Kamala Harris: The right choice at the right time
When she introduced herself to the country as a candidate for president last January, Kamala D. Harris bounded onstage before a crowd of 22,000 in her hometown of Oakland, California. The junior senator from California – already among the most powerful black women in elected office in America – would become only the third black woman in the country’s history to seek the Democratic Party’s nomination for the presidency. “We are here knowing that we are at an inflection point in the history of our nation,” she said. “We are here because the American Dream and our democracy are under attack and on the line like never before. I stand before you today, clear-eyed about the fight ahead and what has to be done.”
Now, despite having dropped out of the presidential race, she is poised to become America’s first black vice president as well as its first female vice president.
Harris has a great story to tell. As the daughter of immigrants who came to this country as students and became civil rights activists, she is a woman of diversity at a time when we need diverse voices at the table. Her father was born in Jamaica, her mother in India. Her husband is Jewish. She understands the tapestry of America.
Experience matters, and Harris has it. In just two years in the U.S. Senate, Harris has distinguished herself as a lawmaker and litigator, taking on some of the Trump administration’s most polarizing nominees, including Attorneys General Jeff Sessions and William Barr and Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. During Senate confirmation hearings, she grilled administration nominees, a move that earned her a reputation for “prosecuting” the president.
As a former prosecutor, Harris has her share of critics. Even before she entered the race, a scathing op-ed written by criminal justice restructuring advocate Lara Bazelon criticized Harris’s record as a district attorney, and Harris will have to defend against those attacks. In my view, she should stand tall and proud for having been a defender of law and order. But some of the cases she was involved with during her time as attorney general of California rankled even those in her state. As she herself has said, “I am not perfect.”
Harris will also have to defend comments she made during a presidential debate regarding Joe Biden’s earlier interactions with segregationist senators. “It’s personal and it’s hurtful to hear you talk about the reputations of two United States senators who built their career on the segregation of race in this country,” Harris said, turning to the former vice president and looking him in the eye. “It was not only that, but you also worked with them to oppose busing. There was a little girl in California who was part of the second class to integrate her public schools. And she was bused to school every day. And that little girl was me.”
It was tough stuff, but Joe Biden was wise to get beyond that remark, and elevate Harris to her rightful place on the ticket. One thing is sure — she knows how to debate.
Most importantly, Kamala Harris has a past, a present and a future that will inspire Americans. On the campaign trail, she would often quote her mother, Shyamala, who would tell her as a young girl, “You may be the first to do something, but make sure you’re not the last.” She will pave the way for other women and girls to do great things. And she is a pragmatist. In her political memoir, “The Truths We Hold: An American Journey,” Harris demonstrates that she is ready on day one of a presidency to balance many competing pressures — and she will face hard decisions around the pandemic, the economy and policing, to name a few. What she wrote in the book presages the correct approach, saying she does not believe in “false choices.” This can mean both meaningful workers’ rights and a strong economy, she writes at one point, but she also applies the concept to police accountability and public safety.
“I know how hard it is for the officers’ families, who have to wonder if the person they love will be coming home at the end of each shift,” Harris writes. “I also know this: It is a false choice to suggest you must either be for the police or for police accountability. I am for both. Most people I know are for both. Let’s speak some truth about that, too.”
Let’s speak some truth: Kamala Harris is the right woman at the right time. Her job is to lead. Our job is to vote.
Tara Sonenshine is former U.S. under secretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs and is currently a fellow at George Washington University.