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Column: In California Sen. Kamala Harris, Biden chooses a VP hailing from our most diverse state

Vice President Joe Biden shakes hands with Sen. Kamala Harris as her husband Douglas Emhoff, looks on in 2017.
Vice President Joe Biden shakes hands with Sen.-elect Kamala Harris as her husband, Douglas Emhoff, looks on during her swearing-in in 2017.
(Kevin Wolf / Associated Press)

It’s fitting that California, arguably the nation’s most diverse state, would produce the first woman of color to be placed on a major party presidential ticket.

We’re always ahead of the curve, right? At least that’s what we tell ourselves. In this instance, we clearly are — a historic feat that deserves celebration by all Americans, regardless of their politics.

We shouldn’t pat ourselves on the backs too enthusiastically, however. California, by far the nation’s most populous state, still has not elected a female governor. Many other states have. Neither have we elected a governor of color.

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This is also a state of immigrants. And fittingly, Sen. Kamala Harris is the daughter of immigrant parents — a father from Jamaica, a mother from India. Harris is not only the first Black woman, but also the first Asian American person to be given a spot on a major presidential ticket.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, California’s population is 39% Latino, 37% white, 15% Asian, 6% Black, 3% multiracial — like Harris — and fewer than 1% Native American or Pacific Islander.

That gives former prosecutor Harris a special license to articulate the case against President Trump’s xenophobic, family-ripping immigration policies.

Her verbal fighting skills — in a debate, on the stump or in TV interviews — were obviously a key selling point to presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden. She’s very capable of drawing blood from an opponent.

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Biden doesn’t have to worry about Harris slacking off on the campaign trail — as some presidential candidates have had to in the past. She’s an eager brawler.

“Joe has long been impressed by how tough Kamala is,” the Biden campaign stated in announcing the selection of Harris.

It added: “Kamala doesn’t hesitate to take on powerful people and powerful interests and that’s exactly the kind of leader Joe wants by his side to rebuild this country and restore the soul of the nation.”

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Well, that’s a reach — that part about taking on powerful people and interests.

Critics of Harris’ performances as California attorney general and San Francisco district attorney have cited her caution in taking on tough foes, especially if it would alienate her core constituency: law enforcement.

Now she’s a loud advocate for police reform. But as attorney general she largely avoided intervening in cases involving questionable police killings.

Harris also declined to take positions on controversial ballot measures, including two to abolish the death penalty — a practice she claimed to abhor — and another to reduce prison sentences.

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As a presidential candidate, Harris wavered on the hot issue of universal healthcare, flip-flopping on whether private insurance should play a role.

But none of that will matter this fall, except as attack fodder for Trump.

There’ll be no agonizing by Harris over policy positions. Like all veep candidates — Biden included under Barack Obama — Harris’ positions will be decided by the presidential nominee.

Harris’ strength is in her prosecutorial skills, not her policy wisdom or tactical genius. And that’s what Biden is counting on.

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Another huge selling point for Harris, 55, was Biden’s expected comfort level with her. That’s because of her close working relationship with Biden’s son, Beau, when both were state attorneys general.

“Back when Kamala was attorney general, she worked closely with Beau,” Biden tweeted supporters Tuesday. “I watched as they took on the big banks, lifted up working people and protected women and kids from abuse. I was proud then and I’m proud now to have her as my partner in this campaign.”

It seems Biden watched his son a lot more than Harris.

This was by far Biden’s most important campaign decision and he deserves credit for following his gut. But we need to wait and see how this turns out — and whether Harris turns off suburban Republican women in key battleground states such as Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania.

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Is Harris an asset, who will energize young people and women of color to vote in droves — or did Biden violate the Hippocratic oath about first doing no harm? We won’t know until November.

The appointment promises to be one of the most consequential of his political career, both in California and in regard to any ambitions he may have for White House.

Some insiders had warned Biden that Harris seemed too “ambitious” and could be disloyal. This was largely based on Harris’ attack against Biden on busing in an early debate.

But Biden made a point of showing he doesn’t hold a grudge.

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Another California VP prospect, Los Angeles Rep. Karen Bass, was apparently passed over for a few reasons:

She wasn’t as experienced a campaigner as Harris. She hadn’t even run a statewide campaign, let alone one nationally. Plus, she and Biden weren’t particularly close. She didn’t come across as a fighter. And she praised Cuban leader Fidel Castro when he died, which could have cost Biden any chance of carrying Florida.

But Bass, who is Black, is a classy, nonpolarizing career-long fighter for civil rights. She chairs the Congressional Black Caucus and was Speaker of the California State Assembly. She’s a likable liberal who can deal with conservative Republicans.

Based on polls, the Biden-Harris ticket should win on Nov. 3. That will open up a Senate vacancy that Gov. Gavin Newsom legally can fill on his own — unfortunately — without a vote of the people.

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Bass should top Newsom’s list of potential new senators.

One bit of trivia: Harris will be the first major vice presidential candidate from California since Richard Nixon in the 1950s. Hopefully that’s an irrelevant asterisk.

Harris’ selection is proof we’ve all grown a lot since then.


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