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 to try 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 the gatherings to stir up anxiety instead of using the time to promote ideas for the internal 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.
“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 noted. (She avoided mention of her South Asian upbringing.)
On Aug. 1, in a speech to a women’s convention of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Orlando, Harris spoke out against Florida’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 Joe Biden turned to her to troubleshoot Congress for passage of the Freedom to Vote: John R. Lewis Act, which extended protections of the 1965 Civil Rights Act undercut by the U.S. Supreme Court. Harris could not persuade two 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 Harris could have done more is open to debate. Even now, as she urges the need for protecting voting rights, she offers no practical ideas for expanding political clout under the current climate. Should people consider thoughtful strategies for encouraging migration to build voting power in certain states? Are there any ideas other than simply voting for the Democratic agenda?
As such, the larger question is whether Harris 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 willing to devise a constructive — and relatively independent — policy agenda before the 2024 election. People must move on from the old symbolic “March on Washington” rituals orchestrated by the Rev. Al Sharpton and others to mobilize voters.
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, self-employment, 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 highlighted policies on gun violence prevention to a largely 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 development — and especially that of young men. For years now, the party has distanced itself from the economic and cultural investments Stacy Abrams once called the “Black Men’s Agenda.” Instead, it has offered the drumbeat of significant but ultimately low-investment criminal justice reform.
As such, the symbolic value of Harris in Black political history may be reaching an endpoint. 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 five party stalwarts with institutional or political backgrounds to serve as a stabilizing 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 councilmember 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 international trade matters.
Gretchen Whitmer: Michigan Gov. Gretchen 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 Midwest 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. Patrick also 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 vital for the Black community is crafting a forward-looking agenda of development in a political unity summit.
Roger House is an 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.