Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) has made history.
Harris is the first Black woman and first South Asian American on a major party’s presidential ticket. The daughter of immigrants, she’s been a US senator repping California since 2017. Before that, she was California’s attorney general, and San Francisco’s district attorney. She was the first woman and first Black person to hold both of those jobs. And she’s known for bringing her skills as a prosecutor to Senate hearings. See: this and this. And before she and Biden were running mates, they were rivals in the 2020 Democratic presidential race.
The Elephant in the Room
She’s gotten some criticism for her time as a prosecutor. As CA’s AG, she defended the death penalty even though she says she’s personally against it. Some say she fought to uphold wrongful convictions that had resulted from official misconduct – including through evidence tampering, false testimony, and suppression of information. She didn’t take a position on a bill that would’ve required her office to investigate fatal police shootings. She also didn't take a position on Prop 47 – which was approved by voters – that reduced some felonies to misdemeanors.
But recently, she's proposed overhauling the criminal justice system to end federal mandatory minimum sentences, the death penalty, solitary confinement, for-profit prisons, and cash bail. She also proposes legalizing weed on the federal level and getting rid of sentencing disparities for crack and powder cocaine offenses – disparities that some see as racially discriminatory.
If Biden and Harris win in November, Harris would make history as the first woman in the number two spot at the White House. But there are other reasons her job as VP would be important. The VP has to be ready to step in if the president dies or resigns. Biden’s doctor says he’s in good shape. But if he wins, he’d be the oldest incoming president in US history – getting sworn in at age 78. At 55, Harris is decades younger and Biden hasn't confirmed he’d pursue a second term, potentially leading the way for Harris to run in his place. Several vice presidents have become president – 14 have gone on to hold the top job. The vice president also serves as a tie-breaker in the Senate, which means a Vice President Harris could have sway over specific policies that go through Congress.
Harris’ main priority this fall – help Biden beat Trump. She’s shown she can pack a punch during debates and many believe she’ll have a strong performance when she faces off against VP Mike Pence for the only vice presidential debate in October. Biden said he wants Harris to be “the last voice in the room” when it comes to major decisions – like he was with President Obama. But no specifics yet on what she’ll oversee exactly.
The 2020 policies
Here’s what we know about Harris’ policies – including from her time running for the Dem nomination.
On abortion...she supports abortion rights. And wants states with a history of restricting abortion to get clearance with the DOJ before passing new abortion laws.
On climate change…she released a $10 trillion plan during the Dem primary to get the US’s greenhouse gas emissions to zero by 2045. She also proposed ending subsidies to fossil fuel companies and setting up a carbon tax. And as a co-sponsor of the Green New Deal, she wants to transition the US to 100% renewable energy sources (think: wind and solar) for electricity within 10 years. Oh, and she also wants back into the 2015 Paris climate deal.
On the economy…As a senator, she pushed the LIFT the Middle Class Act – what she described as the largest tax credits for working Americans in generations. It would offer cash payments to middle-class and lower-income households. Harris reportedly says she’d repeal the 2017 Republican tax law and replace it with LIFT. She wants to fight the racial homeownership gap by investing $100 billion to provide down-payment and closing-cost assistance to homebuyers who rent or live in communities where minorities have historically been denied loans for housing.
On education…she wants to make community college free, four-year public college debt-free, and establish universal pre-K. Through her LIFT Act, she’d like to give an income boost to about one in seven Pell Grant recipients. She also wants to close the teacher pay gap by giving the average public school teacher a $13,500 raise. Harris has proposed a plan that would forgive debts for "Pell Grant recipients who start a business that operates for three years in disadvantaged communities." But some criticized this plan, pointing out that many new businesses fail and might not make it to the three-year mark.
On guns…she says she owns a gun and called it a "false choice" that the only two gun control options are unrestricted access or seizing everyone's guns. She supports what she describes as “common sense” gun safety laws. To her that reportedly includes universal background checks, bans on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, and a so-called “red flag” law to let courts temporarily take guns out of the hands of some people suspected to pose a threat.
On health care…she was one of the first senators to sign onto Sen. Bernie Sanders’ (I-VT) 2017 Medicare for All bill. She’s since backed away from some of the details. On the campaign trail, Harris dropped her own version of Medicare for All, which keeps private insurance in place and would take a decade to phase in.
On immigration...She’s been a big critic of Trump’s record on immigration. Harris called the president’s 2017 travel ban a “Muslim ban” and visited a migrant children's shelter along with other Democrats amid the Trump admin’s policy of separating migrant children from their parents. She pushed for more oversight of migrant detention centers and opposed a deal to provide funding for a border wall. Harris has called for reinstating and expanding the Obama-era DACA program that gave legal status to immigrants brought to the US as children. She would also allow Dreamers to apply for green cards – giving them an eventual path to citizenship.
On LGBTQ+ rights…She’s been a supporter since early in her career. During her 2020 Democratic presidential run, she said she’d create a White House job for a chief advocate for LGBTQ+ affairs. She also pledged to appoint LGBTQ+ people to her cabinet. As a senator, she introduced a bill to have the census ask Americans their sexual orientation and gender identity. Back when she was California’s AG, she refused to defend the state’s Proposition 8 – which banned same-sex marriage – when it was challenged in the Supreme Court. And when the law was overturned in 2013, Harris officiated at California’s first same-sex wedding after the decision.
On national security...She generally sticks with the Democratic Party. Harris has called for slashing the defense budget. She’s pushed for rejoining the Iran nuclear deal. And she’s been a harsh critic of Russian election interference. In the Senate, Harris serves on the Homeland Security Committee, and has said domestic terrorism – including white nationalism – “should be considered a national security priority.”
On racial equality...She’s had an evolution – taking more progressive stances on criminal justice issues in recent years. Harris has praised the Black Lives Matter movement, joined a protest at the White House in the wake of George Floyd’s death, and called for a federal investigation into the police shooting of Breonna Taylor. Harris introduced a police reform bill in the Senate that would ban chokeholds, limit “qualified immunity” for police, create a national registry of police misconduct, and end no-knock warrants. She’s also fought in the Senate to make lynching a federal crime. And her biggest clash with Biden in the Democratic primary was when she confronted him for his past opposition to mandated busing to end school segregation.
Biden had pledged to choose a woman as his running mate in March 2020 and choosing Harris has already made history. But she’s seen by many as a relatively safe choice for Biden. Unlike some of the other VP contenders, she’s already served in a national office, has widespread name recognition, and has run in a presidential campaign. And while she wasn’t the first choice for progressive Democrats, she’s expected to win support from many of them. She’s also already been a major asset in fundraising. And is expected to draw on her skills as a prosecutor to help Biden build a case against the current administration.
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