Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), who is now the front-runner to be Joe Biden’s running mate, is trying to straddle the divide on the left over police reform.
The death of George Floyd and subsequent calls from progressives to defund the police have put Harris, a former prosecutor, in a politically difficult position. How she handles the emotionally charged issue over the next several weeks could determine whether she is tapped for the 2020 ticket.
Harris has been asked repeatedly in recent days whether she supports defunding the police. She has responded by trying to clarify what police defunding means and to argue that it’s not the radical move that opponents portray it as. She has also framed the question of police funding in the broader context of a discussion about how a city, town or community can best allocate money among various priorities, arguing that investing in education, job creation and affordable health care are better ways to create safe and prosperous communities.
“The status quo has been to determine and create policy around the idea that more police equals more safety. And that’s just wrong,” she said on MSNBC earlier this week.
“You know what creates greater safety? Funding our public schools, so that, currently, two-thirds of our public school teachers don’t have to come out of their own back pocket to pay for school supplies,” she added.
In an interview with “Good Morning America” on Tuesday, Harris applauded Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti’s decision to cut $150 million from the Los Angeles Police Department’s budget, but she stopped short of saying she supports completely defunding the police.
“We’ve got to re-examine what we’re doing with American taxpayer dollars and ask the question: are we getting the right return on our investment? Are we actually creating healthy and safe communities?” she said. “That’s a legitimate conversation and it requires a really critical evaluation. I applaud Eric Garcetti for doing what he’s done.”
The issue is a potential source of tension with Biden, who on Monday said, “I don’t support defunding the police” but qualified his stance by also saying, “I support conditioning federal aid to police based on whether or not they meet certain basic standards for decency and honorableness.”
Biden was a principal author of the 1994 crime bill, which provided for the hiring of 100,000 new police officers around the country.
Democratic senators say racial diversity should be a factor in Biden’s VP search, boosting the prospects of Harris, who is African American and Indian American. Some Democratic lawmakers view voter turnout as crucial to winning the White House and capturing the Senate majority in November. They see a racially diverse national ticket as a potentially compelling promise of real change to minority voters.
This gives Harris a leg up on other potential vice presidential candidates, such as Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) or Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D), who are white.
Republicans see the defund-the-police debate as a political land mine for Democrats in the upcoming election.
Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), an ally of President Trump, on Wednesday forced Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) to object to a unanimous-consent request to approve a resolution opposing calls to defund the police.
When Schumer blocked it, Cotton declared it was evidence Democrats “do want to defund the police.”
The debate over how to respond to police violence has rocketed to the front of the agenda after Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police. The movement that has emerged in the past two weeks has prompted Democratic lawmakers to see Biden’s vice presidential selection process in a new light.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), whose presidential bid won the highest number of delegates after Biden, said Wednesday that it would be “a great idea” if the top of the Democratic ticket were racially diverse.
“I think we want as much diversity as we can find,” he said, noting the decision is Biden’s to make. “I think in every respect we want as much diversity as we can.”
Sanders made his comments after speaking on the Senate floor about the need to pass another coronavirus relief bill and praised “the hundreds of thousands of Americans” who “have rightly taken to the streets to demand an end to police murder and brutality.”
“We should be a big-tent party and certainly diversity of all sorts should be encouraged in our party,” Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) said. “For people to be able to see themselves in positions of leadership is a very important dynamic.”
Heinrich observed “there is a level of frustration that we had such an incredibly diverse primary field and that didn’t result in a minority candidate” winning the nomination.
“It would be very unwise to ignore the African American, Hispanic, Native American portions of our party. They’re the reason why we’re winning in more states now. That coalition is the reason Barack Obama did so well in 2008,” he added.
Sen. Cory Booker (N.J.), the other African American Democrat in the Senate, said, “I would suspect already that his team, his Cabinet team, I suspect is going to be one of if not the most diverse ever. He’s a guy that has already made a commitment for a black woman to be a Supreme Court justice; it’s never happened before. So he’s clearly very conscious of what it means to have the leadership of the United States of America reflect the large population.”
Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin (Ill.) said “there’s certainly some value” to having a racially diverse national ticket.
“I do believe that what we’re seeing is extraordinary, unprecedented, and I think it will have an impact on voter turnout for sure,” he said of the Black Lives Matter movement that has unleashed a wave of protests across the country.
Durbin, however, said Biden must also choose a running mate with whom he feels comfortable.
“The most important thing is that Joe Biden picks as his running mate a person who can answer the first question ‘Are you prepared to be president?’ It’s always the first question, and secondly someone he feels comfortable running and serving with. That may include someone who’s a minority, it may not,” he said.
Durbin is pushing his home-state colleague, Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), a wounded veteran and former Army combat helicopter pilot who was born in Thailand, for the No. 2 slot on the ticket.
The surging Black Lives Matter movement, which has mobilized tens of thousands of protesters across the country, has weighed heavily on speculation over who Biden will pick as his running mate.
Betting markets now view Harris as even money to get tapped to serve as Biden’s running mate with Rep. Val Demings (D-Fla.), who is African American, having the second-best odds and Warren having the third-best odds.
A Morning Consult-Politico poll published Wednesday found that 29 percent of registered voters said it was very or somewhat important for Biden to pick a person of color for his running mate, a 7-point increase over an April survey. Sixty-one percent of respondents said they viewed the Black Lives Matter movement favorably, a major increase over the 37 percent who said so in 2017.