In recent weeks, Vice President Kamala Harris has emerged from obscurity to attempt a political comeback. Facing low poll numbers, she has barnstormed political events around the country to carry the message of the Democratic Party — and attempt to recapture the luster that made her a historic candidate in 2020.
Notably, she has visited Black events to tout the Biden administration and condemn Republican efforts to suppress voting rights. It’s fair to say that Harris has used such gatherings to stir up anxiety when they might have been better used to promote constructive ideas for the development of the Black community.
On July 29, at the 114th annual NAACP convention in Boston, Harris highlighted aspects of the Biden agenda — such as maternal mortality and prescription medications for seniors — before calling on attendees to mobilize voter turnout.
She noted, “Because of what you did in 2020, Joe Biden got elected president of the United States, and I got elected the first Black woman to be vice president of the United States.” (She avoided mention of her South Asian upbringing, which might complicate the distinction.)
On Aug. 1, in a speech to a women’s convention of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Orlando, Florida, Harris spoke out against the state’s controversial standards for teaching Black history in public schools.
She used the occasion to stir voter anxiety, saying, “In states across our nation, extremists attack the freedom to vote. They pass laws to ban drop boxes, to limit early voting, to make it illegal to offer food and water to people who are standing in line for hours to simply cast their ballot.”
However, she was silent on her role in the failed effort to protect voting rights.
In 2022, President Biden turned to her to troubleshoot Congress for passage of the Freedom to Vote: John Lewis Act, which extended protections of the 1965 Civil Rights Act undercut by the U.S. Supreme Court. Harris was unable to gain the support of two reluctant colleagues in the Democratic-controlled Senate, West Virginia’s Joe Manchin and Arizona’s Krysten Sinema (now an independent), or to win over any Republican moderates.
Whether she could have done more is open to debate. But even now, as she bemoans the need to protect voting rights, she offers no practical ideas for how the community can proceed under the current climate. The options she publicizes rely on corralling the Black community to vote for the Democratic agenda. As such, there are real questions as to whether she is the best person to rally the Black community for the challenges ahead.
Fostering Black Political Unity
Harris’s campaign for renewed political relevance admits to a disconnect between core voting blocs in the Black community and Democratic Party. Most distressing, she has missed opportunities to call for a much-needed Black political unity summit.
The community desperately needs to craft an agenda for survival in the 21st century. It requires respected leaders who are willing to devise a constructive — and relatively independent — policy agenda before the 2024 election. The challenges ahead require more than the old “March on Washington” rituals of the past, however helpful these events have been.
Instead, we must encourage political and organizational leaders to explore new ideas of development. What are the benefits of encouraging migration that builds political influence in targeted states? What are practical ways to make gains in the labor market and self-employment, or to leverage our numbers in small businesses and community cooperatives?
Unfortunately, what Harris offers are the targeted talking points of the Democratic Party. After speaking about voting rights at predominantly Black events, for instance, she shifted to touting investments in broadband expansion when addressing predominantly white audiences in Wisconsin a few days later. Then she talked up policies on gun violence prevention to a predominantly Black audience in Chicago the next day.
The policies she marketed to Black audiences seemed designed to benefit the party without committing significant resources to the development of the people — and especially to young men. For years now, the party has distanced itself from the economic and cultural investments that Stacy Abrams once called the “Black Men’s Agenda.” Instead, it has offered the drumbeat of important but ultimately low-investment criminal justice reform.
As such, the political value of Harris in Black history may be reaching an endpoint. And looking ahead, Democratic leaders — and the national Black political class — may want to begin the process of considering replacements for Biden’s second term. A new vice president — and the selection process — could inject excitement into a team that has gone stale.
The Democratic Bench of Veep Alternatives
So, who would be the potential alternative candidates on the Democratic bench? Here are four party stalwarts with backgrounds — either institutional or political — to serve as a stabilizing or inspiring vice-presidential presence.
Michelle Obama: As the only Black American first lady, Michelle Obama fostered one of the most welcoming and inclusive White House cultures in history. She initiated the “Let’s Move” program to combat childhood obesity, “Joining Forces” to rally support for military families, and “Reach Higher,” an initiative to encourage young people to pursue vocational and college education.
Keisha Lance Bottoms: Keisha Lance Bottoms worked in the three branches of Atlanta government, including as a prosecutor, judge, city councilor, and mayor. As the city’s 60th mayor, between 2018 and 2022, she worked to make Atlanta a more affordable, resilient, and equitable city. Her political organization helped to make Georgia a critical swing state in the Deep South. In 2022, Biden appointed her as his senior adviser to the Office of Public Engagement and later to the President’s Export Council, which advises on matters of international trade.
Gretchen Whitmer: Michigan Gov. Whitmer would bring the experience of a former state legislator and executive of a Midwest swing state. She would appeal to moderate suburban women voters valuable to the party. She has strong support within the state’s Black community. And her selection would elevate the role of Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist II, a Detroit native and rising star in state politics. He would become the first Black governor of a Midwestern state, with time to prepare to run for a full term.
Deval Patrick: Patrick went from the South Side of Chicago to becoming a graduate of Harvard College and Law School. He was an attorney with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, and then Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights in the Clinton administration. He oversaw the Department of Justice investigation of Black church burnings. From 2006-2015, he was governor of Massachusetts, the state’s first Black executive. Patrick expanded access to health insurance, improved public schools and infrastructure, and launched biotech and clean energy initiatives.
No doubt, Democratic Party leaders will think of other viable candidates to be vice president, or will make a compelling case for retaining Harris. What is critical for the party is that discussions occur before Biden enters the primary elections next year. What is critical for the Black community is the crafting of a forward-looking agenda of development in a political unity summit.
Roger House is associate professor of American Studies at Emerson College and the author of “Blue Smoke: The Recorded Journey of Big Bill Broonzy” and “South End Shout: Boston’s Forgotten Music Scene in the Jazz Age.” A version of this commentary appeared in The Messenger.
Local Media Foundation, a 501(c)(3) charitable trust that provides support for the Word In Black collaborative, does not endorse political candidates. Word In Black, however, invites and publishes opinion essays, including this one, from vital voices and opinion makers central to creating equity in Black communities.