“Here’s the truth about racial injustice,” Harris said in a televised speech from the White House, remarkable in part because it gave the vice president nearly equal billing with President Biden. “It is not just a Black America problem or a people of color problem. It is a problem for every American. It is keeping us from fulfilling the promise of liberty and justice for all.”
In the 100 days since Harris cemented herself in the history books merely by taking her oath of office, she has demonstrated some of the characteristics that make her a singular figure on the national political stage — some of the same traits that drew 22,000 cheering supporters to Oakland City Hall two years ago to help start a potentially historic presidential campaign.
She has spoken out about racial injustice and gender inequity, engaged with world leaders and, at Biden’s request, waded into the thorny issue of immigration.
But as Harris has begun to settle into her new role, many who have interacted with her since Jan. 20 — Inauguration Day — and some longtime supporters say the coming months will provide clarity on a question hovering over her tenure: whether the nation’s first non-White female vice president will emerge as the clear heir apparent to lead the Democratic Party and win the presidency in a post-Biden era.
Harris’s initial bid for the presidency withered before a single vote was cast, revealing her as an uneven campaigner who struggled to build a passionate base or stake out a clear ideological profile in a race that hinged on who was best positioned to defeat President Donald Trump.
Now, after watching a White man eke out a relatively narrow electoral college win in 2020, and with Trump considering a comeback, some Democrats worry that a woman of color may face a higher hurdle to becoming president if the formula for winning in key battlegrounds relies in part on White working-class voters.
“Even a lot of Black voters were in favor of having an old White man competing against an old White man,” said Bakari Sellers, a Democratic strategist and informal Harris adviser who stressed that he hasn’t talked with Harris about her political aspirations.
Nonetheless, he added, Harris is well-positioned to make her case in a fast-changing Democratic Party.
“Our party is old, and it’s time for us to allow these new voices some time to breathe,” Sellers said. “And I think Kamala Harris is definitely the leader of the new school.”
For now, those in touch with her say, the best way for Harris to prove her mettle is to simply embrace the job she was elected to do.
“Some people were wondering whether she will be the heir apparent, and I think that’s the wrong consideration,” said the Rev. William Barber, a North Carolina civil rights leader who urged Harris early on to push harder for a $15 minimum wage. “If you want to be an heir apparent, the real issue is if you’re dealing with what’s apparent now.”
Others say Harris has been working to forge closer ties with key outside constituencies who could be helpful should she run a future national campaign, including top labor union officials and groups representing Black women. The day after the inauguration, for instance, Harris addressed the international executive board meeting of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), one of the country’s biggest and most diverse labor groups and a Democratic power broker.
“She’s always been an incredibly strong ally of working people and especially women of color,” said Mary Kay Henry, SEIU’s president. “And she is crystal clear that communities of color, and especially women of color, showed up in record numbers, delivering the election and demanding change.”
This account of how the country’s trailblazing vice president is adjusting to her unusual role is based on interviews with nearly two dozen administration officials, union leaders, mayors and others who have had contact with Harris, many of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. Harris’s office declined to make her available for an interview.
To the extent that Harris has been interviewed — mostly in brief one-on-one exchanges with local television stations nationwide — she has studiously avoided offering any political or personal reflections on her new life.
Aides and insiders point out that Harris and Biden have spent an inordinately large amount of time together as the administration limited early travel because of the coronavirus pandemic. Early on, they were together for sometimes up to five hours a day, aides say. And Biden has made good on his wish to have Harris be the last person in the room when important decisions are made. Harris routinely receives the presidential daily briefing with Biden, and they regularly eat lunch together. Last week, they watched the Chauvin verdict in the president’s private dining room.
“He and I are in almost every meeting together,” she told CNN. “We have made almost every decision together. It is often the case that as I will ask his opinion about things, he will ask my opinion and through that process I think that we arrive at a good place and, of course, he is the president and he makes the final decision.”
Harris got in touch with legislators and mayors nationwide to get their support for the American Rescue Plan, then cast a tiebreaking vote in the Senate to help pass it.
Over the past three months, she has called at least a dozen world leaders, chatting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu about pandemic cooperation and Middle Eastern security issues, with Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison about China, and conversing on a wide range of topics with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
She also has used her historic role to discuss matters that have a greater effect on people of color.
Harris took on one of her first major policy assignments when Biden asked her in March to address the root causes of the rising flow of migration from Central America.
Harris said the conversations she has had with Guatemalan and Mexican leaders, experts and U.S. officials have focused on ways to bolster economic development in affected countries, and in some cases ways to address corruption that would get between potential aid and people in need. On Monday, after Harris met virtually with Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei, her office announced $310 million in aid to that country as well as El Salvador and Honduras, including $255 million in humanitarian relief for refugees and asylum seekers.
By diving deeply into immigration, Harris risks becoming entangled in a politically charged debate as Biden has struggled to contend with a historic surge in illegal crossings that has energized Republican attacks on the new administration, with some in the GOP eagerly seeking to brand Harris the “border czar.”
In the early days, it’s unclear whether she has solved the problems that derailed her presidential campaign. Unlike Biden, who is surrounded by senior staff members who have been working with him for years, some since the 1980s, Harris has struggled to keep aides by her side. Among the senior staff members in her vice-presidential office, only two had worked for her before last year: Rohini Kosoglu, her top domestic policy adviser and her former Senate chief of staff, and Josh Hsu, counsel to the vice president and former Senate deputy chief of staff. Other leaders on her campaign team are scattered throughout the federal government.
Many in touch with Harris, though, say she receives high marks on the thing she needs to do most, which is everything she can to help Biden succeed.
“She would benefit by [Biden’s] success just like Biden benefited from his relationship with Obama,” said House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.), whose endorsement of Biden before the South Carolina primary helped turn around a foundering campaign. “She didn’t get elected on her own. She’s on a ticket with [Biden]. He put her on the ticket. So as he goes, she goes.”
Pushed from the left
An early bit of pressure on Harris came as the administration was urging Congress to pass the $1.9 trillion pandemic relief plan, including fulfilling a pledge to send Americans $1,400 direct payments.
Liberal activists urged the administration to fight harder to pass a $15 minimum wage that was removed from the package.
Barber publicly argued that Harris, the constitutional president of the Senate, could overrule the parliamentarian’s ruling that removed the wage increase. Harris’s ability to control the outcome was not guaranteed, however, as her role in the Senate is largely ceremonial beyond her power to cast tiebreaking votes. But the civil rights leader nonetheless highlighted the hope of many liberals that Harris would be a high-level ally. And although Harris did not attempt to intervene, she did signal her interest in keeping Barber close.
Vincent Evans, a top Harris aide, contacted Barber to say that Harris wanted to “have a direct line of communication” with him, Barber said.
Barber said that there are plans to engage with the administration on issues of poverty, and he noted that he and other activists are pressing the entire administration, not just Harris. Still, he said, she will be judged by her ability to make good on her promises.
“She said on the record in 2019 that if she was elected president, that the issue of poverty and low wealth had to be a major centerpiece of her presidency, and we will continue to hold her to that,” Barber said.
'Remember, you're not alone'
Harris has been outspoken on issues of identity, and several people who’ve spoken with her have heralded her “lived experience” when addressing the concerns of people of color, and of women.
In March, Harris and Biden traveled to Georgia after a man fatally shot eight people, including six women of Asian descent. The mass shooting followed months of rising anti-Asian sentiment that had worried and frustrated the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community and that had been stoked by political leaders, including Trump.
“She obviously spoke about how she herself, as a South Asian woman, is certainly part of the community,” said state Rep. Marvin Lim (D), a Filipino immigrant who was elected to the Georgia House last year. He was part of a group of AAPI leaders who met with Biden and Harris after the mass shooting.
“In fact,” Lim added, “I wrote down what she said: ‘Remember, you’re not alone. Don’t stop what you’re doing, and remind people we represent who they are, that they are not alone.’ ”
Such connections have not been forged only in moments of tragedy, said Melanie Campbell, who heads the Black Women’s Roundtable. She said that under the Trump administration, she felt walled off from decision-makers. But she has had several conversations with Harris’s team during the transition and in the first 100 days.
“What counts is having the [access],” Campbell said. “We’re engaging in the day-to-day conversations, not just the stuff that looks good on television.”
Tyler Pager and Michael Scherer contributed to this report.