Biden family embraces Kamala Harris after last year’s debate ‘punch to the gut’

Former Vice President Joe Biden talks with Senator Kamala Harris after the conclusion of the 2020 Democratic U.S. presidential debate in Houston, Texas, U.S., September 12, 2019. REUTERS/Mike Blake

WASHINGTON – After Sen. Kamala Harris last year unleashed one of the most searing attacks of the Democratic presidential primaries against Joe Biden, his wife, Jill Biden, called it the “biggest surprise” of the race. Even seven months later, the former second lady said it was “like a punch to the gut.”

On Friday, a far different dynamic was on display. Harris, D-Calif., smiled broadly as she introduced Jill Biden as “our next first lady.” Jill Biden closed her eyes and put her hands over her heart as she recalled how Harris’s op-ed on black maternal health touched her.

The striking show of bonhomie came during a virtual discussion on the Affordable Care Act, which had all the trappings of a typical Biden campaign event. Except this one was freighted with a tense history and effectively doubled as a high-stakes public tryout – the latest in a series featuring a Democrat under consideration to be Biden’s running mate.

To some Biden allies, it also served as a visible turning-of-the-page on an uncomfortable chapter that has loomed over the vice-presidential search. Seeking to quell rumblings from some Democrats who have said they detected signs of frustration with Harris from Jill Biden and Valerie Biden Owens, Biden’s sister and longtime political adviser, the Biden campaign on Friday looked to publicly dispel the notion that their views of Harris are anything less than positive.

“Both Dr. Biden and Valerie have nothing but the utmost respect, admiration and affection for Senator Harris,” Biden campaign spokeswoman Elizabeth Alexander said in a statement. “Any rumors or conjecture to the contrary are not true and have zero basis in reality or fact.”

On the debate stage in Miami one year ago Saturday (June 27, 2020), Harris looked at Biden and told him it was “hurtful to hear you talk about the reputations of two United States senators who built their reputations and career on the segregation of race,” referring to friendly comments he once made about former Senate colleagues.

She accused him of opposing school busing, saying, “There was a little girl in California who was part of the second class to integrate her public schools, and she was bused to school every day. And that little girl was me.” (Within hours, Harris’s campaign was selling a T-shirt emblazoned with those words.)

Biden shot back that Harris had mischaracterized him. “I did not oppose busing in America,” he said. “What I opposed is busing ordered by the Department of Education.”

For Harris, who has emerged as a top contender to join the Democratic ticket and is the most prominent African American woman under consideration, last summer’s exchange has complicated her prospects in the eyes of some Biden allies. Although some have moved on from it, others said it was not so easy to forget, particularly since Harris was a friend of Biden’s late son, Beau.

“I’m Irish and we Irish hold grudges,” said John Morgan, a Florida trial lawyer and major Biden donor. “It was vicious. It was meant to kill him. And she was probably the one he never would have expected it from, which to me made it more treacherous.”

Other Biden allies said they saw Friday’s joint appearance as a sign of the strides Harris has made.

“It’s etched in my mind,” said Steve Westly, a California investor and top Biden fundraiser, referring to last year’s debate. But he added, “Everybody knows that Jill is in Joe’s inner circle,” and so “the fact that Jill has chosen Kamala to do an event with her double underscores that Kamala is on the very shortlist of people Joe is considering.”

South Carolina state Sen. Dick Harpootlian, a longtime Biden friend, said the impact of the 2019 dispute will be determined by Biden alone. “I know that there are people that were not happy with what she tried to do in the debate,” he said, but Biden will decide if it “makes her unacceptable.”

Some aides and associates of Biden and Harris said the tension between the two camps started to recede with the passage of time. As early as one month after the confrontation, Biden greeted Harris on the second debate stage by joking, “Go easy on me, kid.”

In October, Harris, Biden and their aides ran into each other at a private airport terminal after a campaign event in Iowa, according to two people with knowledge of the situation. It was Harris’s birthday, and her husband, Doug Emhoff, gave the Biden team some leftover cupcakes. Harris and Biden had a brief private discussion while their aides talked, said the people, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe a private encounter.

Ian Sams, who served as national press secretary on the Harris campaign, remembered Biden and Harris on other occasions “giving each other hugs backstage or talking about their families or random experiences on the trail.” Sams said his sense of Biden is “you can’t be successful at the highest levels of national politics for 40 years like he has without the rapid ability to turn yesterday’s rivals into today’s allies.”

In recent weeks, Biden frequently has enlisted the help of Harris and other candidates under consideration to be his running mate. Rep. Karen Bass, D-Calif., who is being vetted, participated in a call with reporters Friday (June 26, 2020) about the Affordable Care Act. She referred a question about the vetting to the Biden campaign.

Harris has been one of the most active Biden surrogates. The Friday event featured Harris and Jill Biden hearing from supporters in Wisconsin about health care. Together they spoke of the importance of the Affordable Care Act and safeguarding it from GOP efforts to dismantle it. Jill Biden frequently invited Harris to weigh in and offer her perspective.

The discussion got personal, with the participants sharing stories about their health-care experiences. Harris shared the story of her late mother’s battle with cancer. Jill Biden told an emotional story of her sister’s stem-cell transplant, her six-week isolation in a hospital room and the lifesaving help she got from the ACA.

Harris hosted a virtual fundraiser with Biden this month that brought in $3.5 million. Biden offered a word of personal praise for Harris at the event, mentioning her friendship with Beau Biden, who died of brain cancer in 2015.

He recalled running into Harris years ago. “You said, ‘I love you and I loved Beau,’ ” Biden said. “I won’t forget that.” Harris said Emhoff had enjoyed spending time with Jill Biden, and they stayed in touch beyond the primaries. On Friday, Jill Biden reflected warmly on her relationship with Emhoff.

In December, on the day Harris ended her campaign, Biden called her, according to two people with knowledge of the situation. Harris endorsed Biden on March 8, saying in a video that “he is a man who has lived his life with great dignity.”

But only days earlier, Jill Biden indicated the June 2019 debate had not faded from her mind. On March 6, she was asked at a fundraiser about a potential vice-presidential choice. When the discussion turned to Harris, Jill Biden said Harris had a very close “bond” with Beau Biden, and when Biden looked surprised onstage when Harris attacked, it was because “our son Beau spoke so highly of her and, you know, and how great she was.”

She added that she was not saying Harris wasn’t great, but her debate comments were like a “punch to the gut; it was a little unexpected.”

Former Iowa first lady Christie Vilsack, a friend of Jill Biden’s, said she does not have any sense of how Jill Biden and Owens feel about Harris.

“I’ve never had that conversation,” she said. Speaking generally of Jill Biden, Vilsack said, “She, like her husband, is a very warm person and she values relationships.”

Questioned on the topic, Rep. Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio, an ally of both Biden and Harris, said that “politics is not a business for people with thin skin.” She added, “I just don’t believe that in our business you carry hard feelings about something like a debate.”

Some Biden allies pointed to Biden’s relationship with Barack Obama, which Biden has said he is seeking to re-create with his eventual running mate. It, too, had some difficult chapters.

The Rev. Al Sharpton recalled Biden calling him to apologize after playing into black stereotypes when he said of Obama in 2007, “I mean, you got the first mainstream African American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy.”

“That didn’t stop him from being selected,” Sharpton said.

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