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Kamala Harris needs to unlock the power of African American women voters

At a forum for women of color this week, the California senator needs to make her big play with an increasingly crucial Democratic demographic.

Presidential Candidates And Politicians Attend National Action Network Annual Convention
Democratic presidential candidate U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) speaks at the National Action Network convention on April 5, 2019 in New York City.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Li Zhou is a politics reporter at Vox, where she covers Congress and elections. Previously, she was a tech policy reporter at Politico and an editorial fellow at the Atlantic.

Women of color are seen as a crucial base of support for Sen. Kamala Harris to win the Democratic nomination. And an event this week could present a key opportunity to secure their backing.

Harris is one of many candidates appearing at a forum for women of color hosted by She the People on Wednesday — Sens. Cory Booker, Amy Klobuchar, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren are all slated to speak along with former housing secretary Julian Castro, as well as Rep. Tulsi Gabbard and former Rep. Beto O’Rourke — but political science experts note that support from African American women could be a differentiating strength for her.

“I think it’s essential, and I think she knows this,” Howard University political science professor Keneshia Grant told Vox. “You have to do well in South Carolina or that’s the end.”

African American women already make up a solid percentage of Harris’s supporters, but she still trails Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders in polls among both women and African American voters. Continuing to expand this source of support will be important for Harris, particularly as she eyes primary races in South Carolina and North Carolina, where African American voters make up a large proportion of the Democratic primary vote.

Connecting with this group will ultimately be vital for any Democrat to secure the nomination. According to a CNN analysis based on 2016 exit poll data, women and voters of color are both groups that have increased their share of Democratic primary participation since 2008. And African American women have played a deciding role in recent elections: they made the difference for Hillary Clinton in her 2016 primary and Doug Jones in his 2017 Senate special election in Alabama. Last year during the midterms, African American women voters were credited with helping a wave of black women win more than 20 seats in Congress.

Securing backing from African American women is key to Harris’s path to victory if she has a shot in a race in which Sanders has a built-in fan base and former Vice President Joe Biden has a presumed status as frontrunner. Wednesday’s event will offer a glimpse at the dynamics at play.

Harris’s record as a prosecutor could complicate her candidacy

Harris’s record as a “progressive prosecutor” has come up as potential point of tension for some more liberal voters who have accused her of diverging from her party’s trend of taking a critical eye toward law-and-order policies.

Harris has addressed her time as a prosecutor on the campaign trail — emphasizing that she wanted to change the system from within — but it’s expected to remain an aspect of her past she’ll continue to have to explain. Political science experts note, however, that her progressive record as a senator and the proposed policies she’s outlined as part of her campaign, including a massive plan to close the gap in teacher pay, could help boost voter support.

“I think her criminal justice record in California might be a sticking point for black women because black men and the black community were disproportionately affected by the decisions that she made,” said Niambi Carter, a political science professor at Howard University, who added that this aspect of Harris’s record isn’t the only thing voters are looking at.

“She has to own that record ... but this is not the sum total of who she is,” she said.

As Vox’s German Lopez writes, there are several seemingly contradictory aspects of Harris’s record as California attorney general and San Francisco district attorney that have garnered criticism:

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.

Harris’s spokesperson, Lily Adams, told Lopez that Harris has been dedicated to criminal justice reform: “Kamala Harris has spent her career fighting for reforms in the criminal justice system and pushing the envelope to keep everyone safer by bringing fairness and accountability,” she said.

Harris has also gotten questions over her work on an anti-truancy program that disproportionately targeted low-income families, as well as her office’s efforts to keep low-level offenders in jail, in part, to keep them as a source of labor, according to one argument attorneys made. Harris has said the anti-truancy effort was intended to reduce high school dropout rates and the potential that students would get engaged in crime later in life. Spokesperson Ian Sams also told The Daily Beast that she was “troubled” by the argument that members of her office had used regarding the release of low-level offenders and directed them to stop using it.

“The only things she can do is talk about what her views on criminal justice are now and talk about her other policies because criminal justice is not the only thing black women and women of color care about,” Carter said. “They care about education, they care about health care and they care about a living wage.”

“There is no candidate with a perfect record. If people have served long enough, they hopefully have a record we can critique,” she added.

Grant said she supported how direct Harris was being with her responses to critiques, and noted that she will have to maintain this approach if she wanted to effectively address them.

“Once she’s had the chance to explain herself, I think African American women will support her,” University of Florida political science professor Sharon Austin said.

The larger hurdles for Harris may be awareness and name recognition

One of the chief struggles Harris faces is name recognition among voters overall. According to Morning Consult, just 2 percent of voters have never heard of Biden or Sanders, while 22 percent have not heard of Harris. In a crowded field of nearly 20 contenders, that’s an issue many other candidates, including Beto O’Rourke and Pete Buttigieg, have to deal with as well.

“I think the biggest hurdle is a strategy problem where there’s so many people to think about in this field of candidates,” Grant said. “In some ways, she’s special because she’s the only black woman running at this time.”

If Harris is able to raise awareness about both her candidacy and her policy priorities, she could tap into a major source of support, particularly from black women, who’ve historically turned out in high numbers to back other black women candidates, Austin notes.

“In general, black women tend to vote for black women at higher rates than any other group,” Austin said. “Black women are just loyal voters to black candidates in general, in particular black female mayors.”

“If all things being equal ... I think black women would put their vote to Kamala Harris,” Carter said.

April polling data reaffirms this dynamic. In a Quinnipiac survey, women voters were more interested in seeing a woman receive the nomination compared to men, and African American voters were more interested in seeing a person of color receive it than white voters were.

“For women, who have never seen a woman in either the No. 1 or No. 2 slot, and for black people, who have only seen one black person in the White House in the 45 presidents we have, these communities are starving,” Carter said.

A big question for all Democrats: How will you be there for African American women?

African American women have long been a key voting bloc for the Democratic Party and while they’ve turned out in high numbers, lawmakers and other members of the party haven’t always prioritized them in return.

Political science experts said they were looking forward to the forum addressing questions about how candidates, including Harris, would offer specific policies to tackle inequities that disproportionately affect African American women.

“I think a big question that we talk about a lot at BlackHer is that women of color, particularly black women, are a reliable voting bloc for the Democrats,” said Angela Dorn, cofounder of BlackHer, a publication dedicated to amplifying the voices of black women. “We’re glad that that’s been great for Democrats, but if you expect to get our votes what will you do for us that will make a difference policy wise? What specifically will you do, what legislation will you enact?”

Issues that political experts were interested in seeing addressed include policies that tackle maternal health, the wage gap — which disproportionately affects black and Latina women — and the minimum wage.

“Their health isn’t taken seriously by the medical establishment. How do we address better health care?” Carter said.

Harris has already proposed policies that tackle several of the core issues that experts raised.

She’s introduced the LIFT Act, which functions as an expansion of the earned income tax credit and provides a monthly cash payment for middle class households, legislation that she’s said would directly benefit African Americans. She’s also introduced a bill that would address the racial gaps in maternal mortality rates, in part by providing grant funding for doctors and nurses to receive implicit bias training. And Harris says she backs a study that would examine how Congress might approach reparations for the descendants of slaves.

At a town hall on Monday, Harris emphasized women of color while discussing the need to close the wage gap.

“Women are paid on average 77 cents to the dollar. And then if you look at African American women and Latinas, even less, and for doing the same work,” she said.

Wednesday’s forum will offer an interesting opportunity for women of color, including African American women, to ask candidates about their respective platforms. Whether 2020 contenders, like Harris, are able to provide the answers voters are looking for remains to be seen.

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