WASHINGTON - Vice President-elect Kamala Harris parlayed a career as a California prosecutor, state attorney general and U.S. senator to the second most powerful job in the United States
Harris will be the first Black woman and first Indian American to be vice president when she and President-elect Joe Biden take the oath of office on Wednesday on the steps of the U.S. Capitol.
Daughter of Indian and Jamaican immigrants
She introduced herself at the Democratic convention as the daughter of Indian and Jamaican immigrants and pledged to work to make America more inclusive after four years of the Trump administration, which she described as highly divisive.
Harris could also play an immediate crucial role in advancing Biden’s legislative agenda. She is set to preside over the U.S. Senate that will be split 50-50 between Democrats and Republicans and would break tie votes in favor of the Democrats.
Harris has said that she and Biden share a “vision of our nation as a beloved community – where all are welcome, no matter what we look like, where we come from, or who we love.”
Early sharp differences
The Biden-Harris ticket was forged despite sharp differences between the two during the Democrats’ 2019 presidential primary election season in debating race relations, the use of busing to integrate schools and Biden’s civil rights record as a U.S. senator from Delaware.
In accepting her party’s vice-presidential nomination after ending her own presidential campaign, Harris asked Americans to join her in fighting racism and xenophobia.
“There is no vaccine for racism. We’ve got to do the work,” she said.
Yet the ensuing presidential campaign was bruising at times for a woman of color who was seeking to make political history. President Donald Trump referred to Harris as a “monster” in an interview in early October, the morning after Harris and Republican Vice President Mike Pence squared off in a nationally televised debate.
Harris refused to respond besides dismissing the president’s comment as “childish,” but it was emblematic of racial and gender barriers that she has had to contend with throughout her political career, according to her allies and minority advocacy groups. Biden responded, calling Trump’s comments “despicable” and “so beneath the office of the presidency.” Since late last summer, heading to the November election, Harris spent her time crisscrossing the U.S. to campaign for the Biden-Harris ticket.
Early rivals for nomination
Harris was not always on the same page as Biden. Before Biden picked her as his running mate, Harris was herself seeking the Democratic presidential nomination.
One of the most dramatic moments of the nominating contest came on a debate stage in June 2019, when Harris directly challenged Biden, one of the party's longstanding leaders, about his views on America’s often-troubled race relations — and his prior work in the U.S. Senate with lawmakers with a segregationist past.
With measured precision, Harris told Biden, two decades her elder, "It was hurtful to hear you talk about the reputations of two United States senators who built their reputations and career on the segregation of race in this country. And it was not only that, but you also worked with them to oppose busing.”
"You know, there was a little girl in California who was part of the second class to integrate her public schools," Harris continued, "and she was bused to school every day. And that little girl was me."
Biden was stunned by the attack and protested that he was only opposed to forced busing mandated by the federal government — although he often had worked as a senator himself in the 1970s and 1980s to oppose school busing to racially desegregate schools. He later apologized for his favorable remembrances about working with Southern segregationists during his early years in the Senate.
Biden’s lengthy search for running mate
Now, whatever animosity might have been generated a year and a half ago on the debate stage has long since dissipated. After a lengthy search for a vice presidential running mate, Biden picked the 56-year-old Harris less than three months before the November 3 national election.
She has consulted regularly with Biden on his numerous appointments to their new administration and often appeared with him as Biden has discussed his plans to ramp up coronavirus vaccinations and boost the flagging U.S. economy.
Biden's selection of Harris was history-making. Harris was the fourth woman to be on a major party national ticket, but the first Black woman and first Asian American. The three women previously on U.S. national political tickets – two vice presidential candidates and Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton in 2016 – all lost. Harris is now poised to become the highest-ranking female U.S. official in the country's 245-year history.
Left-of-center policy views
Harris holds reliably left-of-center views on promoting access to health care in the U.S., banning assault weapons, granting a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, and ensuring workplace equality for women and gay people.
But the progressive wing of the U.S. Democratic Party questioned her background as a tough prosecutor in San Francisco and later as California attorney general before winning a Senate seat in 2016. At one point during her career, she declared, "If you carry an illegal gun in the city of San Francisco and your case is brought to my office, you are going to spend time in jail. Period." Another time, she said, "It is not progressive to be soft on crime."
To some, Harris has seemed to be a political contradiction, saying she would not seek the death penalty for capital punishment crimes in California yet defending the state's death penalty when the statute was challenged. Even so, she brought a new political energy to Biden's run for the presidency, his third over a three-decade span but the first in which he won the party's nomination.
As a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee before resigning her seat on Monday, Harris sparred with Trump administration officials and received media attention for her pointed questions of two of the president’s conservative Supreme Court nominees, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh. During October hearings for a third conservative Supreme Court nominee, Amy Coney Barrett, Harris was more restrained in her questioning at a time when she was both a senator and the vice-presidential nominee.
Opposed Trump’s court picks
Harris voted against all three of the conservative nominees, as did most Democrats, although all were confirmed by the Senate to lifetime appointments to the country's highest court.
The California senator is also remembered for sharply questioning Attorney General William Barr in May 2019, asking him, "Has the president or anyone at the White House ever asked or suggested that you open an investigation of anyone? Yes or no, please, sir." Barr had no immediate answer and she subsequently called for his resignation.
President Trump called her questioning of Barr "nasty," a descriptor he employed again after Biden announced his decision to select Harris as running mate. Trump, who donated to Harris's California campaign for state attorney general several years ago, also called her the "meanest" and "most horrible" and said she had been "disrespectful" to Biden in her 2019 debate stage attacks.
Harris has worked on politically bipartisan pieces of legislation with Republicans. Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a staunch Trump supporter, said of Harris: "She's hard-nosed. She's smart. She's tough."
Harris says she has limits when pursuing legislation grounded in ideology, telling the New York Times a year ago: "Policy has to be relevant. That's my guiding principle: Is it relevant? Not, ‘Is it a beautiful sonnet?'" But she can now be expected to take her cues from whatever legislative initiatives Biden offers.
Harris and Biden first got to know each other several years ago. Harris worked closely with Biden's son, Beau Biden, on issues when the younger Biden and Harris both served as state attorneys general. Beau Biden died of brain cancer at age 46 in May 2015.