More women are running for president than ever. But there’s no one way to do it. This is the first in a series exploring the way that the women candidates in the 2020 race are navigating questions of identity, sexism and public critique.
“I fully intend to win this election” is the kind of line that seems a bit redundant coming from a person running for president.
But when Sen. Kamala Harris said it only a minute or so into her stump speech in Keene, New Hampshire, in late April, it felt like a polite retort to the question of whether she would be “electable” in a head-to-head contest against President Trump. America hasn’t seen too many women run for president, let alone a mixed-race woman, and Harris finds herself dealing with a powerful political irritant: answering the incessant question of whether the nation is ready for a president “like” her.
For months, polls have found that Democratic primary voters value a candidate’s ability to beat Trump regardless of whether they share that candidate’s ideology. And polls have found that former Vice President Joe Biden is perceived as having the best chance to beat Trump, even among those who don’t support Biden’s candidacy. Harris has remained in the top tier of candidates, with strong fundraising and decent small donor contributions, and her standing in the polls has remained steady. Since Trump was elected, though, narratives in the popular media have focused on the idea that Democrats must win back the Obama-Trump voter, giving outsize attention to white, male candidates. In such an environment, Harris’s race and gender are eyed as both a prize — another candidate could try to leverage her identity by naming Harris as his running mate, trying to capture the large number of black and brown women who tend to vote for Democrats — and a liability.
The 2020 race is not the first time that Harris has had to confront the “electability” question. And she’s responding to it now as she ever has: by emphasizing her policy and career bona fides above all else.
Identity is a well-worn line of questioning for Harris, and she sometimes seems to have little patience for overly personal tangents about her personal travails as a mixed-race woman in America.
In a 2017 interview with Harris, David Axelrod, a former adviser to President Barack Obama, interjected as the newly elected senator talked about her decision to become a prosecutor: “I want to get to that and your career in the law, but I just want to hear a little more about your folks and about the sort of cross-cultural upbringing and how that helped shape you,” he said, referring to Harris’s mother, who was Indian, and her father, who is Jamaican. Harris replied:
Well, you know, it’s funny, David. … But in my career, when I was district attorney of San Francisco, attorney general of California and even now as a United States senator, in each position, I was ‘the first.’ And in particular when I was DA and AG, reporters would come up to me and ask me this really original question, put a microphone in front of my face: ‘So what’s it like to be the first woman — fill in the blank, DA, AG. And I’d look at them not knowing how to answer that question, and I would tell them, ‘I really don’t know how to answer that question because, you see, I’ve always been a woman, but I’m sure a man could do the job just as well.’
You can almost see the trademark narrowing of Harris’s eyes in her answer. Her take on the personal as political often manifests itself as a recitation of past accomplishments and future plans rather than a fixation on her autobiography. Harris wants you to know she’s a doer, not a dweller. Her autobiography, “The Truths We Hold,” dispenses with the retelling of her childhood, adolescence and college years in a matter of 24 pages. The book is more the story of a career, albeit a remarkable one. It is very much a vehicle for introducing Harris’s policy thinking and her pristine résumé. Even the affecting words she writes about her mother’s death and legacy are relatively sparse — she pivots rather quickly to the problems of the American health care system, the opioid crisis and racial disparities in patient care.
Longtime friend Debbie Mesloh, who worked with Harris during her time as district attorney and on her Senate campaign, said Harris’s identity as a woman and a woman of color manifests itself most clearly in how she has approached policymaking on the job. “I’ve been with her in rooms where she’s the only person of color advocating policies that look completely different from what everyone else in that room has known,” Mesloh told me. She recalled that one of the first things Harris did when she became San Francisco’s first female district attorney was instruct her team to stop the use of the term “teenage prostitute,” as a way to talk more empathetically about girls who were often victims of human trafficking. (Harris pursued reforms to human trafficking prosecutions during her time as California attorney general.) In May, Harris’s campaign announced a policy proposal for pay parity that would ask companies, rather than individual complainants, to report pay disparities between the genders
“She grew up in this environment where, yes, you’re a woman of color, you’ve had this unique experience — then therefore, what?” Mesloh said. “What is that going to mean for what you say you want to do?”
That Harris doesn’t put her personal experiences front and center runs somewhat counter to the American public’s desire to know as much as possible about the lives of women, famous and otherwise. The how-she-gets-it-done genre is crowded, and some women politicians like U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have used social media to give constituents — and everyone else — glimpses into their everyday lives. Even Hillary Clinton’s campaign started a podcast, presumably as a way to everywoman its extremely famous candidate.
“I’ve spent a lot of time with Kamala,” Jim Stearns, the campaign manager for her two district attorney races, told me, adding that she was a warm presence and “down to earth.” But, he said, “I never knew anything about her private life.” In her first campaign to be district attorney, Harris was running as the first woman of color for the position. “She usually frames things within issues, so it’s not necessarily about herself,” Stearns said. The campaign manager for her attorney general races, Brian Brokaw, said much the same thing. “Her identity is her identity, but that’s not how she runs,” he said. “She wants to be judged for what she believes in and what she’s done.”
The “electability” question that Harris now faces — a dubiously framed debate in the eyes of some — is also one that dogged her in her early California races. Brokaw said that during Harris’s 2010 attorney general campaign, skepticism around her candidacy came even from friendly corners. “I remember having a conversation with someone I won’t name, but at the time, he was a prominent state legislator, and he said, ‘I like Harris, I think she’s a great DA, and she’s got a bright future, but I don’t think she can win because I agree with her too much.’ And the point he was making was as a progressive himself, there was no way that someone who was a black woman from San Francisco with a progressive record could win a job in California that had been held entirely by white men for the history of the state of California.” Harris would go on to beat Republican Steve Cooley in a close race, but only after Cooley declared victory on election night. He conceded weeks later.
In Harris’s current race, her foil is the front-runner, Biden. He hadn’t yet gotten into the race when I saw Harris in New Hampshire, but his smiling face was on the cover of Time magazine when I popped into a drugstore. Harris has chafed against Biden’s pitch that he can win back so-called Obama-Trump voters. “There has been a conversation by pundits about ‘electability’ and ‘who can speak to the Midwest,’” she told a crowd at an NAACP event in Detroit recently. “But when they say that, they usually put the Midwest in a simplistic box and a narrow narrative. And too often, their definition of the Midwest leaves people out. It leaves out people in this room who helped build cities like Detroit. It leaves out working women who are on their feet all day, many of them working without equal pay.”
Harris’s path to the White House hinges on her ability to increase turnout of core Democratic constituencies in places lost by Democrats in 2016. Black turnout fell across the board in the last presidential election, including in key areas of “blue wall” states like Michigan with high black populations. That Harris is a mixed-race woman could, allies argue, be her greatest electoral strength, not a weakness. “This moment in time when we really see, especially within the Democratic Party, people looking at and seeing the power of black women,” Mesloh said, “has probably been the first time that there’s really been that recognition.”
In Keene, people seemed cautiously optimistic about Harris. Donna Doherty told me that she agreed with everything Harris had to say. “My only fear is that I think some people in our country aren’t ready to vote for a woman,” she said. Doherty’s friend, Sandy Thibodeau, was similarly complimentary: “She speaks very well, she’s very calm. A woman, unfortunately, needs to be.”
While Harris spoke, I found myself at pains to notice how voters reacted to her. People tended to call her “Kamala” rather than “senator” when they addressed her, but I couldn’t detect much else that was radically different from any other event in a far-too-long presidential campaign. At one point, in the middle of her stumping, I caught sight of Harris’s husband, Douglas Emhoff, who had slipped into the back of the crowd. He shook his head in disbelief as she called out some gun control policies as too lax in one part of the speech and then looked around to see how others had reacted. For a moment, I was struck by how strange it must be to see a room full of people size up your spouse. And watching us — voters, journalists — watch her seemed as apt a metaphor as any for modern “electability” politics, 2020 included. The chief concern seems not to be personal belief, but concern for the personal beliefs of others: “some people in our country aren’t ready to vote for a woman”; “I don’t think she can win because I agree with her too much.”
Harris, for one, seemed confident when she stopped to say hello to a little old lady on the way out of the event: “It’s not going to be easy, but we’re going to win.”
From ABC News: