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For Kamala Harris, being first means attention and attacks

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 1/13/2021 Amy B Wang
Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.), who dropped out the presidential race in December, recently endorsed Biden. © Melina Mara/The Washington Post Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.), who dropped out the presidential race in December, recently endorsed Biden.

Nevada state Sen. Pat Spearman can still remember the thrill she felt when she realized there was someone like Kamala D. Harris running for president. Spearman was struck by how much Harris’s background mirrored hers, a reflection she had never before seen in her own political career. They had both attended historically Black colleges and pledged Alpha Kappa Alpha, the oldest Black sorority, whose members form a tightknit network. In Harris’s ascent from prosecutor to attorney general of California to the Senate, Spearman saw a star in the making.

“I could see so much of what I had been through in what she had gone through,” said Spearman, who would go on to be one of Harris’s earliest endorsers.

The firsts that Harris’s candidacy promised electrified her most passionate supporters in the Democratic primary, especially those who dubbed themselves part of the “KHive.” And though her own bid for the White House ended early, some of the same energy carried through after former vice president Joe Biden chose her as his running mate. When she is sworn in, Harris will become the first female vice president and, as the daughter of Jamaican and Indian immigrants, also the first Black and first South Asian one.

But if Harris’s background has provided exponentially more ways for her to resonate with Americans, it also has multiplied the amount of criticism she receives. Harris has waved off talk of any future campaigns, including laughing off the prospect of facingPresident Trump again in 2024. However, the acclaim, criticisms and attacks she faced in the primary and general elections shine a light on how Harris could become a central focus during the Biden presidency.

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Harris’s pivot away from Medicare-for-all in the middle of the primary drew criticism from the party’s far left. Activists and younger Black voters scrutinized her career as a prosecutor and later as attorney general. Harris has said she was motivated to reform the criminal justice system from the inside, but to this day, her tweets are often followed by people deriding her as a “cop.”

Other criticisms from Democratic voters and analysts were subtler. Often, it was insinuated that Harris, a first-term senator, didn’t have the requisite experience to be president, despite the bigger deficit among some of the other primary candidates — not to mention Trump before he was elected.

Spearman saw it as the same bias against women of color that she had faced in her own political career.

[The Black women who paved the way]

“The fact that she was a Black woman, how people would kind of skirt around the edges, but you know what they were saying,” Spearman said. “You know that they would never do a man like that and they would never do a White man like that.”

Trump and the GOP’s attacks on Harris have been blunter and serve as a road map for criticisms Harris is likely to face as vice president.

During the general election, Trump called Harris a “monster.” He tried to paint her as someone who was to the left of even Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and who would supplant Biden at the first possible chance.

Almost worse, Trump suggested: Harris was a woman.

Ben Sasse, Kamala Harris are posing for a picture: Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) and Harris speak during Brett M. Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Sept. 5, 2018. © Melina Mara/The Washington Post Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) and Harris speak during Brett M. Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Sept. 5, 2018.

“We’re not going to have a socialist president — especially a female socialist president,” Trump said at one rally. “We’re not gonna have it. We’re not gonna put up with it!”

At another rally, Trump played on gender and racial stereotypes about angry Black women to mock Harris laughing in an interview.

“Kamala. Kamala. You know, if you don’t pronounce her name exactly right, she gets very angry at you,” Trump said, mispronouncing her name. “And then she starts — you know what she does when she gets angry? She starts laughing. . . . Uncontrollable laughs. That means she’s angry.”

A Harris aide said the insults from Trump were not surprising, given his history of mocking people, especially women of color, whom he opposes.

“For her, it just sort of rolls right off. She does not pay attention. It does not get her down,” said Harris spokeswoman Sabrina Singh.

It was not just Trump who seemed to constantly intentionally mispronounce Harris’s first name, which is of Hindi origin, as if to cast her as outside the American norm. At a Trump rally in October, then-Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.) said dismissively: “Ka-ma-la, Ka-ma-la, Kamala-mala-mala, I don’t know, whatever.” Though Perdue waved off the incident as one without ill intent, others saw it as a racial dog whistle.

Other attacks on Harris have come from much darker corners of the Internet — and have been readily picked up and disseminated by right-wing media outlets and conservative pundits. (The Washington Post traced the evolution of one such sexist attack.) Early in the primary, a small group of activists questioned Harris’s Black identity because her father immigrated from Jamaica. The charge was amplified by right-wing trolls, and then retweeted by Trump’s eldest son.

During the primary, one perennial far-right troll attempted to call into question Harris’s eligibility to run for president because of her parents’ immigrant status. After Biden chose her as his running mate, Trump questioned her citizenship, bringing it upas a rumor he had heard, which was swiftly condemned by Democrats and even some Republicans as a smear attempt.

“Trump coming in gave a shield, I think, to his party to sort of exhibit bad behavior,” a transition aide said of the mockery and smears that emerged from Republicans during the race. “He’s enabled people to be nasty, and unfortunately, I think people [in his base] respond to that nastiness.”

The aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss future elections, did not expect that to abate even after Trump leaves the White House.

“I would like to think it does. I don’t think it actually does, though,” the aide said. “Unless Donald Trump himself changes his behavior, he’s going to continue to allow Republicans and the Republican Party — he’s going to give them cover to do this.”

With Democrats winning both Senate seats in Georgia, Harris will be the one to cast any tie-breaking votes, putting her at odds with her former Republican colleagues in an already polarized Senate. (Several senators objected to the certification of Biden’s win.)

Several Republicans are already positioning themselves for presidential runs in 2024, starting by challenging the legitimacy of the November election to align themselves with Trump, who has continued to spread baseless conspiracy theories about voter fraud and whose political future is unclear.

Mike Pence sitting on a stage in front of a television: Harris and Vice President Pence square off in the vice-presidential debate on Oct. 7. © Melina Mara/The Washington Post Harris and Vice President Pence square off in the vice-presidential debate on Oct. 7.

Susan MacManus, a political analyst and professor emerita at the University of South Florida, said she would expect more Republican efforts to paint Harris as a far-left socialist, in part to avoid overt attacks on race and gender as both parties fight for an increasingly engaged female, Latino and Asian American electorate. Harris also just so happens to be from the state conservatives love to caricature for its liberal politics.

“When Republicans talk about the most dysfunctional state government and the most [ideologically] ‘out there,’ so to speak, California is at the top of the list, followed by New York,” MacManus said. “That’s the perception.”

That will only sharpen if Harris looks to be a candidate in 2024. Biden aides have signaled he plans to run for a second term, but that has not stopped the chatter about 2024 Democratic hopefuls. (Biden would be 82 years old at the end of his first term.) The portfolio Harris takes on during her tenure as vice president will illuminate which areas she is trying to strengthen in preparation for a future run, said Kathryn Dunn Tenpas, a senior fellow of governance studies at the Brookings Institution.

And Biden, a former vice president himself, will likely be willing to support those future ambitions.

“I suspect because of Biden’s age, the fact that he’s been in government for so many years and because Biden cares a lot about the Democratic Party, that I think he will do what he can to empower her,” Dunn Tenpas said. “ . . . I don’t think they need to tell her not to overshadow Biden. A vice president has a pretty tough time overshadowing a president.”

Some Harris allies are already factoring her future career into the question of what she will face as vice president.

Derrick Johnson, president of the NAACP, said he wasn’t keen on the idea of Harris being tasked with overseeing police reform issues, believing that doing so could diminish her role and hobble her advancement by casting her into a racially charged position. He would like to see her given a far broader portfolio of responsibilities.

As an outgoing senator, “she understands the protocols of the Senate and the policies that fall there,” Johnson said. “She is a skilled attorney. She understands the judicial system. She brings so many skills to the table that I will be anxiously watching to see how she can bring to bear all of her skills, both domestic and internationally.”

Dunn Tenpas said any prognostications now about 2024 would likely be in vain.

“Four years in American politics is more than a lifetime. It’s several lifetimes,” she said. “It’s almost as though the ones that plan ahead and try to do it so diligently and carefully, they sink.”

Tim Craig contributed to this report.

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