Kamala Harris’ name has never been far from the top of the informal rankings that influential Democrats, plugged-in elected officials, and powerful donors have quietly been keeping of Joe Biden’s likely running-mate prospects. But over the last few weeks, as she’s become a leading voice on police reform, the California senator’s position as a favorite has solidified.
Harris has been working with other Democrats on reform legislation that they hope can meet the moment. And just as calls for Biden to choose a Black vice-presidential candidate have multiplied in the wake of the murder of George Floyd and the subsequent protests, his campaign has entered an advanced phase of its selection process. In addition to Harris, the short list appears to include two officials whose prominence has increased in the eyes of many close to Biden as they, too, have responded to the national outcry: Congresswoman Val Demings, a former Orlando police chief calling for reform, and Atlanta mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms. But it’s Harris’ fellow senator Elizabeth Warren who many consider to be closest behind her, thanks in part to her credibility as a messenger on economic issues and her increasingly close relationship with Biden. Meanwhile, Amy Klobuchar — once a favorite — saw her standing tumble amid concerns about her history as district attorney in Minneapolis’ Hennepin County, and she removed herself from consideration this week, telling Biden she thought he should choose a woman of color. Other contenders are still thought to be under consideration, like former Obama administration national security advisor Susan Rice, Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer, New Mexico governor Michelle Lujan Grisham, Illinois senator Tammy Duckworth, and Wisconsin senator Tammy Baldwin.
Biden has long said he’s looking for someone whom he considers ideologically “simpatico” and ready to assume the presidency, but as the political landscape has dramatically shifted, his process has, in some ways, simplified. He’s been leaning further than ever into direct contrasts with Trump, and some influential Democrats close to his team have been urging him to pick someone he trusts to attack Trump directly. Biden has been careful not to send public signals, but people close to him think he came close when he alluded to “this partnership going forward” on a fundraising call with Harris in April. She has recently been rallying her political network to support him, including financially: A fundraiser she hosted for him in early June brought in $3.5 million.
Still, just a few days later, Warren raised $6 million for him, and some in Biden’s campaign operation remain concerned about how Harris’s presidential campaign fell apart publicly and painfully last year. (She’s since trimmed her staff, and Biden recently hired one of her top advisers.) Others, too, often bring up progressive objections to her record as California’s attorney general and San Francisco’s district attorney. But she has been working to assuage those concerns by engaging with activists behind the scenes, to the point where some have changed their tune entirely. “She’s the front-runner,” a New York Democrat close to Biden’s campaign said to me recently. “There’s a lot of people that don’t want her to be it. But what’s the reason not to choose her?” Harris, for her part, doesn’t engage when asked about the VP role, usually demurring to say she just wants Biden to win.
As the spotlight has narrowed, Harris has been elevating her work with a small group of lawmakers like Cory Booker to offer a wide range of law-enforcement reforms. Their Justice in Policing Act proposes a ban on police choke holds, limits on the transfer of military weapons to departments, the establishment of a national registry of police misconduct, and restrictions on qualified immunity for law enforcement. “The status quo’s not working,” Harris tells New York. “Every time we talk about consequence and accountability it seems to be directed at the person who’s been arrested, and not the system.”