You could feel the winds change direction.
As Sen. Kamala Harris stepped onto the stage to announce her presidential candidacy, one could almost hear the political tides rumble and turn. During the rally, held in Oakland and only a few miles from where she was born and raised, Harris spoke with a clear-eyed sense of both time and place.
There was no naïveté and no feigned effort toward a mythical common ground on display. She did not so much call out to our higher angels as she did demand that we reject our lessers. There have been a flurry of comparisons to Barack Obama’s 2007 announcement speech from Springfield, Illinois, when thousands crowded onto the snowy state capitol. This was stronger.
The daughter of immigrants, Harris used the speech to strategically box out other candidates—current and otherwise—on the issues. And compared to previous 2020 announcements from Sen. Elizabeth Warren and former Obama cabinet member Julian Castro, Harris issued an aggressive challenge to the left flank of the Democratic Party that will be difficult to counter: Step up or step out.
“This is our America,” she proclaimed.
Just then, my 5-year-old granddaughter walked into the room, looked up at the television and exclaimed: “You didn’t tell me we had a girl president!”
“Not yet, baby girl,” I said. “Not yet.”
Democrats, too, are feeling the new wind, and some are reacting to it as badly as you might expect. As the 2020 presidential primary begins in earnest, there are some folks who need to re-run the calculus on their political futures. Several strong candidates are testing the waters—Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton, Beto O’Rourke, and Corey Booker, among them—in a field expected to number two dozen or more hopefuls. Warren, Castro, and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand have already tossed their hats into the ring. The Harris candidacy, though long anticipated, changes the math for many of them.
But that first day on the campaign trail was likely the last easy day the former prosecutor will have for the foreseeable future. After all, she has a record to answer for. People will rightly want to know whether she waged a war on a system that fuels the mass incarceration and hypercriminalization of black men and boys, or if she wittingly uncorked the pipeline and let it flood our streets.
Politics ain’t beanbag.
Policy positions, previous voting records and even some private actions are fair game. The record will be interrogated with the same zeal she brought as San Francisco district attorney when she prosecuted violent felons, or in her questioning of Supreme Court justice nominees as a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Every reasonable question about Harris should and will be asked. But branding the former California attorney general as a housebreaking vixen—as some did over the weekend—is not only a bald-faced lie, it is a grievous mistake. Hear me when I say this: There are knowable, traceable political costs.
Though never divorced, Willie Brown and his wife—by their own accounting—had been separated for over two decades by the time the former San Francisco mayor dated Harris. The May-December relationship was no secret, given the couple’s predilection for appearing arm-in-arm at star-studded events. For their part, the Browns never reconciled and now that separation has extended over five decades. That’s common knowledge for anybody who wants to know it.
In days of old, it was not uncommon for African-Americans to simply separate and never divorce—especially when there was no real property to divide and no formal custody agreement to work out at the courthouse. A man simply picked up his hat and left. The details took care of themselves.
My Uncle Willie and Aunt Maxine were separated for 20 years. They lived around the corner from one another for much of that time before they ultimately divorced. If Willie Byrd were alive today, he’d toss back a shot of Bourbon and say, “Folk need to mind they business.”
Days after her campaign launch rally, Harris is off to a commanding start. Some Democrats and Republicans are dredging up a decades-old, public relationship in a desperate attempt to talk about anything but that.
Last week, a right-wing lunatic named Jacob Wohl claimed the native Californian somehow failed to meet the constitutional citizenship test. It was a malicious and patently racist charge that she did not waste breath responding to, but one that CNN anchor Chris Cuomo seemed to bone-headedly suggest taking seriously.
This week, the vicious and scurrilous assaults took an even uglier turn.
It should be difficult to imagine Democrats slut-shaming an African-American woman. That is, if we didn’t know any better. Today, black women are the dominant force—if not the deciding factor—in national Democratic politics. Our rise exposes and jeopardizes their white privilege—which one does not lose based on ideology. For all of our increased political heft, there was always the assumption that they would remain “in charge.” Just as Barack Obama was and continues to be assailed by some of the left’s most prominent voices, Harris will face more of the same. It appears virulent misogyny is not beneath them.
Progressive activist and Sanders backer Lauren Steiner went after Harris on Twitter. Harris, Steiner wrote, was not with Brown because of “love or physical attraction.” After a torrent of pushback the YouTube talk show host deleted the tweet, but did not directly apologize. Instead, Steiner claimed she did not want to hurt Sanders’ chances in the primary. People like Steiner want us to believe that Harris’s cavalcade of professional achievements was earned on her back rather than on her feet. They want us to believe that it was the curl and sway of her hips rather than the agility and force of her intellect.
Sanders and the other candidates with supporters offering such smears need to declare, publicly and in no uncertain terms, that this sort of “support” isn’t welcome.
Otherwise, they should be held to account as “stories” such as this one are are reportedly spoon-fed to national media outlets and major political blogs by people like Steiner and Miami attorney Jared Beck until it began trending—in the midst of Harris’ declaration of her campaign to seek the presidency. Beck, it should be noted, authored a booked called What Happened to Bernie Sanders and is suing the Democratic National Committee and former chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz for “collusion and fraud.”
As an archetype—hewn from malicious attempts to subjugate black bodies and curtail our rising economic, social and political power—the hypersexualization of black women and girls as ambitious strumpets, courtesans with no value greater than the sum of our body parts, has dangerous, sometimes even deadly consequences.
Attempts to smear Harris say a lot about the kind of people doing the smearing—as well as those who have been noticeably silent as their allies and surrogates push this story. It’s one that speaks, tellingly, to their fears. Defaming Harris as a floozy hellbent on advancing her career by bedding a powerful politician is a reckless gambit Democrats cannot afford. Let me be clear: They do so at the own peril and it won’t be tough to trace the fingerprints.
In the many years since he has held public office, Brown has continued to expand what amounts to a political empire. A prolific fundraiser, whose informal network of lieutenants stretches from sea to shining sea, he has quite literally helped elect more African-Americans to federal, state and municipal office than any other black politician—bar none. That includes mayors, county commission chairs, members of Congress and others. His impact goes well beyond that. Some of the most powerful white politicians in the country, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and a phalanx of men, have benefitted as well.
It ain’t just the money.
Brown is not a household name, but his web of financial and political influencers have had an incalculable impact on Democratic politics. We are talking about the grassroots organizers who fuel municipal-level political machines in cities like Atlanta, Houston, Baltimore, St. Louis and Chicago. Where they go often determines the outcome of primaries and ultimately determine general election turnout—for local, district-level and statewide races. Brown, who does not always appear in person, will play a critical role in determining the nominee—especially if there is a convention floor fight—and he is a force the 2020 Democratic nominee will need to win.
For the record, I have not yet decided who I will support in 2020. I doubt my preferences matter to anyone, but Harris deserves a serious look. I owe that to the people who raised me, like Uncle Willie Byrd, and I owe it to my grandchildren.