Sen. Kamala Harris is officially the first woman, first Black person, and first South Asian American person to be elected vice president of the United States. She and incoming President Joe Biden have won their bid against President Donald Trump and will be sworn in this January.
Harris has made history: No woman has ever served as vice president or president in the US. Her election to the office — and the representation she brings — is significant for many voters.
“She’s the first Black woman to be considered vice president of this country, and it means so much to me, being a Black woman who is a leader, who looks up to people like her,” Brittany Oliver, a women’s rights activist and communications director who backed Harris during the primary, previously told Vox.
Harris’s nomination for this role was groundbreaking. As the new vice president, Harris could play a major role in shaping policies and priorities for a Biden administration, while sending a strong message about what’s possible for other women and people of color.
Some progressives have been conflicted about her nomination, however, given her record on criminal justice and positions she took on wrongful convictions and independent investigations of police shootings when she served as attorney general of California.
Harris spent much of her career as a prosecutor before getting elected to the Senate in 2016; she also ran for the presidency before she was named Biden’s running mate this summer. During the presidential campaign, she acknowledged the historic nature of her candidacy.
“It really does help to have examples of what can be done and role models, things you can point to, to make it clear that it’s not impossible — and that, in fact, it’s quite probable that you can do these things and will do those things,” Harris said in a recent interview with television host Padma Lakshmi.
Who is Kamala Harris?
Harris was named Biden’s vice presidential pick in August, and she brings an extensive career in public service to the role. She’s served as California’s junior senator for nearly four years, and sits on the powerful Judiciary and Intelligence committees. During her time in the Senate, she’s become known for her pointed questions of Trump administration nominees and officials including Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh and former Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
Policies that Harris has led as a senator have included the LIFT Act, which would provide monthly cash payments to many middle-class households, and the Justice in Policing Act, a sweeping police reform bill that would limit the legal protections that law enforcement officers currently have.
As a presidential nominee, Harris took more moderate stances on issues including health care, though she is considered liberal relative to most members of the Senate. One of her first campaign proposals focused on increasing teacher pay, while another sought to bar states from implementing restrictive abortion laws. She’s also been outspoken on immigration reform and proposed executive actions that could establish a path to citizenship for DREAMers, or undocumented immigrants who came to the US as children.
As the daughter of Jamaican and Indian immigrants, both of whom were civil rights activists, Harris has said that combating racial disparities has been a central focus of her career. She graduated from Howard University in 1986 and the University of California’s Hastings Law School in 1989, and has focused heavily on what she describes as reforming the criminal justice system from within. Before becoming a senator, Harris served for six years as California attorney general and two terms as San Francisco district attorney.
As Vox’s German Lopez has written, her broader prosecutorial record as attorney general and district attorney has been criticized for its contradictions:
She pushed for programs that helped people find jobs instead of putting them in prison, but also fought to keep people in prison even after they were proved innocent. She refused to pursue the death penalty against a man who killed a police officer, but also defended California’s death penalty system in court. She implemented training programs to address police officers’ racial biases, but also resisted calls to get her office to investigate certain police shootings.
During her presidential campaign, the statement “Kamala Is a Cop” was used frequently to question her views on criminal justice reform.
Harris has emphasized that she used her time as prosecutor to hold major banks accountable for the mortgage crisis and implement changes including a database to track police use of force, though activists don’t think she was willing to go far enough.
“There have been prosecutors that refused to seat Black jurors, refused to prosecute lynchings, disproportionately condemned young Black men to death row and looked the other way in the face of police brutality,” Harris said at a June 2019 event, Politico reported. “It matters who is in those rooms. I knew I had to be in those rooms. We have to be in those rooms even when there aren’t many like us there.”
Harris energized some voters of color — and sends a hopeful signal about the party’s commitment to representation
Harris’s nomination highlighted the importance of Black women, and women of color broadly, to the Democratic Party, energizing some voters who were inspired by her candidacy.
“Kamala, really. She kicked it into overdrive, especially for what I’ve seen in the Black community. A lot of people were already ... like, ‘Eh, yeah, I’ll vote for him [Biden], I’ll do what I got to do.’ And then when she was put on the ticket, it was, ‘I’m voting,’” Christopher Walton, chair of the Democratic Party of Milwaukee County, previously told Vox’s Sean Collins.
As the country’s new vice president-elect, Harris also dramatically expands the scope of leadership roles that women have held in US government. “We’ve opened up a space and possibility,” Aimee Allison, founder of She the People, previously told Vox.
This year, a record-breaking number of Black, Latinx, Asian American and Pacific Islander, and Native American women have filed to run for the House, according to Rutgers University’s Center for American Women and Politics. And Harris’s success could well spur more women to do so, while increasingly normalizing greater representation in these leadership roles.
Voters are also looking to her and Biden to continue addressing racial and gender disparities in the policies they focus on; Oliver cited Harris’s work on maternal mortality legislation as one example of such efforts.
“It was back in November that she did a debate and talked about the importance of Black women,” says Oliver. “She used her platform to uplift Black women. That is exactly what the Democratic Party needs to hear.”
Sean Collins contributed reporting.