre, a senior adviser to Biden’s campaign, said that by ruling out a man as his running mate Biden had already shown he was willing to abandon convention.
“This whole process, the vice-presidential process for 2020 for the Democratic nominee has been untraditional. Months ago he said, ‘I am going to pick a woman to be vice president,’ ” Jean-Pierre said in an interview. “I don’t think we’ve ever seen that before, that is untraditional. He did that on his own, he said that before anybody else did. That he made that commitment tells you a lot about his thinking. He understands his ticket needs to representative of the country.”
Karen Finney, a Democratic strategist who helped coordinate an open letter signed by several hundred black women urging Biden to choose a black female running mate, said their statement purposely declared that all of the women under consideration were qualified.
“We were feeling like the way the word was being thrown around, ‘qualifications’ was becoming the new ‘likability,’ ” Finney said, referring to another measure by which the political class tends to judge women. “Voters tend to assume a man is qualified when they enter a race, but women, and particularly women of color, constantly have to credential themselves and remind people of their qualifications.”
People with knowledge of the vice presidential process say that the fact that women like Rice, who has never held elected office, and Bottoms, who has no Washington experience, are being vetted indicates that the campaign is not following the old rule book about what makes a suitable vice president.
Both women have ties to Biden, however, with Rice and Biden having worked closely on foreign policy in the Obama administration and Bottoms stepping out as an early endorser of his campaign.
Finney said Washington credentials might not be as important for Biden, who spent 44 years in the nation’s capital as a senator and second-in-command to Obama. The current administration’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic has severely strained relationships between the federal and local governments. If Biden is elected, a vice president with local or state experience and relationships might prove more helpful to deal with the federal government’s ongoing response to the pandemic, including overseeing the production and distribution of a possible vaccine.
Similarly, ongoing concerns about policing and criminal justice might make someone with experience in those areas more valuable to Biden, who has already drawn criticism and skepticism from some activists who are dismayed that he does not support calls to defund police departments.
“We need to reframe what qualifications — quote, unquote — mean and what he might be looking for,” Finney said.
Aimee Allison, founder of She The People, which seeks to raise the visibility of women of color in politics, said that the black women on the list would excite voters of color and not just because of their race and gender.
The contenders mentioned are “deeply experienced in translating community needs into policy” in areas such as housing, education and public safety. “These are the things that we care about. We have a wealth of experience among the black women being considered as a co-governing partner with Biden,” she said.
People close to Biden said that personal dynamics are a critical component of his decision-making.
“They don’t have to agree with me on everything, but they have to have the same basic approach to how we handle the economy and how we handle everything,” Biden said at a fundraiser in May.
As a senator and former California attorney general, Harris more closely fits the traditional political profile of a potential running mate than some others under consideration.
Although Biden had left the Senate by the time Harris arrived in 2017, he had a friendly, if not deep, relationship with her through his late son Beau, a former attorney general of Delaware. When Harris was attorney general she worked with Beau Biden to negotiate restitution with banks during the 2008 mortgage crisis. Beau Biden died in 2015.
As much as Biden boasts about his relationship with Obama, some note that the two did not start out as tight buddies. Indeed, Biden’s identity as a more experienced white man with blue collar creds was a factor in his selection to run with a younger black man who had only been in Washington less than three years.
Allison and others argue that similarly, Biden needs a running mate who will “help expand the appeal of the ticket and help to strengthen a multiracial coalition of voters that we need to vote in November. You cannot say a white candidate does that.”
Voters are not as adamant about Biden choosing a black female for vice president. A recent Washington Post-Ipsos poll of black Americans found them to be evenly divided on the matter. The poll found that 50 percent said it was very or fairly important for Biden to choose a black woman, while 49 percent said it was not. A black female running mate was more important to black women younger than 40 than those 40 and older.
Woolridge, the Arlington, Tex., city council candidate, said she is excited about the possibility of Biden choosing a black female running mate. She said that it would be an acknowledgment by the party that black women are its most loyal constituency. Black women consistently overperform for Democratic candidates, posting higher turnout rates than any other group during the presidential contests of 2008 and 2012. Although their percentage of the vote dropped in 2016, they still supported Clinton at a higher rate than any other group, with 94 percent casting their ballots for her.
“Courage,” Woolridge said, when asked what she thinks it will take to see a black woman chosen.
“The women are prepared to serve, they have the background and the experience. They need to be given the opportunity,” she added. “There has to be courage on the part of the leadership to not be afraid to make the right decision.”