Essential politics: An event with Alec Baldwin. More awkward VP optics?

Kamala Harris speaks at a lectern in front of an American flag
Vice President Kamala Harris speaks at a meeting of the National Space Council in Washington on Dec. 1.
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

As if Vice President Kamala Harris’ week hasn’t been tough enough. On Thursday, she will be the virtual keynote speaker at an event at which Alec Baldwin is the master of ceremonies.

Yes, that Alec Baldwin, a week after his primetime interview discussing the Oct. 21 fatal shooting of cinematographer Halyna Hutchins on the set of the movie “Rust.”

There are many questions about how Baldwin should conduct himself following the shooting, which is under criminal investigation and the subject of two lawsuits. But Harris’ appearance, even if pre-taped and virtual, is awkward.

Good morning and welcome to Essential Politics, Kamala Harris edition.

An unnecessary headache

In July, Baldwin was announced as the master of ceremonies of the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights organization’s Ripple of Hope Awards. The honorees include Stacey Abrams, who has since announced she is running for governor of Georgia; Amanda Gorman, the young poet who spoke at President Biden‘s inauguration; José E. Feliciano, co-founder and managing partner of Clearlake Capital Group; Deven Parekh, managing director of Insight Partners; and Hans Vestberg, chairman and chief executive of Verizon.

Baldwin, who was holding a revolver when the prop gun discharged on the film’s New Mexico set, has since seen his life upended. The actor, a producer on “Rust,” has denied responsibility, saying he did not pull the gun’s trigger and that he had no idea the gun held live ammunition, which is prohibited on movie sets.

A spokesperson for Harris, Sabrina Singh, said the vice president will not be on stage with Baldwin at the event, which is in New York. “The Vice President pre-recorded a video message to honor the Ripple of Hope Award winners and congratulate them for their tireless efforts to protect human rights,” she said in an email.

Baldwin is a longtime liberal activist who has been involved with the RFK group for decades, so appearing at the same event as him would not have registered as a concern for Harris before the incident. But this feels like an unnecessary headache for Harris. The spokesperson for the ceremony and the Kennedy organization declined to comment.


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Change in strategy?

Harris, as mentioned, has had another tough week of headlines. Her most visible spokesperson and advocate, Symone Sanders, announced she was leaving at the end of the year, one of a few high-level departures that have sparked another wave of stories about Harris’ management style and her long-term history of churning through staff members.

Ashley Etienne, Harris’ communications director, is also departing.

On Thursday, I wrote about how anxiety among Democrats over Harris’ performance and public standing have led to more interest in alternative candidates for the 2024 or 2028 presidential nomination, depending on whether President Biden seeks reelection.

The biggest among those names so far is Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, who also sought the 2020 nomination along with Harris. Harris and Buttigieg traveled together for the first time Thursday, sharing a big hug on the runway before heading off to Charlotte to talk about infrastructure.

Will the changes on Harris’ communications team herald a change of strategy? It’s too early to tell. But I have noticed aides have been more aggressive about pushing back publicly against coverage they see as trivial.

The first pushback came on Friday, after a reporter for the publication “Insider” asked “a body language expert — who frequently appears on Dr. Phil and works with U.S. special forces on interrogation techniques — to analyze interactions between Kamala and Pete.


Singh, Harris’ spokesperson, tweeted out a screenshot of the reporter’s tweet, and complained that Harris and Buttigieg “traveled to NC to talk about how the newly passed infrastructure bill would make historic investments for the American people, here is what others chose to focus on …”

On Monday, several White House officials mocked a Politico newsletter that reported on Harris’ use of headphones instead of Bluetooth devices to make phone calls because she sees Bluetooth devices as a security risk.

“The intrepid, substantive reporting on @VP continues. @politico had three rock solid sources for this #scoop,” tweeted Chris Meagher, a White House spokesman.

Sanders, the departing Harris spokesperson, responded sarcastically: “Chris - didn’t you hear? This is what people all over the country really care about and want to know.”

Say what you will about the two stories. Those of us who write newsletters sometimes do write about smaller issues, usually in hopes of making bigger points. Sometimes they hit the mark and sometimes they don’t.

Regardless, they can create easy fodder for those who complain that the news media focuses too much on trivia and not enough on substance.

That’s been a longstanding complaint among Harris’ allies. My colleague, columnist Mark Z. Barabak, opined on Tuesday that Harris is hardly the first vice president to feel mistreated. He cites the depiction of George H.W. Bush “as a syntax-mangling sycophant of the alpha-male President Reagan” and Dan Quayle “who spent much of his four years in the White House as the rep-tied, apple-cheeked butt of countless jokes, from which his reputation never recovered.”


It’s true, Washington coverage can be too heavy on the politics. But we also do the policy.

My colleagues Erin B. Logan and Marissa Evans wrote Tuesday about Harris conducting the White House’s first maternal health summit, during which she pushed Congress to pass the large social safety net and environmental package that would include $3 billion for maternal healthcare and expanded postpartum Medicaid coverage.

Harris drew attention to the country’s high maternal mortality rate, more than double that of most other developed nations, and to even greater disparities for Black and Native American women. Logan and Evans wrote that the summit is part of a larger administration campaign to persuade states to make Medicaid coverage available for a year after childbirth.

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The view from Washington

— Biden warned Russia’s president during a video conference Tuesday that invading Ukraine would result in stiff economic sanctions from the U.S. and several European allies, Eli Stokols reports. The meeting came after Vladimir Putin mobilized some 100,000 Russian forces on the country’s border with Ukraine.

— From David G. Savage: “After imposing a strict church-state separation for decades, the Supreme Court appears poised to allow — and in some cases even require — more government funding of church-run schools.”

— Jennifer Haberkorn reports that Democrats propose a massive shift in how the nation battles wildfires — increasing funding for efforts that aim to prevent fires, such as clearing vegetation and other dry debris that can fuel a fire, rather than focusing on the tools to put them out.

— An attorney for former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows said his client will not cooperate with a House committee investigating the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection. In the abrupt reversal, the attorney cited questions that former President Trump has claimed to be off-limits.

Electric cars, climate credit schemes, diverse boardrooms and legal weed: How California exports its ideas and policies across the U.S.

Nov. 15, 2021

The view from California

— A great read: Many elements of QAnon, a global conspiracy theory that seeks to undermine American democracy, have their roots in movies and TV shows, writes Anita Chabria. Lizard people? Deadly orgies? JFK? For some of the writers who’ve seen their plots repurposed by conspiracists, the results have been “terrifying” and “disturbing.”


— Controversial U.S. Rep. Devin Nunes will retire, report Haberkorn and Seema Mehta. After redistricting, the Republican from the San Joaquin Valley would have faced a tough reelection next year. In 2017, Nunes had to formally recuse himself from the Russia investigation over a briefing he gave former President Trump, who later gave him the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Nunes’ next gig? Heading Trump’s new social media company.

— Gov. Gavin Newsom has struggled with dyslexia since elementary school, and he’s telling his story through a new children’s book. Taryn Luna interviewed Newsom about the project.

— Big changes are coming to the California Capitol, and they won’t come cheap. Columnist George Skelton digs into the $1.3-billion makeover ahead for the building.

Sign up for our California Politics newsletter to get the best of The Times’ state politics reporting.

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