Kamala D. Harris makes history. What will she do with it?

(Illustration by Nneka Jones for The Washington Post) By Chelsea Janes-JANUARY 13, 2021   

The 48 men who have served as vice president of the United States constitute a monochromatic collection whose diversity could generously be defined as whether someone wore a bow tie or a regular tie, had a mustache or a beard, was balding or merely on the verge.

As the nation spent 2½ centuries growing increasingly multicultural, its leaders remained startlingly homogeneous, resembling a smaller and smaller slice of its population. When Kamala D. Harris raises her hand on the steps of the Capitol on Jan. 20, all that will change.

The Black daughter of a Jamaican father and Indian mother, alumna of Howard University and California-bred former prosecutor will walk into history as no one has before. She is, to her supporters, the long-awaited torchbearer for centuries of women, people of color, and others whose ambitions were denied and who never saw themselves reflected in the nation’s leadership before — a woman who will break a ceiling that once seemed out of reach.

But what substance will emerge from the breakthrough is not yet clear, for absent a few issues, Harris has become better known for what she is against than specifics about where her passions lie.

Had any number of former presidential candidates been named next-in-line by Joe Biden, they would have done so with their political canvas more filled in, the portrait more familiar. But Harris arrives as a work-in-progress, her time in Washington so short and so fluid that the paint has yet to dry.Kamala Harris is at left in January 1970 with sister Maya and mother Shyamala Gopalan. Throughout her career, Harris has spoken of her mother’s profound influence. (Kamala Harris campaign/AP)

Harris, 56, has yet to offer any grand vision of what kind of vice president she hopes to be, although few vice presidents have by Inauguration Day. In her dozen or so appearances since the ticket declared victory, Harris has praised Biden, lauded his nominees, assured the American people that change is coming and outlined the urgent crises facing the country. Her social media feed, never exactly uninhibited, is now an even more carefully curated thread of lines from speeches and supportive platitudes. She has been a dutiful partner, making little news and no public waves.

People familiar with her role in the transition say that loyalty is Harris’s primary goal. Biden has also made clear in multiple interviews since the election that he wants to empower Harris to take the lead on certain issues when his plate is full. Harris, meanwhile, has avoided outlining any priorities for herself.

The most consistent through line of her political career has been a commitment to opening the doors of American leadership to more people like her.

When she arrived in the Senate in 2017, Harris told her tiny team that she wanted her staff to “look like California,” according to two former Senate aides who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations. As the only Black woman in the Senate, Harris has lifted women, particularly women of color, of historically Black colleges and universities, and others to senior staff positions. She did the same on her presidential campaign.Harris, shown in 2004, began her career as a prosecutor in the Bay Area. She launched, and won, a gutsy first bid for elective office against her former boss for the job of San Francisco district attorney. (Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP)

As the transition team assembled her vice-presidential staff, Harris was “unapologetic about making sure people had a chance to serve,” said Minyon Moore, who has managed Harris’s transition. Moore said Harris cast a wide net in her search for staff members and asked key questions in dozens of Zoom interviews — including what she should be looking at as vice president.

Ultimately, she chose a chief of staff, communications director, press secretary, and head of policy who are all women of color.

People familiar with the inner workings of the transition say Biden has been adamant about Harris being the last voice he hears on issues — to, as Moore put it, an “exacting” extent. She also said — while declining to share details — that while Harris did often agree with Biden about a candidate or issue, she has not been shy about speaking up when she doesn’t.

“She has got a different voice, a voice of gravitas, a complete and rounded voice,” Moore said. “She has not shied away from her voice and [Biden] has not shied away from her opinion.

But Harris is not expected to spend four years hovering politely in the background. As the partner to a 78-year-old president, she is the heir apparent in the Democratic Party — a party whose heir was so unapparent a little over a year ago that two dozen people ran in its presidential primary.

Yet even in that wide-open race, Harris found it hard to craft a unique brand. She began the primary as an on-paper favorite, drew one of its biggest crowds to her campaign launch in Oakland, Calif., then foundered so profoundly that she dropped out of the race before any votes were cast. She could not dislodge Biden as the voice of Democrats hunting for practicality and normalcy. She did not have the progressive track record to pry away loyalists to Sens. Bernie Sanders of Vermont or Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, and she did not foster the newcomer zing of then-South Bend., Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg.

Although she climbed her way through the bruising world of California politics over the course of a decade, Harris did not emerge as a Washington presence until she arrived in the Senate in 2017. She spent little time there before contemplating a presidential campaign; by late 2018, she had written a memoir scheduled to publish right around the time Democrats, including her, would be starting to announce their candidacies for president.

By that point, she had made a national name for herself by channeling her prosecutorial background into pointed interrogations of some of President Trump’s appointees, becoming one of the faces of the Trump resistance.

Her questions in high-profile Senate hearings flustered attorney general nominee Jeff Sessions, stumped Supreme Court nominee Brett M. Kavanaugh and left another attorney general nominee, William P. Barr, stumbling for words.

That reality, which cost Harris an opportunity to fight for what mattered to her, has left her priorities far from clear.

On the surface, what Harris symbolizes to an increasingly diverse party has been obvious: She is a woman of color who tugged at a historic desire for representation, brought a lengthy résumé from the nation’s most populous Democratic state, and has held her own against the Trump administration. To her supporters, she is a symbol for equity and empowerment for a party that has long sought both.

But, as her campaign strategists learned the hard way, Harris is not easily summed up in a pithy slogan. Her work in the criminal justice system, which had been beneficial during her rise in California, put her askance the social justice advocates gaining power in the national party. She has projected a political persona that is more practical than ideological in a party lurching to the left. The combination proved a tough sell in a field full of presidential candidates with firm ideological moorings, encyclopedic plans and résumés the length of dissertations.

TOP: Harris, with fellow Democratic Sens. Chris Murphy (Conn.) and Maria Cantwell (Wash.), did not emerge as a Washington presence until arriving in the Senate in 2017. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post) BOTTOM LEFT: Harris questions Attorney General William P. Barr as he testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee in May 2019. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post) BOTTOM RIGHT: Journalists question the senator as she heads to a vote in the Senate Chamber in August 2017. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

Early in the primary, the issue of health insurance emerged to define Harris’s sometimes fluid positioning. Warren and Sanders supported Medicare-for-all and the resulting end of private health insurance — which aligned them with the more liberal wing of the party and showed a willingness to stiff-arm corporate America.

Others, like Biden and Buttigieg, argued for adding more government-run insurance options alongside existing private plans, a more incremental approach that signaled moderation.

Harris, meanwhile, found herself stuck in between. She spent the early months of the primary race advocating Medicare-for-all as an early signatory of Sanders’s landmark bill. But as the months went on, she seemed to tiptoe around the role of private insurance.

In an interview with The Washington Post in the back of a bus rolling through Iowa a few months before she dropped out of the primary race, Harris admitted she had always been “uncomfortable” with the idea of abolishing private insurance, despite endorsing a plan that did just that. She eventually drafted a plan of her own that would expand government-run plans while allowing private plans to continue for a longer period.

“One of the problems with our politics is that it often demands 60-second sound bites or slogans to answer complex questions,” Harris wrote in a post announcing her new plan.

Her quest for nuance drew criticism from some Democrats but was in keeping with Harris’s career-long approach.

“She’s pretty much a fundamentally pragmatic person . . . always asking about: ‘What is the real impact this is going to have on people’s lives?’ ” Jill Habig, who served as an adviser to Harris’s attorney general’s office and Senate campaign, said in a 2019 interview with The Post. “But in terms of the methodology of how you get to that goal, she’s not very ideological. Her approach is pretty much: ‘What’s going to be most effective? What’s going to get us there?’ ”

TOP: Harris gives her first news conference as California’s attorney general-elect in Los Angeles on Nov. 30, 2010. She was the first woman of color to serve in that position. (Damian Dovarganes/AP) BOTTOM LEFT: California Highway Patrol Commissioner Joe Farrow and Harris place a wreath honoring CHP officers killed in the line of duty at a memorial in West Sacramento, on May 7, 2013. (Rich Pedroncelli/AP) BOTTOM RIGHT: The attorney general officiates the wedding of Kris Perry, left, and Sandy Stier, second from left, in San Francisco on June 28, 2013, after a federal appeals court cleared the way for the state of California to resume issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples after a years-long freeze. (Jeff Chiu/AP)

Harris began her career as a relatively liberal prosecutor in the Bay Area, one who launched a gutsy first bid for elective office against her former boss, a rough-and-tumble incumbent named Terence Hallinan, for the job of San Francisco district attorney. She won, taking a high-profile stand against capital punishment in the process.

Her convictions were tested almost immediately when a man fatally shot a San Francisco police officer and many of the state’s highest-profile officials pressured her to pursue the death penalty. At the officer’s funeral, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) declared his death “the special circumstance called for by the death penalty law.” The crowd stood and cheered.

Harris didn’t budge. She was similarly steadfast in her support of same-sex marriage, as well as a far less popular anti-truancy policy as district attorney that she eventually implemented statewide.

But many racial justice activists felt Harris did not take advantage of her groundbreaking role as the first woman of color to serve as attorney general of California. They assert that when Harris had unprecedented power, she did not push hard enough to overhaul a criminal justice system long tougher on racial minorities.

Some said they felt Harris was trying to have it both ways — pushing for change only when it was politically expedient. While she was a prosecutor, Harris opposed legalization of marijuana and argued for higher bail fees as a deterrent to crime in San Francisco. Harris is now a staunch opponent of cash bail, arguing that it penalizes the poor, and a prominent advocate of legalization, which has grown more politically popular since her prosecutor days.

Former California governor Jerry Brown (D), who also served as attorney general, sees Harris’s California experience as a positive for her vice-presidential tenure, in that it exposed her to a variety of issues that she will probably have to confront in her new job.

“The key point for me with Kamala is, she has wide experience. She’s encountered a range of personalities and topics and that makes her very well prepared to assist the president,” said Brown, who swore Harris in as San Francisco’s district attorney.

“I think she is someone who could carry important responsibilities in a diverse and troubled world.”

Harris will almost certainly be scrutinized more than most of the men who preceded her.

She carries the weight of being the first, the promise and peril of being different. She will be dodging the vitriol of those seeking to derail her future ambitions, while shouldering the expectations of those who hope for her to rise even higher.

“She knows her shoulders have to be wide and strong because we’re standing on her shoulders,” Rep. Brenda Lawrence (D-Mich.), a member of the Congressional Black Caucus, said after Harris was named to the ticket. “We’re so proud of her. And she knows we can have her back. And she has quite a task in front of her.”

Harris goes out of her way to speak the names and ideas of those who came before her — not the generations of men who reached the vice presidency, but the generations of women who fought so someone like her could join them some day.

Her biggest role model is her late mother, Shyamala Gopalan, an Indian immigrant, civil rights activist and breast cancer researcher who raised two daughters mostly by herself. During her presidential campaign and in the months since she was added to the Democratic ticket, Harris has spoken of her mother as much as Trump or Biden or anyone else, most often to share a piece of advice Gopalan drilled into her as a child.

It was, as Harris has recited over and over, Gopalan’s insistence that “you may be the first to do many things, but make sure you’re not the last.” So much of the pressure on Harris now — to ensure that she stands out for substantive accomplishments that pave the way for others — is pressure she says she has felt before.

“If she puts any pressure on herself, it is the pressure that she does not want to be the last,” said Moore, one of the first Black women to break into the upper echelons of Democratic politics. “You’re always thinking about how you can make sure that door stays open to someone else. You don’t want the doors to close behind you, because they would really never open if they do.”Harris greets supporters at the Chase Center in Wilmington, Del., on the night of Nov. 7 in her first public appearance as vice president-elect. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

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