Kamala Harris has faced down violent suspects as a prosecutor in criminal trials and sharply questioned Supreme Court nominees in contentious hearings as a U.S. senator from California.
But she is on an even bigger stage Wednesday night as she accepts the Democratic nomination to be the vice presidential running mate of former Vice President Joe Biden in the Nov. 3 national election against the Republican ticket of President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence.
She is speaking from Biden’s home state of Delaware to the virtual Democratic National Convention but more broadly to a national television audience that may not have seen her before.
Harris, 55, is the fourth woman to be on a major U.S. party national ticket, but the first Black woman and first South Asian American. Her mother was a breast cancer scientist who emigrated from India. She died in 2009. Harris’s father, an economist, moved to the U.S. from Jamaica.
As such, Harris is part of a demographic subset in the U.S. About 6.2 million U.S. adults— 2.4% of the country’s adult population — identify as part of two or more races, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of 2018 U.S. Census Bureau data. Of these Americans, 2% are Black and Asian American, like Harris.
The three women previously on U.S. national political tickets — two vice presidential candidates, and 2016 Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton — all lost. If the Biden-Harris ticket wins, Harris would become the highest-ranking female U.S. official in the country’s 244-year history.
U.S. political analysts are assuming Biden, who would be 78 if he is inaugurated in January 2021, might serve a single, four-year term, instantly making Harris a leading 2024 Democratic presidential contender.
Harris sought the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination but dropped out of the contest before voting started in February due to a lack of campaign funding.
Tough debater, interrogator
But on the debate stage in June 2019, she played a role in one of the dramatic moments of the Democratic presidential nominating contest.
Harris, a first-term senator, directly challenged Biden about his views on race relations in the United States.
With measured precision, Harris told Biden, “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.”
Biden was stunned by the attack and protested that he was only opposed to forced busing mandated by the federal government — although as a senator, he often worked in the 1970s and 1980s to oppose school busing to desegregate schools. He later apologized for his comments about his working relationships with Southern segregationist lawmakers.
Whatever animosity might have been generated by that encounter has dissipated. After a lengthy search for a running mate, Biden picked Harris last week, less than three months before the election. She will debate Pence in early October, while Biden and Trump hold three debates starting in late September.
Harris’s scripted 2019 debate encounter with Biden was perhaps the high point of her run for the Democratic presidential nomination. Soon after, her standing in national political surveys edged higher in what was then a crowded field of candidates.
But she could not maintain her standing in the retail give-and-take politicking of an American presidential campaign and dropped out of the contest in December 2019.
She struggled to define her candidacy, sometimes telling voters their concerns merited further thought on her part but offering no immediate answers. Harris holds reliably left-of-center views on promoting health care advances in the U.S., a ban on assault weapons, citizenship for undocumented immigrants, and workplace equity for women and gays.
But the progressive wing of the 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, Harris 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.”
Yet to some, she 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 state’s statute was challenged.
Even so, she is likely to bring new political energy to Biden’s run for the presidency, his third over a three-decade span, but the first time as the party’s nominee.
As a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Harris has sparred with Trump administration officials and pointedly questioned the president’s two conservative Supreme Court nominees, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh. She voted against both men, as did most Democrats, although both were confirmed by the Senate to lifetime appointments to the country’s highest court.
She sharply questioned Attorney General William Barr, 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, to no avail.
Trump called her questioning of Barr “nasty,” a descriptive he used again to describe her after Biden made known he had asked her to join him as his 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 attacks.
But Harris has worked on politically bipartisan pieces of legislation with Republicans. Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a Trump supporter, said of Harris, "She's hard-nosed. She's smart. She's tough.”
Nonetheless, Harris said she has her limits on the pursuit of idealistic legislation, 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?’ ”
Harris and Biden first got to know each other several years ago. She worked closely with Biden’s son Beau on issues when the younger Biden and Harris both served as state attorneys general. Beau Biden died of brain cancer at age 46 in 2015.
Harris said she was honored to join the former vice president on the national Democratic ticket, saying on Twitter, “Joe Biden can unify the American people because he’s spent his life fighting for us.”