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California takes starring role in VP search as Karen Bass ascends and Kamala Harris comes under fire

Kamala Harris, then California attorney general, appears alongside Rep. Karen Bass, right, at a news conference.
Kamala Harris, then California attorney general, appears alongside Rep. Karen Bass, right, at a news conference. The two women are among the contenders to be Joe Biden’s running mate.
(Los Angeles Times)

With speculation over Joe Biden’s choice of a running mate hitting peak breathlessness, the inclusion of two prominent California Democrats on his shortlist is stirring up the Golden State political scene.

The guessing game over the vice-presidential pick — a quadrennial tradition — has centered its focus of late on Sen. Kamala Harris, long considered a front-runner for the job, and Rep. Karen Bass, a newly ascendant contender. The two women hail from opposite parts of the state and have substantially different resumes, but their fate on the presidential ticket has become inextricably linked, thanks to unusually public jockeying by allies on their behalf.

The maneuvers, both overt and private, underscore the high stakes that come with simply being mentioned as a vice-presidential prospect.

“For both Harris and Bass, being seriously considered by Biden means a boost in their future credibility and visibility,” said Rose Kapolczynski, a longtime Democratic strategist in the state. “It lets Kamala recover from a rocky campaign of her own. And it takes a little-known SoCal member of Congress and catapults her onto the national scene.”

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Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee, promised to name a woman as his running mate at the last Democratic primary debate. He is close to making his choice and is expected to announce his decision by next week, a campaign aide said.

Harris and Bass are among the handful of female contenders in the running, including former national security advisor Susan Rice, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Illinois Sen. Tammy Duckworth.

The comparisons between Harris, 55, and Bass, 66, were thrown into relief last month, when Politico published a story assessing Bass’ rapidly rising stock and portrayed her boon as coming at Harris’ expense. Bass was described as the “anti-Kamala Harris,” setting off complaints that the two Black women were being pitted against each other. Subsequent media reports said some Biden allies were concerned about Harris’ loyalty after her confrontation with the former vice president over race in a Democratic primary debate last year.

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But the stories also pointed out troubles closer to home for Harris, a Bay Area native. Rather than rallying around the home-state front-runner for the job, some California politicos have voiced their preference for the lesser-known Bass, who represents Los Angeles.

The break in the ranks started when labor icon Dolores Huerta, who was a co-chair for Harris’ failed presidential bid, endorsed Bass, citing her leadership as then-California Assembly speaker navigating massive budget deficits.

Then John Burton, a former California Democratic Party chair, told Politico that Harris’ debate clash with Biden could be exploited by the Trump campaign.

In Central Valley and other conservative parts of California, small but significant numbers of Republican voters have turned against Trump.

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And last week, the Sacramento Bee editorial board, led by a former Harris aide, endorsed Bass for the job, in part because of the senator’s tenure as California attorney general. The editorial singled out a $400,000 settlement paid by the Department of Justice to settle harassment claims against a former top Harris staffer.

Some of the dissent can be chalked up to good old-fashioned family feuding. Even though Democrats dominate California state politics, they are not monolithic in their political leanings or their personal affinities. Much of the public advocacy on behalf of Bass or Harris reflects long-standing friendships or alliances conveying the kinds of sentiments that usually would be passed along more discreetly.

Harris’ popularity on the national stage belies a more ambivalent view of her among California political insiders. She is broadly admired as a charismatic figure who has impressively risen to the top of the state’s political ranks. But some say it’s difficult to pin down her core beliefs.

“She has terrific superficial strengths as a candidate. But those who’ve watched her long enough and look at her record think it’s rather shallow,” said a San Francisco Democrat who has known Harris for years. The Democrat requested anonymity in order to speak candidly.

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Harris’ hopes to be vice president have been complicated by lingering sensitivities among some in Biden’s camp about their high-profile debate showdown, in which she assailed his work with segregationists to oppose school busing.

Former Sen. Chris Dodd, a member of Biden’s vice-presidential search committee, reportedly was put off by Harris’ lack of remorse about the incident, according to Politico.

Dodd’s comments, echoed by other Biden allies questioning her loyalty, faced a swift backlash, and was widely denounced as a sexist trope that paints ambitious women as untrustworthy. Still, the incident has made some longtime Harris watchers question her sincerity in her relationship with Biden.

Joe Biden is coy about his vice president list, but his consideration of women of color is a milestone. Experts say it shows progress and the need for more representation.

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While Harris has spent most of her career in executive posts, Bass’ political experience is mainly legislative, both in Sacramento and in Washington, D.C — a role that required her to take a team player approach that many of her backers have extolled.

John A. Pérez, who succeeded Bass as Assembly speaker, said that both she and Harris would be “spectacular” as picks, and it may come down to which type of experience Biden prefers.

“Sen. Harris has had to learn in real time how to navigate different spaces — being a prosecutor, being an executive and then moving into a legislative role in the Senate. That’s a different dynamic than somebody who came through as a legislative leader,” he said. “She’s proven to navigate all those spaces and so the vice president needs to decide which skill sets he’s looking for in his running mate.”

Former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa in recent days hasn’t shied away from praising Bass as a potential pick for vice president. Villaraigosa said he and Bass have been friends and political allies since they met in 1973 working on a Los Angeles coalition against police abuse.

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“She’s been involved in building coalitions across racial and ethnic lines since we were kids,” Villaraigosa said.

Bass came under the national glare last week, when her past comments praising the Church of Scientology and former Cuban leader Fidel Castro drew negative media attention.

Californian donors are spending tens of millions on other states’ Senate races, including Mitch McConnell’s, Susan Collins’ and Lindsey Graham’s.

Nevertheless, the public chatter comparing the two women was enough to alarm Harris allies, who last week asked for a meeting with Dodd and other members of Biden’s vice-presidential search team. The roughly 45-minute call included Lt. Gov. Eleni Kounalakis, former Gov. Gray Davis, the mayors of four major cities including San Francisco and various labor and business leaders.

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“She’s the highest-ranking Black woman in the country. You don’t get there unless you are a very special person. Somehow that’s getting lost in this,” Kounalakis said. “It’s not to bash the others. But she has distinguished herself in a far greater way than anyone else on this list.”

Ron Herrera, president of the powerful Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, said he was dismayed by efforts to undercut Harris’ appeal.

“We just have to put our best foot forward and all work together and not buy into the whispers and the smears and everything else that may go on,” he said.

The pro-Harris campaign continued on Monday as a group of South Asian leaders and donors penned a letter to the Biden campaign praising the senator as “pragmatically progressive” and urging her selection.

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So far, both women have shown little public interest in feeding into the narrative that the two are in opposition. Bass has pushed back more vocally, noting that similar comparisons aren’t made about white women in the running for the job.

Speaking to The Times last week about what would make a good running mate, Bass sounded a complimentary note for the state’s junior senator.

“I think a VP candidate at this particular moment in our history needs to be a unifying candidate who can bring our country together that has been ripped to shreds in so many different ways in the last three and a half years,” she said. “I certainly believe that our current senator is an example of a unifying figure.”

Harris, who declined an interview request, has largely demurred from speaking about the vice-presidential selection. On Friday, however, she implicitly pushed back on criticisms of her ambition, speaking to a leadership conference for young Black women.

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“There will be a resistance to your ambition. There will be people who say to you, ‘You are out of your lane,’” she said.

“I’ve had that experience my entire career,” she added.

As Californians — and the rest of the country — await Biden’s choice, some Democrats here are hoping efforts to contrast the two women will die down.

“I think it’s shameful to try to lift one up at the cost of tearing the other one down. Both are well qualified,” said Los Angeles state Sen. Maria Elena Durazo, a powerful former labor leader and vice chair of the Democratic National Committee.

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The various advocacy campaigns may have limited effect on Biden’s personal view of the contenders, said Karen Skelton, a Sacramento-based political consultant.

“It doesn’t matter how many Californians call him,” said Skelton, who served as political director for then-Vice President Al Gore. “What he cares about is how he feels. That’s what it’s going to come down to.”

Times staff writers Mark Z. Barabak and Jennifer Haberkorn contributed to this report.


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