Kenza Hadj-Moussa has heard skepticism from fellow progressives about Sen. Kamala Harris’ record as a prosecutor in California.
But as they reflect on her selection as Joe Biden’s running mate, they also feel enthusiastic that Harris, who is Black, will appear on the Democratic presidential ticket after years of Black women showing up as one of the party’s most faithful voting blocs.
“She wasn’t a top choice for many progressive groups because of her positions and background as a prosecutor, but it’s always meaningful and exciting when barriers are broken,” said Hadj-Moussa, a spokeswoman for the progressive advocacy group TakeAction Minnesota.
Local Democrats had mixed reactions to Biden’s historic pick of Harris as a vice presidential candidate during a campaign when many argue that defeating President Donald Trump is far more important than electing candidates who pass a progressive litmus test.
Minnesota is not only an emerging swing state where Trump lost by just 1.5% in 2016, but also the epicenter of the national debate over racial justice following the police killing of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, in Minneapolis.
Arguments for greater Black representation in public institutions are converging with a movement to defund police and overhaul a criminal justice system that opponents say unfairly targets Black people — a system that critics of Harris say she perpetuated during her time as district attorney of San Francisco and attorney general of California.
The elevation of Harris, the daughter of Jamaican and Indian immigrants, has divided Democrats across the country and in cities like Minneapolis. Minnesota primary voters on Tuesday expelled four Democratic incumbents in favor of progressive challengers and handed a resounding win to U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar, who has at times bucked the party establishment in Washington.
“What I am excited [about] with this pick is this is someone who’s been really strong on environmental issues and on climate, but also in energizing a base that feels taken for granted by the Democratic Party,” said Omar, who is a whip for the Congressional Progressive Caucus.
Black voter turnout has historically been key for Democratic presidential contenders, and 94% of Black women voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016, the highest rate of any demographic group. But Harris had tepid support among Black voters during her presidential run and dropped out in December.
Minnesota House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, said Harris’ record was well-litigated during the primary and that Biden and Harris could lead change during the country’s reckoning with racial disparities.
Activist Michelle Gross said she’d never vote for a prosecutor, and “especially a prosecutor with her record. Her record is outlandish.” She compared Harris to Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., who was Hennepin County attorney before going to Washington.
“I didn’t want to see her go forward because these are people who made it their business to send a lot of Black and brown bodies into the system,” said Gross, who is president of Communities United Against Police Brutality.
Gross raised questions about the state of California’s case against Efrain Velasco-Palacios, when a prosecutor was found to have fraudulently added a confession to a transcript of the defendant’s interrogation in the midst of plea bargain negotiations. A judge dismissed the indictment as a result, but Harris’ office unsuccessfully appealed that dismissal in court.
“Her background as a prosecutor is unsettling, but that doesn’t mean that she can’t or hasn’t grown and evolved and will continue to evolve,” said Hadj-Moussa. “It’s complicated.”
Minneapolis Council Member Jeremiah Ellison, a lead author of the council’s proposal to dismantle the police department, delivered lukewarm praise of Harris on Twitter.
“And Kamala Harris is the VP pick ... umm, eh,” he wrote. “Glad the wait is over? Hope she tears Pence a new one? Was gonna vote against 45 anyway? I guess, I’m not mad at it.”
Jason Chavez-Cruz, a progressive activist who serves as president of the DFL Party’s youth caucus, said many young voters involved in MYDFL “are not excited” about the pick.
“There’s a lot of concerns from young people all over our state right now, specifically because of the uprising, a lot of young people were hoping we would choose someone on the progressive left wing,” said Chavez-Cruz, a 24-year-old resident of Minneapolis.
Chris Russert said a lot of people had been rooting for Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts or Stacey Abrams, former Georgia House minority leader who narrowly lost her bid for governor. He considers Harris at the “halfway point” between the new generation of progressives such as U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the old guard.
But many are “very excited about how she’s just a lot more representative of what our country and our generation looks like,” said Russert, who is president of the Minnesota State University Mankato College Democrats and a member of the executive board of Indivisible St. Peter-Greater Mankato. “She’s the daughter of immigrants. She’s a Black woman. Even if you don’t agree with her 100 percent, you can’t help but be a little excited that that’s being represented in politics.”
Harris’ Indian heritage has also drawn enthusiasm. Satveer Chaudhary said his Indian-born father called his children and grandchildren for a group video chat Tuesday night and raised his glass to toast the new ticket.
“My read is that there are near-universal celebrations across the Indian and South Asian American communities that want their own as a good chance at being a heartbeat away from the presidency,” said Chaudhary, a former state lawmaker.
“I hope there’s no tug of war between the Asians and the African Americans about who she really is, because to me what it really is, is a unique testament to America’s rich tapestry that two distinct ethnic communities can simultaneously claim identity to one candidate to our country’s second-highest office,” he added. “It’s America at its best.”
State Rep. Rena Moran, DFL-St. Paul and an early supporter of Biden, said that Harris has a wealth of knowledge, experience and expertise. She said it’s important to see beyond people’s flaws, and that Democrats are a party of second chances.
“I am clearly aware that some folks — and many of those may come from the African American community — may be disappointed in her work as the attorney general in California,” said Moran, who co-chairs the legislature’s People of Color and Indigenous Caucus. But “no one is perfect.”