Revolving door creates questions and complications for Kamala Harris
There’s been a running theme for years in Kamala Harris’s world.
When she was senator, very few people in her office had the institutional knowledge of her time as attorney general in California. And when she was attorney general, there was some overlap but only a small cadre of staffers could contextualize her time as district attorney in San Francisco.
Now, as the vice president’s domestic policy adviser Rohini Kosoglu, one of her closest and longest serving staff members, leaves her office, Harris is facing that problem yet again.
More than 13 high-profile aides have left the vice president’s office, including her director of speechwriting, Meghan Groob, just last week.
The revolving door has made headlines during Harris’s tenure, creating a narrative of instability in the vice president’s office. But some Democrats worry about larger implications, particularly if President Biden chooses not to run for reelection.
Kosoglu’s exit earlier this month was particularly significant because she was one of the few aides who personally knew Harris’s preferences, style and policy expertise.
The Democrats voicing private concerns say they are worried diehard Harris loyalists — the kind of advisers and strategists who stick to their principal through the ups and downs — are virtually nonexistent.
“It’s always been a problem,” said one former Harris aide. “You have to have your people around you.”
A White House official said Harris’s network is large and includes many aides from Harris’s previous roles.
“There are people who have worked for her who are very willing and able to talk to staffers whenever they have questions on her history,” the White House official said.
Those in Harris’s orbit point to Brian Nelson, who advised Harris when she was California’s attorney general and is now the under secretary for terrorism and financial intelligence at the Department of Treasury. Other long-serving aides include Sean Clegg, a strategist on her presidential campaign, and Julie Chavez Rodriguez, who serves as a newly tapped senior adviser to Biden, worked in Harris’s Senate office before serving as her traveling chief of staff on her presidential campaign.
Kosoglu — who left the office on good terms in order to spend time with her family — also is expected to continue to offer institutional knowledge, according to sources familiar with her departure.
“The vice president has a vast network of friends from a long history in politics, and that network is always available to her and has been helpful to her along the way,” said one source close to Harris.
The vice president has sought to steady the ship in recent months, bringing in big-name party veterans including Jamal Simmons, as her communications director, and Lorraine Voles, her new chief of staff who served as a communications director to former Vice President Al Gore and then as an adviser to Hillary Clinton.
Kirsten Allen, who served as deputy national press secretary on Harris’s presidential campaign, was also brought in to be her spokesperson earlier this year after a stint at the Department of Health and Human Services.
Since the shakeup, internal palace intrigue has simmered. And the vice president has earned positive reviews for some of her policy engagement including on abortion rights, where she has quickly become the face of the White House’s fight on the issue.
Harris has also been hitting the road more frequently, traveling to five states in less than two weeks, while making the rounds more on television, doing morning shows, appearing on CBS’s “Face the Nation” and sitting down for one-on-one cable interviews. That’s expected to continue in the coming months when she will play a role in helping Democrats in the midterm elections. As the midterms inch closer, White House aides say she will play an active role in playing up the contrast between Democrats and Republicans.
Still, the lack of consistency with her staff could hamper the vice president’s political prospects, observers say.
“A loyal and competent staff can make or break a political career,” said Katherine Jellison, a professor of history at Ohio University, who pointed to John F. Kennedy’s so-called Irish mafia who followed him from his days on Capitol Hill to the White House. “I agree that the vice president would be standing on firmer ground for the future if she had longtime staffers she could count on for sound advice and necessary action.”
Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University, added that “new presidents often depend on teams of advisers who have been with them, often in their home state, for long periods of time.”
“They know the candidate, they understand their weaknesses and strengths, and they have a kind of personal connection that other professionals lack,” Zelizer said. “It could be that Harris lacks that sort of counsel and as a result this weakens her politically.”
When Harris became vice president, she brought a small group of staffers with her from the Senate including Kosoglu, who served as chief of staff; and Josh Hsu, who served as her deputy chief of staff; and Michelle Solomon, her director of scheduling.
But she mostly surrounded herself with outsiders. Tina Flournoy, who served as former President Bill Clinton’s longtime chief of staff, came over to the White House to become Harris’s top aide. Symone Sanders, a communications adviser for Biden during his 2020 presidential campaign, became her chief spokesperson. Opal Vadhan, who worked for Hillary Clinton, became her personal aide.
When Biden became president, he brought in advisers who have known him for much of his political career. Former President Obama also packed his White House with staffers who worked for him in the Senate and on his 2008 presidential campaign. And when Hillary Clinton became secretary of State, one of her “conditions” in taking the job was that she would bring her own advisers with her, instead of surrounding herself with Obama’s aides.
“The reason they were able to mount successful campaigns was that they had the people and the necessary infrastructure needed to run a presidential campaign because they had relationships with people that went back years, if not decades,” said a second former aide to Harris. “She’s had to hire other people’s people.”
If Harris does end up running for president and becomes the Democratic nominee, strategists say party operatives would help her win. But if she is involved in a primary, they predict it would be tough for her to clear the field.
“Politics is about relationships and the relationships with the people around you,” the second former staffer said. “I think there’s a lot of improvement needed there.
“And it’s a tough problem to fix, because the only solution is time.”