It was not a big surprise, but it was a much-anticipated revelation: Democratic presidential nominee-apparent Joe Biden announced on August 11 that he has chosen U.S. Senator Kamala Harris of California to be his running mate.
Political observers considered Harris the top contender for months, with various surveys and data indicating that she is highly popular within the LGBTQ community.
And behind the August 11 headlines, NBC News reported that the Biden campaign has also assigned openly lesbian commentator Karine Jean-Pierre, one of his senior advisors, to serve as his running mate’s chief of staff.
Before joining Biden’s team earlier this year, Pierre was chief public affairs officer for MoveOn, a public policy advocacy group and political action committee. She also worked on both Obama presidential campaigns, and was a regional political director in the Obama White House.
“Karine is a talented and fiercely intelligent individual who has worked to advance progressive values, candidates and policies throughout her entire career,” MoveOn Executive Director Rahna Epting told the Bay Area Reporter. “Her appointment as chief of staff to our next vice president during this campaign is a testament to her level of skill and dedication. MoveOn members are proud of Karine and confident that she will make the Biden and Harris campaign to be the best it can be.”
Harris is also a strong choice, according to Nadine Smith, executive director of Equality Florida. “She is smart, and she’ll KO Pence if he’s not too afraid to debate her. Selecting Kamala Harris shows that Joe Biden isn’t afraid to have leaders around him who push him forward on race and other critical issues. She’s a stellar pick.”
Longtime LGBTQ Democratic activist Richard Socarides called Harris “a smart choice, and the right choice.”
“I think she’ll be a great vice president,” said Socarides, “and she will eat Mike Pence alive at their debate and spit him out on the floor—as he deserves.”
Lorri Jean, chief executive officer of the Los Angeles LGBT Center, the largest of its kind in the nation, said Harris was a “moderate” choice for Biden but a good one for the LGBTQ community.
“Kamala Harris was one of the moderates on the [vice presidential] list. Biden was definitely sending a message in that regard,” said Jean. “Fortunately, from an LGBTQ perspective, she has long been an ally.”
Biden pledged during a Democratic debate in March that he would choose a woman for his running mate. Since then, the various news media lists of likely choices, including a list compiled by the New York Times, included openly lesbian U.S. Senator Tammy Baldwin. All included Harris, and usually at the top.
Biden’s choice of Harris makes her the first Black woman and the first candidate of Asian descent to run on a major party’s ticket for the White House.
Harris is a popular Democrat who made a strong bid for the Democatic presidential nomination herself in a field that, early on, included more than two dozen viable candidates. She launched her campaign in January 2019 in Oakland, with a rally attended by more than 20,000 supporters. She polled third early last year, behind Biden and U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders.
Following a Democratic debate in which she confronted Biden over his pride in having worked with segregationists “to oppose busing,” her campaign saw a surge of support.
But other candidates popular with the LGBTQ community, including openly gay candidate Pete Buttigieg, soon had their own surges and quickly leap-frogged over Harris. She dropped out of the race in December, citing insufficient funding for her campaign.
A study of campaign contributions by zip code showed she had been the second-strongest fundraiser in heavily LGBTQ areas, behind Buttigieg.
Harris was one of the few Democratic presidential candidates to release her own plan addressing a wide range of LGBTQ issues. She promised, as president, that she would establish a position of “Chief Advocate for LGBTQ+ Affairs” in the White House, reverse the Trump administration’s ban on transgender people in the military, and “ensure that religion cannot be used to discriminate against LGBTQ+ individuals.”
But the selection of Harris to join the Biden ticket was never a certainty. As recently as July 29, the Washington Post reported an anonymous source as saying that one of Biden’s key advisers in vetting the VP list, former U.S. Senator Christopher Dodd, was arguing against choosing Harris. Dodd was reportedly unhappy with Harris’ debate attack on Biden’s working with segregationists, but Dodd issued a statement saying the anonymous source’s comments “do not represent my view of Senator Harris.”
Harris was sworn into the U.S. Senate just three years ago, but has quickly risen to become one of its best-known members. On the Senate Judiciary Committee, she played a pivotal role in grilling some of President Trump’s most controversial nominees, including his first attorney general, Jeff Sessions, and Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh.
Prior to becoming a senator, Harris served as California’s attorney general and, prior to that, district attorney for San Francisco. She earned a reputation as a tough prosecutor and a strong supporter of equal rights for LGBTQ people.
As California’s attorney general, Harris strongly opposed Proposition 8, a 2008 ballot measure that banned same-sex marriage in the state. As senator, she has been a strong supporter of pro-LGBTQ positions, co-sponsoring the Equality Act and earning a perfect 100 percent score from the Human Rights Campaign. But Harris did have some critics, particularly over her early opposition to providing gender-confirmation surgery to prison inmates.
All of Biden’s potential running mates were pro-LGBTQ. Susan Rice, former National Security Advisor to President Obama, who was said to be a strong contender alongside Harris, was praised by LGBTQ activists in 2011. As then U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, she was a strong advocate for restoring a reference to “sexual orientation” in a UN resolution opposing the killing of vulnerable minority groups. She helped pass a resolution on the human rights of LGBTQ people, pushed to have several LGBTQ organizations obtain accredited status at the UN, and called for the integration of LGBTQ concerns in U.S. foreign diplomacy.
Other potential running mates that Biden may have been considering included U.S. Rep. Karen Bass of Los Angeles, who is chair of the Congressional Black Caucus; U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren, another tough competitor for the Democratic presidential nomination this year; Senator Tammy Duckworth of Illinois; and Senator Baldwin. The New York Times said the Biden campaign “somewhat seriously” considered Baldwin, the first openly LGBTQ person elected to the Senate, to be a running mate.
Potential candidates from states with Republican governors, including Warren (Massaschusetts), U.S. Senator Maggie Hassen (New Hampshire), and U.S. Rep. Val Deming (Florida), all had strikes against them—especially because their promotion to vice president would result in their vacated seats in Congress being filled by the Republican governors of their states.
Baldwin didn’t have that problem. Wisconsin’s governor is a Democrat, and Baldwin’s appeal as a vice presidential pick was likely due to the fact that she represents a key electoral swing state and is considered both moderate and liberal.
“But Baldwin is relatively little-known nationally, and many Democrats might object to an all-white ticket,” noted the New York Times profile.
In addition to Biden’s need to achieve racial and gender balance on the ticket, he almost certainly considered each candidate’s age. The former vice president is 77 and is frequently scrutinized for signs of cognitive decline, as is incumbent President Trump, 74. Senator Warren of Massachusetts, another strong contender for the Democratic presidential nomination who was considered a top choice for vice president, is 71. By comparison, Harris is 55.
Meanwhile, the Democratic National Committee announced on August 11 that Baldwin and Buttigieg will both speak to the national convention audience on Thursday, August 20, the evening Biden will deliver his nomination acceptance speech. Because of the pandemic, both political parties have planned hybrid convention formats to include some in-person gatherings and prime-time speeches on national television and through various social media. Democrats meet August 17–20, with the Democratic LGBTQ Caucus meeting slated for August 18.
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