In 1984, the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s insurgent, multiracial campaign threatened to upend the Democratic Party. But by the time the Democratic convention opened in San Francisco, Jackson had made peace with the eventual nominee, former vice president Walter Mondale, declaring in his historic prime-time speech that he would “be proud to support” him. Representative Geraldine Ferraro made history as the first female vice-presidential candidate. The convention was a love-fest, although the ticket bombed that November.
Only one cloud shadowed the gathering in the days before: Black female Democrats, furious that only white women (Ferraro, then–San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein, and Representative Pat Schroeder) made Mondale’s VP short list, threatened a convention disruption to draw attention to the inequity. I remember, because it was my first national “scoop”; then–California State Representative Maxine Waters, now the legendary congresswoman, told me about it in a pre-convention interview for In These Times. In the end, there was no disruption; Waters and others held a lightly attended press conference to spotlight their cause. I can find no record of coverage on Google. I pretty much had my scoop to myself.
Thirty-six long years later, black women, now recognized as the bedrock of the Democratic Party, have much more leverage, and they are using it to push former vice president Joe Biden, very hard and very publicly, to pick a black woman as his running mate. Last Friday, 200 prominent black female Democratic leaders and activists signed a letter to that point (by Thursday morning, another 262 had joined them). “We’ve heard for years that Black women are the backbone of the Democratic Party; now is the time to put deeds to words,” prominent Democratic Party activist Karen Finney told The Washington Post. “We felt it was important to unify and lift up our voices with a clear message in support of a Democratic vice presidential nominee who is female and black.”
The letter didn’t back any one candidate, but put forward a list of qualified women, including former Georgia legislative leader and 2018 gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams; 2020 presidential contender California Senator Kamala Harris; Representatives Karen Bass of California, Val Demings of Florida, and Marcia L. Fudge of Ohio; Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance-Bottoms; and Susan E. Rice, former national security adviser under President Barack Obama as well as onetime ambassador to the United Nations.
“To have multiple black women in a vetting process—women who could be not only VP but president—shows you the amazing pipeline of black women leaders,” says signatory Glynda Carr of Higher Heights for Women, which promotes the political engagement of black women. Many women I interviewed said the exact same thing: “If not now, when?”
Biden has already pledged to pick a woman, and Abrams and Harris are said to be on his short list, along with Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, and, lately, Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer. But some black women worry that there are two tiers—with the white women considered the more “serious” candidates. “I’ve really been annoyed by the disparate treatment between black women and white women in this process” by the media and some politicos, adds Democratic leader Bishop Leah Daughtry, another backer of the effort. “It felt as though there was a tacit acceptance that Klobuchar, Warren, and maybe Whitmer were the leaders, and Stacey and Kamala were just ‘also mentions.’”
Nobody behind this effort is threatening to sit out the election if the VP pick isn’t black. “I haven’t heard one person say, ‘We won’t not vote for Biden if he doesn’t pick a black woman,’” Daughtry says. The leverage their effort brings is enthusiasm. “It’s the difference between ‘I’ll vote for you, and maybe write a check,’” says Minyon Moore, a longtime party leader and Hillary Clinton insider, “and ‘I’m going to get my mother, father, sister and brother and everybody in my family to vote.’” Black turnout slipped seven points between 2008, when Obama was first elected, and 2016. “We think this is a way to mobilize black women to create genuine enthusiasm—to close the [black] enthusiasm gap we saw between 2008 and 2016,” says Carr.
Many of my dozen or so interviews for this story came after new accounts surfaced in the case of Tara Reade, the former Biden staffer who last year accused him of inappropriately touching her neck and shoulders when she worked for him in 1993, and in late March said he sexually assaulted her. All of the women I talked to about it were concerned about the allegation, but there was consensus around one thing: Absent more solid corroboration, any move to sideline Biden over the charge would risk alienating the black voters who, from South Carolina through Michigan, made him the nominee. “It would crush [black voters’] enthusiasm,” one woman who signed the letter told me.
When it comes to voter enthusiasm, Biden has other considerations, of course, especially bringing in fervent supporters of Senator Bernie Sanders. Given Biden’s pledge to pick a woman, though, there’s no obvious candidate who will do that. (If Representative Pramila Jayapal had been born in the United States, she might well be on Biden’s short list.) Senator Elizabeth Warren is an obvious choice to bring in a large segment of the left, but not the hard-core Sanders supporters who thought she betrayed the left by refusing to endorse him when she dropped out.
Then there are those who say Biden needs someone who can pull in the Midwestern states that abandoned Clinton in 2016. That faction is talking up Klobuchar, the former presidential candidate who endorsed Biden on the eve of Super Tuesday, and Whitmer, who has emerged as a hero of the coronavirus crisis.
But Biden himself is supposed to be the candidate for the states that abandoned Clinton in 2016. The man from Scranton won the Michigan and Wisconsin primaries, which Clinton lost to Sanders, and then to Trump that November; he’s leading in those states against Trump, as well as in Pennsylvania and Ohio, two other states that slipped out of the Democratic column four years ago. Also, Klobuchar will have trouble with two key Democratic constituencies: black voters and the left.
Try explaining to black women why a white female former prosecutor is a better choice than Harris, who was excoriated by some on the left for her mixed record as San Francisco district attorney and then California attorney general. “Why didn’t we ever hear ‘Amy is a cop’?” one black leader asked, echoing the epithet some lefties threw at Harris. And try explaining to Sanders voters why you picked the candidate who stood out for mocking the aspirations of the left (as in her early quip, “I wish I could staple a free college diploma under every one of your chairs. I do. Don’t look. It’s not there,” at a CNN town hall for New Hampshire college students last April, resisting other candidates’ calls for free college).
Within the group of black women leading this effort, opinions vary about the best choice for Biden, but the two leading contenders, in this group and nationally, are Abrams and Harris. Finney says another motivator behind the effort was that “we saw it shaping up as Stacey versus Kamala and we said let’s not play that game—they’re both great.”
Abrams is thought to be more palatable to progressives, since Sanders’s campaign cochair Nina Turner endorsed her 2018 bid for governor, and Georgia progressives strongly rallied behind her. By some measures, though, she is more moderate than Harris (being from Georgia, she almost has to be). In her campaign for governor, she backed Medicaid expansion but did not, and still has not, come out for Medicare for All; Harris is a cosponsor of Sanders’s bill, though she introduced her own plan that left a place for tightly regulated private insurance, alienating some Sanders backers.
In a poll of 900 women of color conducted by She the People, a group that works to advance the political and policy interests of women of color, Abrams and Harris came out on top, in that order. Abrams’s backers say she’s the kind of “movement” candidate Biden needs. In her near-victory in the 2018 governor’s race—many people think she’d be governor today except for Brian Kemp’s voter suppression—she got more votes than any Democrat in Georgia history and mobilized an unprecedented wave of black voters.
Harris has strong backers, too, within this group and beyond. The Grio’s Jason Johnson wrote last week: “Joe Biden’s VP pick better be a black woman—and it needs to be Kamala Harris.” (Interestingly, four GOP strategists interviewed by Politico this week to size up the Democratic field all said Harris was Biden’s best choice as well.) “Kamala ran a large bureaucracy [as California attorney general], and because she’s now a senator, she’d be a great partner with legislative leaders,” says Daughtry, who is neutral. Because her campaign unraveled before voting began, “people forget how inspiring she can be, with crowds and on the debate stage,” said one woman who spoke on background. “She can chop someone up in a Senate hearing, and then be unbelievably charming teaching [Senator] Mark Warner how to make a tuna melt.”
But Harris’s top debate-stage moment could also doom her chance to be Biden’s running mate, since it came as his expense. Noting his early-career opposition to mandatory busing, she referenced a child who was among the first bused across Berkeley, California, to integrate schools there, ending with the flourish: “That little girl was me.” She briefly became one of the front-runners after that performance, but it also helped doom the campaign, with Biden backers going scorched-earth against her.
Harris and Biden seem to have patched things up: She enthusiastically endorsed him, campaigned with him, and this week did a virtual town hall with him on racial disparities in the response to the COVID-19 pandemic. But people around the former vice president have yet to forgive her—most notably, three sources told me, Jill Biden and the candidate’s sister, Valerie. Still, since Biden himself has made clear his priorities are finding a running mate who has the experience to serve as president and also be a governing partner, some say that could lead him to pick Harris, despite their debate clash, over Abrams.
A couple of the women leaders I talked to, while supportive, had slightly mixed feelings about the effort. “I think it would be a disaster not to have a diverse ticket, and it’s past time to have a black woman on the ticket,” says strategist Aisha C. Moodie-Mills, who hasn’t signed the letter, though she backs the intent. “But we can’t get lost in the singularity of that demand.” Mills says her top priority is mobilizing black voters, who already face GOP disenfranchisement, while a deadly pandemic makes that job even harder. “The thing I’m nervous about is saying, ‘Let’s get a black woman VP’ and then people taking for granted that’s all it takes to turn black voters out.” To be fair, all of the organizers behind the VP push also talked about the need for the Biden campaign to invest in ways to turn out Democrats, especially black voters, under the threat of the coronavirus, and many back the push to have national vote-by-mail.
There is also concern that the effort could pit black women against Latinas, at a time when some are saying Biden’s best path to victory is activating the under-mobilized Latino community. But Aimee Allison of She the People rejects that dichotomy. “As a progressive who represents a multiracial coalition, my priority was, first, a woman of color,” she says. “And then we polled our members and the top two choices were Stacey and Kamala, in that order,” she says, and so she personally supports Abrams. “We do need to acknowledge enough hasn’t been done [by Democrats] to expand the Latino electorate. We do need more representation.” One result of the lack of Latina representation, some note, is that there are fewer women perceived as ready to be president, though first-term Nevada Senator Catherine Cortez Masto is high on some lists, as is New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham, a former House member elected governor in 2018.
Finally, several women told me they’d be happy, in the end, if Biden chose Elizabeth Warren, who got high marks from Allison and others for her assiduous outreach to black women during the primary, even if it didn’t result in much black voter support. “I don’t want people to see this as advocating against anyone, but for ourselves,” says Minyon Moore, who also praises Warren. “Whoever he picks, we’re gonna have to double down and get them elected.”
On Thursday morning, Biden announced his vice-presidential selection committee. Its cochairs are former senator Chris Dodd, Delaware Representative Lisa Blunt Rochester, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, and longtime Biden adviser Cynthia Hogan. They will work with vetting teams headed by former White House counsel Bob Bauer, Biden campaign general counsel Dana Remus, and former Homeland Security adviser Lisa Monaco. The list was not a big hit with the women I talked to: Dodd had his own #MeToo problems in the 1980s. Of the seven, five are white; Rochester is black, and Eric Garcetti’s paternal great-grandparents immigrated from Mexico. There’s not a genuine progressive, or a Latino with direct heritage, in the group.
If progressives want a diverse ticket, one woman who signed the letter said to me on background, “we are really going to have to push.”