Harris, assigned to tackle volatile issues, quietly builds a network

Vice President Kamala Harris hosts a roundtable on reproductive rights on Sept. 9, 2021, in her ceremonial office in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building next to the White House in Washington, D.C. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Demetrius Freeman

WASHINGTON – Amy Hagstrom Miller, the founder of abortion provider Whole Woman’s Health, worried that she was overstepping when she vented to Vice President Kamala Harris recently about the war of attrition facing her Texas clinics, even if they win their legal battle against a new state law that outlaws abortions after six weeks.

“This is the third time I’ve experienced an abortion ban in the state of Texas where I’ve had to close clinics, cancel appointments, go through the fear on my staff’s part about being laid off or losing their jobs, and all because of politics,” Miller said she told Harris during an emotional meeting Harris held with abortion providers.

Miller said she appreciated Harris‘s response, particularly her willingness to “talk straight to the extreme politicians in this country,” something that could be important in the battles to come. “When you hear her talk about [Republican Texas Gov.] Greg Abbott, man, that swagger is welcome,” Miller said. “I think when we can follow the leadership of a Black woman in the United States, it’s going to lead us in the right direction.”

When Harris became an administration point person on abortion this month, many operatives in both parties viewed it as yet another example of President Biden’s saddling her with a thankless task on an explosive subject he was eager to avoid handling. Biden had already assigned Harris to tackle the root causes of irregular migration, amid a chaotic influx at the southern border, and to take the lead on voting rights, as Republican-led states began passing restrictive voting laws.

All are volatile social issues that many politicians would see as offering little benefit as policy assignments. But behind the scenes, Harris has been quietly seizing the opportunity to build a liberal national network of dedicated activists that is convinced she embraces its causes.

If Harris has a path to the presidency, it is likely to run through an energized liberal base – not, as it did for Biden, through blocs of centrist Democrats and moderate Republicans.

“It is unlikely that Kamala Harris will ever be broadly popular and loved by the center of the American electorate,” said Matthew Wilson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University. “You can get elected president without being loved by the center of the American electorate. For evidence of that, ask Donald Trump. But her political future probably lies with becoming the champion of a base cause.”

Lost in the eye-rolling over Harris‘s role as ambassador of no-win political causes is that the task allows her to establish independence from a Biden administration that has disappointed many activists.

During her nearly nine months in office, the vice president has met with small interest groups dozens of times – first in virtual sessions, as travel was limited by the coronavirus pandemic, and later in trips across the country or in meetings with advocates invited to the White House campus.

They span a range of issues. In March, Harris met with female leaders, including Mary Kay Hagan, who heads Service Employees International Union, one of the country’s biggest and most diverse labor groups and a Democratic power broker. In April, she spoke with philanthropic leaders focused on immigration. In one week-and-a-half stretch in July, she held a half-dozen sessions with voting rights activists.

Also that month, Harris met with a group of “dreamers” after a court ruling threatened DACA, the program benefiting undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States as children.

Two months ago, she met with Democratic Texas legislators who’d fled their state to deny their GOP colleagues a quorum to pass a voting bill. Harris made public remarks and posing for pictures with the Texas Democrats in the Roosevelt Room of the White House. But after reporters left and the cameras were put away, Harris spoke privately with the legislators, many of them influential in their communities, about how their organizing could be wielded in the future.

“One of the things that she praised was just the kind of coalitions that were built, which were primarily the Brown caucus and the Black caucus that really came together because those were the communities that were being affected most by this voter suppression bill,” said state Rep. Jessica González, a Democrat from Dallas.

González said the new relationship helped the Texas Democrats’ cause – but also helped Harris. “I think, in that regard, she benefits from it,” González said. “Democrats, as a whole nationwide benefit from it. We benefit from it on the state level because we have more engagement with the White House.”

Harris is widely seen as an heir apparent to Biden in 2028 – or earlier, if the oldest president in U.S. history decides against seeking a second term. But Harris‘s initial bid for the White House fizzled before any votes were cast, as she was unable to define or distinguish herself in a crowded field.

Her time in the Biden administration has not provided any obvious boost. Like any vice president, Harris has struggled to create a political identity separate from the president’s, and she finds herself tied to a leader whose popularity is falling as he tries to navigate the pitfalls of a polarized country and a divided party.

Being handed the intractable problems of immigration, abortion and voting rights would hardly seem a formula to improve her standing. But it has enabled Harris to assure activists that she is on their side, without sharing the full weight of the administration’s actions – or lack of action – in particular areas.

In some cases, Harris has seemed to go out of her way to distance herself from the administration. A recent news release from her office, after a furor over the treatment of Haitian migrants by mounted border agents, described a discussion between Harris and Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas in terms usually reserved for meetings with foreign officials.

“The Vice President raised her grave concerns about the mistreatment of Haitian migrants by Border Patrol agents on horses, and the need of all CBP agents to treat people with dignity, humanely and consistent with our laws and our values,” the statement said.

Advocates invited to the White House, or to Harris‘s ceremonial office in the adjacent Eisenhower Executive Office Building, often express appreciation that their opinions and standing are being amplified by a political star. It can make activists feel heard by the administration on issues where the White House has no clear path forward.

In March, Biden asked Harris to address the root causes of irregular migration from Central American countries. During her first trip to Guatemala and Mexico, some advocates criticized her for telling would-be migrants, “Don’t come.” She was dogged by questions about why she had not gone to the southern U.S. border, and Republicans tried to label her Biden’s “border czar” amid a historic surge in migrant crossings northward.

Amid that pressure, Harris did ultimately visit the border, meeting with a group of immigration advocates and signaling that she was paying attention and learning from any mistakes.

“Historically, when we have politicians, members of the administration coming to the border, whether they’re Republicans or Democrats, usually it’s a token visit. We were concerned about whether it was going to be the same kind of checklist, checking the box,” said Fernando García, the director of the Border Network for Human Rights.

“But she was paying attention, probably for half an hour, maybe,” he added. “I made remarks in regards to not forgetting our history – this border, the U.S.- Mexico border, is the New Ellis Island. And then when she went over and had a press conference at the hangar, she said the same thing.”

Meanwhile, Biden has continued to struggle with the immigration issue, most recently facing harsh criticism for the plight of thousands of Haitians seeking to enter the United States. Photos and videos surfaced recently of border agents on horseback chasing, grabbing and shouting at Haitians, images that for many were freighted with historically racist overtones.

The abortion issue is the latest example of Harris‘s taking the opportunity to signal her devotion to a cause while the administration struggles to satisfy activists. Abortion rights advocates such as Miller say that their next battlefield is the courts and that the meeting with Harris helped offset their concerns about the depth of Biden’s commitment to the issue.

For most of his career, Biden has been a supporter of the Hyde Amendment, which bars the use of federal funds for abortions. Abortion rights advocates have long said the amendment unfairly targets the poor, in part by blocking Medicaid recipients’ access to abortions.

As he entered the Democratic presidential primary cycle, Biden faced criticism for his long-standing support of the amendment. He reversed course in the summer of 2019, just weeks after announcing his candidacy, saying it was unconscionable for him to support the amendment in an environment where frequent attacks were launched against Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court ruling legalizing abortion nationwide.

Biden’s 2022 budget plan, released in May, enshrined his opposition to the amendment and was lauded by abortion rights advocates. Many saw their meeting with Harris as further evidence that Biden had come around more strongly to their viewpoint.

With the Senate divided 50-50 between the Democrat caucus and Republicans, Harris‘s tiebreaking power in that chamber makes her one of the most powerful vice presidents in U.S. history. And as the nation’s first woman to win a nationally elective office – as well as the first person of Black or Asian descent to ascend to the vice presidency – Harris has notable star power.

Yet her actions are largely dictated by the president’s larger priorities. The White House has stressed that some of the left’s biggest goals – codifying voting rights, overhauling the immigration system, establishing a $15 national minimum wage, reforming the police, enshrining abortion rights – must be accomplished by Congress.

But many activists complain that Biden and Harris have not spent much time or political capital pressuring Congress to do exactly that.

Still, for many activists, long-term alliances are almost as valuable as short-term actions. An audience with Harris in many cases represents a seat at the table, and could make activists more open to working one day to bring about a Harris administration.

“She’s breaking ground, and Black women will keep fighting and keep supporting her,” said Melanie Campbell, one of the leaders of the Black Women’s Roundtable, who has met with Biden and Harris several times. “We are trying to get something done. We’re trying to get some things – some policies – passed, reverse some issues around racial injustice in this country. But we know it’s not going to happen overnight.”

(This report was released in The Washington Post Syndicated Service on Sept. 25, 2021)



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