Kamala Harris is on Joe Biden’s vice-presidential shortlist. But leading up to his pick, the California senator has spent time promoting her progressive collaborations with Bernie Sanders, their old rival for the Democratic nomination.
The strategy isn’t as unexpected or unusual as it might at first seem. Biden himself often consults with Sanders, his longtime friend, on areas where they can unite. With his running-mate selection looming, Harris is making moves in the same, leftward direction, and allies in both camps have taken note.
Harris has, in recent weeks, put her name behind bills that would give Americans $2,000 stipends, provide masks universally across the country, and send supplemental food-stamp benefits to communities in need. Those closest to her say she’s operating from a sincere ideological position and that the public perception of her as a non-progressive has always missed the mark.
“Kamala has always been a progressive despite what a few loud old white men have said,” said a source close to Harris familiar with her thinking. “These bills fit with the type legislation that she always supported while in the Senate.”
But the timing of the legislative output has political implications that extend into the presidential campaign. And it has gotten the notice of some committed Sanders fans.
“Those are good issues and we need more members of the Senate to sign on,” Nina Turner, who formerly served as Sanders’ campaign co-chairwoman, said about Harris’ involvement. “People need help. In moments as critical as these, we need folks to unite, we need allies. You’ve got to give credit where credit is due on that.”
Harris has long been thought of as a top contender to be Biden’s running mate due to her work as a high-profile senator, former attorney general, and enthusiastic following of grassroots support. At 55, she is also more than two decades younger than Biden, who is 77, and would be the nation’s first Black vice president.
But in recent weeks, questions and criticisms have surfaced about her potential as his No. 2. Politico reported that one member of Biden’s VP vetting committee, former Sen. Chris Dodd (D-CT), reportedly told a donor that Harris had “no remorse” when she landed a successful line of attack against Biden during the first primary debate. Two days later, CNBC reported that “a few of his top donors” had been plotting ways to prevent Harris from being selected. CNN followed up with a story quoting former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, who said “Kamala can rub some people the wrong way.”
Beyond a few Biden loyalists, not everyone in Sanders’ circle views Harris’ recent work as a persuasive case that she’d help the ticket move leftward. Some note that she abandoned her support for Medicare for All midway through the primary, after being the first Democrat to sign onto it in Congress nearly three years ago.
Harris memorably put her hand up when a debate moderator asked who on stage supported eliminating private insurance, which Sanders does. She later backtracked, stating to donors that she was not “comfortable” with parts of his plan, and eventually outlined her own proposal that wouldn’t come into full effect for 10 years. The move ended up prompting a torrent of negative press for the senator.
“Kamala Harris was a supporter of Bernie’s Medicare for All bill, the Senate version, then walked away from it,” said Larry Cohen, the chairman of the Sanders-aligned group Our Revolution who is supporting Warren in the vice presidential contest. “And that is, for our folks, one of the most critical issues, given the pandemic and the disaster that we have of the healthcare system.”
But those in her corner feel her willingness to embrace parts of Sanders’ agenda sends a strong signal about how committed she remains to progressive issues, and how she could round out the Democratic ticket at a time when Biden faces mild concerns about his progressive bona fides.
“I do think it is a good reminder to folks [about] the things she prioritizes, especially since this veep search has turned into more Hunger Games than anything,” the Harris confidant said.
Harris was among the first to sign on to Sanders’ Masks for All Act, which would send no-cost masks to every person across the country through the U.S. Postal Service. “We tell people to wear a mask but many communities do not have access to the protective gear they need to keep themselves and others safe. Yesterday I joined @BernieSanders on the Masks for All Act to change that,” Harris wrote on Twitter last Wednesday, linking to an article detailing her involvement with the legislation in CBS News’ local Sacramento affiliate.
Harris is just one of dozens of Hill Democrats, from moderate Sen. Doug Jones (D-AL) to progressive Jeff Merkley (D-OR) to join the bill. But she’s promoted it more publicly than others, especially those mentioned as possible vice-presidential contenders such as Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), who also signed on to the bill.
“There should be no mistake that Kamala Harris is an intelligent, strategic politician, even if you don’t agree with her,” said Cooper Teboe, a progressive Democratic consultant in California who advises both the pro-Biden Unite the County super PAC and top Sanders ally Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA). “What she’s trying to do is show that she can be a team player.”
In May, Harris introduced a bill with Sanders and Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) that pushed the economic-stimulus conversation in Washington in a more progressive direction. The Monthly Economic Crisis Support Act, which she detailed in a video for the left-leaning media company NowThisNews, would send $2,000 a month in the form of a “rebate” to people who earn less than $120,000 to help alleviate their financial burdens.
“Congress must immediately pass my bill with @BernieSanders and @EdMarkey to get $2,000 a month in Americans' hands,” Harris tweeted this past Sunday, resurfacing the effort. Both tweets were sent from Harris’ campaign account, which, at 4 million followers, reaches nearly four times more people than those who follow her Senate handle. She also posted a clip addressing the initiative on MSNBC to her well-trafficked Instagram page. On Tuesday afternoon, Harris sent a list-building email to supporters detailing the plan’s importance.
Harris, along with Sanders and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), introduced a proposal in April called Closing the Meal Gap Act, which would stretch the country’s existing Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program to more individuals suffering during the coronavirus pandemic.
Emmy Ruiz, a Democratic strategist who was a senior adviser to Harris during her presidential campaign, said her movements are helpful in “showing she’s doing what’s best for Americans.” Others in Harris’ inner circle told The Daily Beast they feel similarly about her motivations, and note that she has a well-telegraphed track record of working with elected officials of all political stripes, especially during urgent moments.
The duo have indeed worked constructively together in the Senate before. Since January 2019, congressional records show that Harris has signed on to 18 bills Sanders introduced, while Sanders has similarly added his name on 20 pieces of legislation put forth by Harris.
One current Harris adviser said that she often seeks out opportunities to partner with elected officials to the ideological left of her, as well as occasionally those to the right when appropriate. In February, for example, she celebrated with Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC) and Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) over successfully getting anti-lynching legislation passed in the House. Those moments of Harris’ work history track with Biden’s own approach, who repeatedly talks about the need to bring Republicans into the fold just as much as progressive Democrats.
Meanwhile, those on the right, including on President Donald Trump’s campaign, have sought to group Harris and Sanders together in a negative fashion this week. The latest attempt came over the issue of voting rights for felons, where the president’s re-election team on Monday tried to paint Sanders and Harris together as extremists who “Joe Biden will be taking orders from!”
Trump’s “War Room” cut a clip of Sanders responding to an audience member’s question during a town hall in the primary about whether terrorists should be able to vote from prison by saying “yes, even for terrible people” like Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the architect of the Boston Marathon bombing. Asked a version of the same question by CNN moderator Don Lemon, Harris said “I think we should have that conversation.”
In the intervening months following the primary, however, Harris has turned her political focus to getting Biden into office, defending him from Trump, and working on pandemic policy measures in the Senate.
“She’s been consistent, they have a relationship and a record together,” the adviser said about Sanders. “When it’s their Senate duties, there’s actual shit that needs to get done.”