Kamala Harris: Vice president on front lines of political crisis

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Vice President Kamala Harris is suddenly at the center of a maelstrom in the 2024 presidential election.

After President Biden’s poor debate performance in late June, a growing number of Democrats are calling on him to drop out of the race for the good of their party and the nation.

Our Revolution, a liberal political action committee, fundraised Wednesday off a post-debate poll of more than 17,000 of its members that said roughly two-thirds wanted Biden replaced at the top of the Democratic ticket.

And prominent donors, including in Hollywood and Silicon Valley, have begun publicly expressing their concern about Biden as the nominee. His interview Friday night with ABC — an attempt to right his campaign — drew tepid reviews, and the number of Congress members calling for Biden to bow out grew to five Saturday.

Biden, 81, has pledged to remain in the race, but if he were to step aside, Harris — the nation’s first female, South Asian and Black vice president — would almost certainly be elevated to lead the campaign against former President Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee.

As San Francisco district attorney, California attorney general and U.S. senator, Harris, 59, had never lost a race when she announced her 2020 presidential bid. She was long viewed as a rising star in the Democratic Party. Beyond representing generational and racial change, her prosecutorial skills shone during incisive, surgical questioning during Senate hearings.

However, after announcing her White House campaign in 2019, Harris was inconsistent and struggled to articulate what set her apart in a crowded Democratic field — and to motivate donors and early-state voters. Campaign infighting did not help. She suspended her bid before the Iowa caucuses, the first nominating contest in the nation.

Biden resurrected Harris’ political prospects by selecting her to be his running mate, adding a youthful, diverse perspective to the presidential campaign of a white, then-septuagenarian at a time the nation’s demographics were shifting and racial turmoil was at the fore.

Democrats recognize that passing over Harris if Biden were to step back would alienate some Black voters, a decision that would be potentially disastrous in battleground states such as Michigan and Pennsylvania. If he were to throw his support behind Harris, a Los Angeles resident for the last decade, it would represent a new wave of national political power for Southern California, a burst that the region has not seen since the days of the late Presidents Reagan and Nixon.

“Just like Biden has a finite amount of time to prove he can stay on the ticket, she has exactly that same amount of time to prove that she should be the nominee if he steps aside,” said Dan Schnur, a politics professor at USC, UC Berkeley and Pepperdine University. “The good news for her is that the way she would prove that she is ready to take the top spot is by saying and doing all the things she would be doing as a running mate anyway.”

For decades, San Francisco dominated Golden State politics, its status cemented by the Bay Area addresses of statewide elected officials and a political machine that produced some of the most prominent national Democrats: former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, former U.S. Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer and California Govs. Gavin Newsom and Jerry Brown.

But Harris — the product of Bay Area politics, which she has described as a “bare-knuckled sport” — acknowledged that the state’s power center has shifted.

“Elected leaders in L.A. are rising to prominence in terms of beyond L.A. itself and beyond statewide, and taking on national roles,” she told The Times in an interview in L.A. last fall. “And doing an extraordinary job, by the way.”

Harris began her migration south while she was dating entertainment attorney Doug Emhoff — she recalls moving in “a couple of sweaters at a time” — and she had permanently relocated to Brentwood by the time they married in 2014.

The couple moved into Emhoff’s multimillion-dollar four-bedroom house (later transferred to a trust using the couple’s initials) on a quiet street of pool-flecked mansions in Kenter Canyon — a neighborhood whose residents have reportedly included model Gisele Bündchen, rap mogul Dr. Dre, Lakers star LeBron James and actress Gwyneth Paltrow.

Once settled, Harris took classes at Brentwood’s SoulCycle and found spots to buy fresh ingredients for her cherished Sunday dinners, such as Huntington Meats near the Grove and the neighborhood farmers market.

The year after Harris moved to L.A., Boxer announced she would retire after her term ended in 2017, creating a chance to launch one of the state’s many rising Democratic figures onto the national stage. Harris seized the opportunity, becoming the second Black woman elected to the upper chamber.

Her ambitions for higher office were clear as she stumped across the country for Democrats during the 2018 midterm elections, shortly before she launched her bid for the White House.

“There was a lot being asked of her as she was entering Los Angeles,” said U.S. Sen. Laphonza Butler, a longtime Harris friend who served as an advisor on her 2020 presidential campaign.

Even before Biden’s stumbles, Harris, like other vice presidents, was viewed as a potential heir apparent, given her visibility on the national stage and her party’s support. One of the most prominent and challenging tasks in her portfolio was trying to improve the economic, security and political conditions in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala to stem the number of migrants making a perilous journey to the United States.

Harris’ approval ratings have long been not much better than Biden’s, though her chances against Trump have improved since last month’s debate.

She has already assembled a network of state officials, local party leaders and donors who could coalesce behind a run for the Oval Office. And some polls indicate that she has advantages among younger Americans and voters of color, key Democratic constituencies.

Heading into the election year, Biden’s team tasked her with trying to motivate those voters to support their reelection. She has spent the better part of a year building her profile around issues that disproportionately affect those groups, becoming the administration’s leading voice on abortion protections, gun safety and climate action.

Last fall, she toured college campuses to rally students around the administration’s efforts on abortion access, climate change, voting rights and LGBTQ+ equality. She launched another tour in January to push back on state restrictions of abortion rights and has held a string of recent events on how the administration is tackling gun violence.

Harris has hit the road more as the campaign heats up, playing an important role in shaping the Biden administration’s message to voters the president needs to win back in November. But she’s also positioned to serve as an advocate for California at a time when the state’s political clout in Washington is waning.

“The shift in power, quite frankly, is away from California” because of Pelosi’s retirement and the loss of seniority in the Senate, said Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, political analyst and co-host of the podcast “Inside Golden State Politics.” “We are lucky to have a Californian in the White House as vice president simply because we don’t have much else left in Washington at this point.”

Harris has allies, and fellow Angelenos, in the Senate. Alex Padilla was appointed to her seat after she was elected vice president, becoming the first Latino to represent California in the upper chamber. Newsom’s subsequent pick of Butler, who has made L.A. her home base, to replace Feinstein has further tipped the scales toward Southern California.

“In the future, when people think of California politics, they’ll increasingly think of Southern California rather than the San Francisco Bay Area,” said Jack Pitney, a political science professor at Claremont McKenna College, who pointed out how “San Francisco Democrat” is no longer Republican shorthand to dismiss more progressive figures.

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