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Kamala Harris: Breaking Down Barriers, Confronting the Powerful

Sen. Kamala Harris speaks after Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden introduced her as his running mate during a campaign event in Wilmington, Del., Aug. 12, 2020.
Sen. Kamala Harris speaks after Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden introduced her as his running mate during a campaign event in Wilmington, Del., Aug. 12, 2020.

It was one of the dramatic moments of the U.S. Democratic presidential nomination contest.

On a debate stage in June 2019, Kamala Harris, a Black Californian in her first term in the Senate, was directly challenging one of the party's long-standing leaders, former Vice President Joe Biden, about his views on the often-troubled race relations in the United States.

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 β€” although he had often worked as a senator himself in the 1970s and 1980s to oppose school busing to racially desegregate schools. But he later apologized for his comments about his working relationships with Southern segregationist lawmakers.

Now, whatever animosity might have been generated more than a year ago by the debate stage encounter has dissipated. After a lengthy search for a vice presidential running mate, Biden picked the 55-year-old Harris less than three months before the November 3 national election, pitting the two of them against President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence as they seek a second term.

Biden's selection of Harris was a history-making choice in U.S. political annals. Harris is the fourth woman to be on a major party national ticket, but the first African American woman and first Asian American. Her mother was a breast-cancer scientist who emigrated from India and her father an economist who moved to the U.S. from Jamaica.

The three women previously on U.S. national political tickets – two vice presidential candidates and Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton in 2016 – 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 wins and is inaugurated in January 2021, might only serve a single four-year term, instantly making Harris a leading 2024 Democratic presidential contender.

Harris's scripted 2019 debate stage 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 the crowded field of candidates.

But she couldn't maintain her standing in the retail give-and-take politicking of an American presidential campaign and dropped out of the contest in December 2019 for lack of funds to continue her campaign. It was more than a month before voting started in the rural state of Iowa in early 2020.

She had 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 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, 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."

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 he has been 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 of them, as did most Democrats, although both were confirmed by the Senate to life-time 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 employed 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 stage attacks.

But she has worked on politically bipartisan pieces of legislation with Republicans. Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a Trump supporter, said of Harris: "She's hard-nosed. She's smart. She's tough."

Nonetheless, Harris says 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, β€˜Is it a beautiful sonnet?'"

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.

Harris said she was honored to join the senior Biden on the national Democratic ticket, saying on Twitter, "Joe Biden can unify the American people because he's spent his life fighting for us."