The curious case of Kamala and the black vote

The curious case of Kamala and the black vote
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Depending on how you look at it, this past weekend was either the start of the latest major step forward for African-Americans in politics or ground zero of a really complicated open conversation within the African-American community that will play out over the next 18 months. Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisHarris slams DOJ decision not to charge police in Eric Garner's death Harris vows to 'put people over profit' in prescription drug plan The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by JUUL Labs - House to vote to condemn Trump tweet MORE (D-Calif.) announced her run as she attempts to become the first African-American woman to win a major party nomination and, of course, the presidency. By some measures, with the likes of Joe BidenJoe BidenBiden jokes he's ready for a push-up competition with Trump Biden says his presidency is not 'a third term of Obama' Biden knocks Trump on tweets about 'smart as hell' Ocasio-Cortez MORE and Beto O’Rourke undecided, she enters the race in the pole position as the frontrunner in the 2020 Democratic field.

Against the backdrop of her major announcement, there was a simmering debate that caught momentum on “black Twitter” now ready to go fully mainstream about Sen. Harris’ viability and vulnerability in the African-American community.

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Depending on who you ask, her relationship with African-American voters will either be the differentiator that puts her over the top or the Achilles heel that holds her back.

On the surface, the dynamic, fresh-faced former California attorney general would appear to be as well positioned as anyone to leverage the African-American vote to buoy her through a suddenly more diverse primary season. But with Sen. Harris, it’s complicated.

She’s an HBCU (hHistorically black colleges and universities) black grad, daughter of Jamaican and Indian immigrants and a native of Oakland, Calif. And she embodies the most significant opportunity in history for an African-American woman to occupy the Oval Office.

But her record as a prosecutor and attorney general are already proving to not only challenge her progressive bonafides but also her appeal to the African-American community.

There’s already been several think pieces written about her decisions in her prior career including her efforts block the release of non-violent offenders and her threats to enforce a one-year prison sentence for parents whose children were truant. These types of policies obviously appear to have an overwhelmingly negative impact on low-income families which are likely to be disproportionately African-American and Hispanic.

In her launch, Harris attempted to skillfully lean into her record as prosecutor under the frame that she has only represented “the people” in her career as a prosecutor and attorney general. But in today’s environment, with the sting of distrust of law enforcement still reverberating through the African-American community and the influence of “Black Lives Matter” still resonant, Sen. Harris undoubtedly faces an uphill climb to reframe this part of her professional legacy. It’s already seeping into how African-American influencers, particularly those online, are discussing the Harris candidacy. There was even a robust discussion about her decision to blast music from R&B legend Mary J. Blige at her rally and implications about pandering to black voters.

Too often, African-American voters are viewed through a monolithic lens. All black voters are not alike — repeat after me — all black voters are not alike. We all process this information about Sen. Harris’ record and the other candidates in the field differently. It would be unwise, at this point, to say that African-Americans will unilaterally penalize Harris or forgive her. There’s a reasonable case to be made in either direction.

From experience, here’s what I know about the need to appeal to voters, especially African-American voters: fill the vacuum or others will fill it for you. In 2016, Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonWhy Trump's bigoted tropes won't work in 2020 The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by JUUL Labs - House to vote to condemn Trump tweet GOP put on the back foot by Trump's race storm MORE had similar questions about her record and its impact in the African-American community, specifically related to the crime bill in the mid-1990s that she and her husband spearheaded.

In the primaries, there was an effective effort to re-credential Secretary Clinton with visible African-American validators. In particular, support from the mothers of victims like police-involved shootings like Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis and survivors of the Mother Emanuel AME church shooting in Charleston, South Carolina, helped catapult Clinton to victory in the South Carolina primary at a time when Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersWarren embraces Thiel label: 'Good' Sanders slams decision not to charge officer who killed Eric Garner Cardi B says voters let Bernie Sanders down MORE was surging.

In the general election, however, Clinton was not able to recapture that same momentum from the primaries. The direct appeals to the African-American communities could have been stronger and the anticipated enthusiasm gap from the post-Obama hangover proved to be a real challenge.

Sen. Harris’ challenge here is slightly different. She’s not a known quantity to Democratic primary voters like Hillary Clinton. A recent CNN favorability poll showed that nearly 6 in 10 non-white voters nationwide either did not know enough or had no opinion about Sen. Harris. That’s a reality that should both embolden and worry the nascent Harris campaign. There’s a lot of opportunity to educate the public about her values but also ample space for rivals in the Democratic field to drive up her negatives.

It’s no accident that of the first stops of her campaign launch tour included a visit to her alma mater Howard University, a mega-rally in Oakland, Calif. and a visit to South Carolina, which is expected to be her firewall in the primary season. Harris will need to identify validators who can contextualize her record and vouch for her values related to the relationship between African-Americans and law enforcement.

The resolution of how the “African-Americans and Kamala” narrative plays out in the coming months could very well be the critical question to answer to unlock the 2020 Democratic primary field. One could argue that the direction of the entire field depends very heavily on how Harris and her campaign manage the questions about her past life as the “people’s prosecutor.”

Joel Payne is a former Hillary for America senior aide and vice president of Corporate communications, MWWPR, which is a public relations firm.