Newsletter: A California senator vs. the Indiana VP

Kamala Harris and Joe Biden stand on red white and blue carpeted stage, waving to sparse crowd in debate hall
Democratic vice presidential nominee Sen. Kamala Harris and Vice President Mike Pence take the stage for the vice presidential debate in Salt Lake City.
(Getty Images)

Good morning, and welcome to the Essential California newsletter. It’s Thursday, Oct. 8, and I’m writing from Los Angeles.

On Wednesday night, six days after it was revealed that President Trump had tested positive for the coronavirus, Vice President Mike Pence and Sen. Kamala Harris of California took the stage for the first and only vice presidential debate.

Pence and Harris were auditioning not just for the No. 2 job in the White House but also as future leader of the Republican and Democratic parties, respectively.

The candidates certainly sparred, and occasionally even interrupted. But the general civility of Wednesday’s debate — which actually felt like a debate, and not an MMA match — was probably something of a relief for a nation exhausted by the rancor of last week’s presidential debate. (To say nothing of the exhaustion of an ongoing pandemic, economic devastation, harrowing natural disasters and a news cycle that resembles a jackhammer pounding into our heads.)


As my colleagues have written, the vice presidential candidates may have faced more scrutiny than usual from voters this year, considering that candidates leading at the top of both their tickets are in their 70s and the president was just hospitalized with COVID-19.

But, as veteran political reporter Mark Z. Barabak put it, the clash between Pence and Harris “probably won’t have much effect on who wins the White House, which made the session Wednesday night like every other vice presidential debate: a good deal of sound and fury, signifying little to nothing.”

[Read the story: “Takeaways from the vice presidential debate between Harris and Pence” in the Los Angeles Times]

Much of that sound and fury was focused on the coronavirus, with Harris slamming the Trump administration’s pandemic response within the first few minutes of the debate. In a heated exchange, she characterized President Trump’s handling of the virus as “the greatest failure of any presidential administration in the history of our country.” Pence accused the California senator of misleading voters about White House actions and argued that Harris and Biden’s proposed pandemic response plan was so similar to the current administration’s that it might amount to plagiarism, which gave him a handy opportunity to allude to an incident more than 30 years ago when Biden was accused of plagiarizing a speech. See my colleague Matt Pearce’s live fact-check of the debate for a more thorough breakdown of how Pence overstated the administration’s early pandemic response.

Pence countered Harris’ attacks on the administration by trying to paint a dark portrait of what the U.S. might look like under a Biden administration, saying the pair were putting their “radical environmental agenda ahead of American autoworkers and ahead of American jobs.”

[Read more: “Fact-checking the Pence-Harris vice presidential debate” in the Los Angeles Times]

COVID-19 was front and center, but the economy, China, healthcare, abortion, climate change, racial justice and the question of court-packing were all on the docket as well during the debate. (As for the last item, Harris sidestepped answering Pence’s question on whether a President Biden would support enlarging the nine-member Supreme Court to dilute its conservative majority.)

[Read more: “Harris-Pence debate: A round-by-round scorecard of the vice presidential matchup” in the Los Angeles Times]

The California senator had a particularly vertiginous tightrope walk to carry out, navigating the race and gender politics implicit in being a Black, Indian American woman debating on a stage that has been overwhelmingly dominated by white men. Harris is the first woman of color on a major party presidential ticket and only the third woman to engage in a national televised vice presidential debate.

BuzzFeed News reported that as they prepped her in Salt Lake City, Harris’ team “shaped a strategy in part around the reality that she is likely to be perceived differently than the white male candidate standing opposite her” and weighed “the question of how to deal onstage with stereotypes that paint women, and especially Black women, as angry and overly emotional.”

That strategy was probably reflected in how Harris chose to push back on Pence’s interruptions, employing a presumably rehearsed line that will probably be printed on campaign T-shirts by the time you’re reading this: “Mr. Vice President, I’m speaking.” Quite a contrast from Joe Biden’s “Will you shut up, man” last week. It was polite but firm, showing a deliberately measured approach from a career prosecutor who verbally lacerated her now running mate in a primary debate.

And she certainly made sure to smile, frequently deploying a look of wry bemusement to telegraph her distaste or disbelief toward certain points made by her opponent.

And now, here’s what’s happening across California:

Can California ban fracking? When Gov. Gavin Newsom promised last month to phase out gas-powered vehicles and called for an end to fracking in California, his announcement drew national attention and thrust him to the forefront of the fight against climate change. But his request for the California Legislature to ban hydraulic fracturing by oil and gas companies is being met with skepticism by lawmakers who say outlawing the practice will require more from Newsom than merely words. Los Angeles Times

Note: Some of the sites we link to may limit the number of stories you can access without subscribing.


L.A. County reported its highest daily coronavirus case count in six weeks. “While one day of a high number of cases does not indicate a trend, this is something we need to watch closely,” Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said. Los Angeles Times

Nightly police protests become a “lifestyle” for some activists, despite risk and rising tensions. Los Angeles Times

Support our journalism

Subscribe to the Los Angeles Times.


Will there be a second presidential debate? The Commission on Presidential Debates announced Thursday morning that the next debate will be held virtually as questions swirl about how long President Trump will remain infectious with COVID-19. But Trump said he will not participate in a virtual debate. Los Angeles Times

Lawmakers say changes at California’s unemployment agency don’t do enough to address problems: The new system is experiencing long wait times, and tens of thousands of jobless people who signed in did not complete the process in its first six days. Los Angeles Times

Rep. Salud Carbajal (D-Santa Barbara) has tested positive for the coronavirus. Carbajal said he had interacted with Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah). The Utah senator announced Friday that he had the virus and had previously attended the White House Rose Garden event associated with the outbreak at the White House. Los Angeles Times

A staff intern in Gov. Newsom’s office and another state employee who interacted with members of the governor’s staff have both tested positive for the coronavirus, though neither came in contact with Newsom or his top advisors, the governor and his spokesman said Wednesday. Los Angeles Times

The legal travails of Rep. Devin Nunes continue: The extremely litigious Central Valley congressman is now trying to change the bedrock of U.S. libel law, via a brief filed in a federal appeals court. Fresno Bee


Hope fades for fire-dampening rainfall in Napa and Sonoma counties, where the Glass fire continues to rage. San Francisco Chronicle

Unsafe to drink: Wildfires threaten rural towns with tainted water. CalMatters


Many pop-up fall plant sales have been canceled because of COVID-19, but some are soldiering on. Here are five not to miss in Southern California. Los Angeles Times

Is Amazon coming to Visalia? Rumors swirled after the city’s mayor announced that an “Amazon project” was headed to northwest Visalia during a recent City Council meeting, but he later told the local paper that Amazon was not yet officially connected to the project. Visalia Times-Delta

Bay Area co-living startup HubHaus is imploding, stranding renters and homeowners. San Francisco Chronicle

“John Steinbeck, bard of the American worker.” A new biography examines the life of Salinas’ most famous native son. New York Times

Lynell George’s favorite California books: In conversation with Alta’s new California Book Club, the L.A. author name-checks a few of her most treasured California reads, including Wanda Coleman’s “Imagoes” and James M. Cain’s “Mildred Pierce.” Alta Magazine

A poem to start your Thursday: “Monet’s Waterlilies” by Robert Hayden. AfroPoets

Free online games

Get our free daily crossword puzzle, sudoku, word search and arcade games in our new game center at


Los Angeles: partly sunny, 78. San Diego: partly sunny, 73. San Francisco: partly sunny, 62. San Jose: partly sunny, 69. Fresno: partly sunny, 80. Sacramento: partly sunny, 76. More weather is here.


Today’s California memory comes from Gary Collins:

After WWII, my grandparents bought a piece of property in Ontario and a big WWII Army surplus tent. They lived in the tent for half a year while my dad and uncles built a home for them. At various times, the grandkids would get to stay with them overnight in the tent. For a 6-year-old, it was a lot of fun visiting them. The house was not very big, but a great place for family Christmas and Thanksgiving dinners. We lived at a much simpler time.

If you have a memory or story about the Golden State, share it with us. (Please keep your story to 100 words.)

Please let us know what we can do to make this newsletter more useful to you. Send comments, complaints, ideas and unrelated book recommendations to Julia Wick. Follow her on Twitter @Sherlyholmes.