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Monday, September 25, 2023

What it will mean to have Californian Kamala Harris in the room at the White House

Kamala Harris is the first vice president from the West Coast since Richard Nixon served under President Dwight Eisenhower more than 60 years ago.

She’s the first woman, Black and South Asian to hold the office.

She’s also a native of Oakland, California, part of the the liberal heart of a liberal state that has led the Democratic Party on issues like immigration and criminal justice.

Combine all that with President Donald Trump’s warning that the country may ultimately see a “female socialist president,” and her ascension to the vice presidency Wednesday makes conservatives nervous.

Democratic activists are excited that she’ll have access to and influence with Joe Biden.

“She hails from a state that sees immigrants as indispensable Californians…she gets it,” said Frank Sharry, founder and executive director of America’s Voice, an immigration advocacy group.

Harris’ stands on immigration can be traced at least in part to the fact that she is the daughter of immigrants. Her mother, Shyamala Gopalan, came to this country from India. Her father, Donald Harris, came from Jamaica.

Her roots in criminal justice reform go back to her days as a San Francisco prosecutor. Harris wrote a book 11 years ago about how policing could be re-imagined to be more sensitive to the communities law enforcement serves.

Biden has signaled that Harris will be a strong voice – the “last voice in the room” – and early signals are that she’ll have an influential role.

“She’s not only been on the stage with Biden during the transition, but she often has a speaking role,” noted Kelly Dittmar, director of research at the Center for American Women and Politics in New Jersey.

Symone Sanders, a senior adviser to Harris, told McClatchy Harris “has been a full partner in the process of this transition. She has helped pick Cabinet secretaries, she has interviewed them.

She listed several areas where Harris would have influence, including COVID-19 and economic policy, and added “There’s also a climate crisis and a racial equity crisis, a crisis of racial injustice, and they all demand urgent action.”

“You don’t need to explain immigration to Kamala Harris,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., who chairs the Congressional Progressive Caucus.

Harris and Biden have both said they’d retain the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which allows undocumented immigrants brought to this country as children to remain for a period of time.

Harris, Biden, incoming Latino cabinet members and other administration officials hosted a call last week with immigration reformers. Biden’s team pledged strong immigration overhaul legislation immediately, including a path to citizenship.

Harris’ record suggests she’ll be inclined to push for more executive action.

During her unsuccessful presidential campaign in 2019, Harris urged several such initiatives.

She wanted to create a “Dreamers Parole-in-Place program,” which allows people who entered this country without documentation and “who have a U.S. citizen spouse to apply for removal of a technical bar that prevents many from obtaining a Green Card.”

She also proposed an executive action that would declare a Dreamer’s separation from a close family member to be an extreme hardship that allows them to remain in this country. Dreamers, young people affected by the DACA policy, and some other immigrants can now wait years for a Green Card.

As a senator, Harris was the author of the Access to Counsel Act, which said anyone held or detained while attempting to enter the United States is guaranteed access to legal counsel.

Harris could influence Biden in other ways, pushing him to back food assistance for undocumented immigrants that the Trump administration has arguably made more difficult to obtain.

“That would certainly have a bigger impact on California,” said Chris Hoene, executive director of the California Budget & Policy Center.

Harris emerged as a Democratic leader on criminal justice issues after George Floyd died while in Minneapolis police custody last summer, triggering demonstrations and calls for reform.

As a state official, Harris’ policies on law enforcement often were not embraced by reformers. She described herself as California’s “top cop” while attorney general, a position she left in 2017 when she joined the Senate.

But Harris has also long been involved in what she calls “reimagining” policing.

She wrote “Smart on Crime” in 2010, saying that “If we take a show of hands of those who would like to see more police officers on the street, mine would shoot up. A more visible and strategic police presence is a deterrent to crime, and it has a positive impact on a community.”

Two weeks after Floyd died, Harris was one of the principal authors of sweeping legislation bar law enforcement officials from racial, religious or discriminatory profiling.

Her bill would have banned chokeholds at the federal level, mandated the use of dashboard and body cameras for federal law enforcement officers, and established a National Police Misconduct Registry to prevent problematic officers from moving from one job to another without any accountability.

The Democratic-run House passed the bill, and it went nowhere in the Republican-run Senate.

Activists today say Harris is now squarely on their side.

“When we talk about the Kamala who ran for president, the Kamala who’s gonna be vice president, look at what she did in the Senate. The fact she was heavily involved with (criminal justice legislation) shows you the sort of vice president we’re going to have,” said Gholar.

One area where Harris will find her clout may not mean as much involves the more granular issues Congress deals with every day — how to allocate road money, for instance, or federal building projects.

Specific spending matters are written in committees, and they’ll have 50-50 splits. Those decisions can be amended by the full Senate, where Harris as Senate president could break a tie. But rarely has a vice president done that on a local matter. Outgoing Vice President Mike Pence has broken 18 ties, and most involved major legislation or judicial nominees.

Harris’ drawback in bill-writing maneuvers mirrors what Pence faced. Both were members of Congress at one time, but “never really part of Congress,” said Leslie Lenkowsky, a professor emeritus of public affairs at the University of Indiana who has known Pence for years.

They weren’t insiders who chaired major committees or held swing votes. And Harris has been a senator only since 2017.

In the end, Harris watchers say she might not push liberal views as much as some might think, given her background as a former San Francisco prosecutor, California attorney general and U.S. senator.

“When we think of California all we think of is this big blue progressive state. But there are still a lot of conservative areas in California,” said A’shanti Gholar, president of Emerge, which recruits and trains Democratic women to run for office. “To get elected as senator, she did have to understand those people,”

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