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op-ed: “the kamala that i know”

July 5, 2019
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Kamala Harris has surged into a virtual tie with former Vice President Joe Biden in the 2020 President election polling, after an incendiary debate performance which helped the California senator take away a significant amount of Black voter support from Biden. A new Quinnipiac poll shows Biden at 22% and Harris at 20% — well within the margin of error — all based on Biden’s support among the Black electorate dropping (from 48% to 31% and) as Harris’s rising (from 11% to 27%). On the debate stage in Miami last week, Harris was strong, forceful, composed, leader-like, an alpha — and, in her crowning moment, she combined intellect with emotion to land a devastating blow on Biden.

Harris eased into a planned retort to Biden by giving a mini-speech that shared her history as a child of the bussing program which helped integrate America’s public schools. Bussing is an emotional issue for many Black people, representing a moment of progress — when Black kids finally got the chance to go to the best schools within driving distance — but also a moment of pain — because Black parents all saw the lengths that some white people would go to keep their children separated. Harris’s repulsion at Biden having worked with Senators who were staunch segregationists, men who Biden recently complimented, was clear and was powerful. I felt like I could hear people cheering across the country. I cheered because I felt the same outrage at Biden’s words. I cheered when Harris reminded him that sometimes marginalized people need the protection of the federal government, something a privileged lifelong politician may not recall. That moment made me feel like there was someone onstage who was really standing up for Black people. They say politics makes for strange bedfellows, but the business as usual of Senate-floor horse-trading has allowed too many rich old white men to bargain with Black freedom. And Senator Harris, for one, was not standing for it. Yet her comments didn’t feel like a coy political stratagem, because Harris put her young self in the middle of the argument, making her outrage deeply authentic, a rarity from a politician.

That moment sounded like Harris saying, “I’m not the kind of politician that will bargain with people who hold positions I abhor.” The Senate tempts you to do just that, but Harris seems guided by principles, uninterested in bad compromises just so she can go back to her constituents and say, “I did something.” Biden’s goose was cooked as soon as Harris started talking, because her very presence on the debate stage proved the value of bussing, of diversity, and of inclusion. Having a variety of perspectives makes the whole group stronger, and Harris’ personal story gave her the space and power to demand accountability from one of the most powerful white men in the country. Yet I was not surprised to see Harris shining so brightly, because the fearless woman I saw on that debate stage is the one I am familiar with, having known Harris for well over a decade.

Harris is close friends with my daughter’s godmother but the senator and I met back when she was still the District Attorney of San Francisco, over several lunches and dinners in Los Angeles and San Francisco, and on Martha’s Vineyard. I always enjoyed arguing ideas with her because she’s a sharp, passionate debater who’s comfortable trudging deep into an argument she cares about. I loved hearing her talk about her time at Howard University and the joy of being on The Yard, surrounded by an amazing group of young Black people. And I learned a lot from hearing her discuss the law. I’ll never forget her saying, “The law is not here just to protect angels,” as a way of explaining that even if you’ve made mistakes, you still have the right to protection. Some people derive power from the positions they hold and some have a sense of power that emanates from them because of how they carry and express themselves. Harris is someone who seems innately dominant, as though she could take over a room even if no one there knew who she was, because they would be drawn in by her charisma and intelligence, and won over by her warrior spirit. A decade ago, over burgers in Oak Bluffs, it was clear that this lawyer had a serious political future ahead of her. Senator? Governor? We dared not think about her as a potential President because in the years prior to Obama’s election, it was hard to imagine a Black person having a serious chance at winning the Presidency.

Before 2008, most of us thought white people wouldn’t vote for a Black person. But that was a failure of the community’s imagination, because the core of the Democratic party, their most important voting bloc, is Black women. Yes, they are a group often taken for granted by the party, but they are remain a force within it. That was, in part, the basis for Harris rebuking Biden at the debate. I believe her position was honest, it wasn’t a politician feigning outrage to score points, but Biden was the field’s clear leader, enjoying a double-digit margin over everyone else in part because he was supported by over 40% of Black voters. Harris punched him in the nose on an issue that matters to those voters — one that was personal for her as well — and pulled them back. Now the race is changing. Though polls show that Biden remains the leading Democratic candidate among Black voters, his huge lead is gone, and Harris is surging. She has taken away some of the voters who had been attracted to Biden only because he was standing next to Obama’s legacy. Harris was onstage fighting for them and rebuking Biden for being a weak soldier. It may not be much of a stretch to say Black voters will be dispositive for whoever becomes the Democratic nominee, but if voters get to know the Kamala that I know, they may end up liking her a lot.