Before D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser changed the name of a street near the White House to Black Lives Matter Plaza in a direct repudiation of President Trump, Joe Biden was already under pressure to choose a black woman as his running mate.
As racial unrest has roiled the country, the push has shifted to which black woman candidate should have the edge, with Bowser, pictured above, now also firmly in the running.
The anger, protests and violent riots in the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of a white Minneapolis police officer has redefined the 2020 campaign, shooting racial injustice to the top of Democratic political agenda and displacing Trump’s handling of the pandemic to his handling of the racial unrest as the Biden camp’s top argument for denying him a second term.
Even as Trump capped the chaotic week with a victory lap on a jobs report showing the economy is bouncing back, he was confronting a backlash from Defense Secretary Mark Esper and several GOP senators about his decision to aggressively clear protests in Lafayette Park, across the street from the White House, so he could hold a photo op in front of St. John’s church.
During Friday’s press conference in the White House Rose Garden, Trump claimed a strong economy would help quell protests and bridge the racial divide. Then he went further, adding, “nobody has ever done for the black community” what he has done.
“We’ve made a big step in our comeback,” Trump said triumphantly.
Reporters were quick to point out the data released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics on Friday showed a slight increase in the unemployment rate for black Americans, from 16.7% to 16.8%.
The comments infuriated leaders in the black community who said the events over the past two weeks should ensure that Biden names a black woman to join him on the ticket.
“I cannot even dignify that with a comment,” Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League, told RealClearPolitics in response to Trump’s Friday remarks less than an hour earlier. “Res Ipsa Loquitur … the thing speaks for itself.”
“In this environment and the events around Mr. Floyd and his untimely death and the reaction to it, what is clear is there is a strong sentiment in the country that this is a time of transformation and a time for progress on racial justice issues,” Morial said. “This strengthens the sentiment that was there before about the need for an African American woman on the ticket.”
Angela Lang, executive director of Black Leaders Organizing for Communities, agrees that Biden would be hard-pressed not to pick a black woman after the events of the past two weeks.
“There’s an outcry, and people want it to be heard, and the way people can be heard is to have that direct representation” on the ticket, she said in an interview Friday.
Back in March, Biden pledged to name a woman running mate and more recently set a deadline of early August to do so. Black community leaders say choosing a black woman would not just send a powerful message and make history but also could boost turnout for Biden at the polls.
Black voter turnout fell in 2016 when Hillary Clinton named Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine as her running mate, even though a record number of Americans cast their ballots that year. It may have been expected with President Obama, the first black U.S. commander-in-chief leaving office, but the 2016 election also marked the first time black voter turnout declined in a presidential election in 20 years.
“African American voters represent the highest voter turnout group in the Democratic Party,” Morial said.
Morial, who served as mayor of New Orleans and as a state legislator, ticked off a number of qualified black woman candidates he said should be in the mix for the role, including Sen. Kamala Harris; Reps. Val Demings of Florida, Marcia Fudge of Ohio, and Karen Bass of California; as well as several mayors, including Bowser, London Breed of San Francisco and Lori Lightfoot of Chicago. Other black leaders are strongly backing Stacey Abrams, the former minority leader of the Georgia House, who turned her narrow 2018 gubernatorial loss and refusal to concede into a cause celebre among Democrats.
Before the last two weeks, Harris was well-positioned to get the nod, but recent scrutiny of her law enforcement background — Harris served as California’s attorney general before winning her Senate seat — was giving some black leaders pause in the wake of Floyd’s killing. Likewise, some black leaders were pointing to Demings’ background as the first female police chief of Orlando, which has a history of excessive-force accusations, as a liability.
Lang warned Biden against “tokenism” and picking a “black woman” for appearances only.
“We want to have someone who is aligned with the values and understands the experiences of what is happening at this point in our society. There are some black women in the running who represent law enforcement officers or prosecutors, and that’s something he needs to weigh heavily given people’s distrust of law enforcement as well.”
During the Democratic presidential primary, several fellow Democrats slammed Harris for her record of jailing people for marijuana crimes and for locking up parents of truants. In recent months as she’s vied to become Biden’s running mate, Harris has tried to shore up her record when it comes to racial injustice and police reforms. But longtime political observers of her California prosecutorial career are pressing her to explain why she now espouses positions she previously opposed or ignored.
A Sacramento Bee editorial board piece published earlier this week pointed out several about-faces with the headline: “Amidst George Floyd protests, Kamala Harris wants police reform. What took so long?” The article points to Harris’ May decision to call for a federal review of the police shooting of African American woman Breonna Taylor while noting that she opposed a 2015 bill to require the California Department of Justice, where she served as attorney general at the time, to review police-involved shootings. She told the Washington Post in 2019 that she “was concerned about taking away authority from locally elected DAs (of which she is a former one) who are held accountable by their constituents.”
The piece also pressed her over her silence regarding state Democratic lawmakers’ efforts to pass a bill last year that shifted the standard for when police can use deadly force from when “reasonable” to when “necessary.”
“That’s exactly what Harris is calling for now, but she remained silent for most of last year despite multiple attempts by The Sacramento Bee Editorial Board to get a comment from her,” the board wrote, opining that Harris was likely influenced by the state’s political system in which prosecutors often have to depend on police endorsements to win their elections.
Morial dismissed the concern about Harris and Demings as a bogus argument that black people shouldn’t take jobs as prosecutors or in law enforcement if they aspire to higher office.
“The question is where does one stand today? What are their positions on police reforms today?” he asked, adding that national views are quickly evolving on the topics of police brutality and racial injustice.
Harris, he said, was unfairly singled out during the Democratic primary for her record as a prosecutor when other candidates, such as Sen. Bernie Sanders, were given more of a pass when it came to his support for the 1994 crime bill, signed into law by President Clinton. Biden also was criticized for strongly supporting the law and its role in increasing the number of imprisoned African Americans. Biden over the last year has been repeatedly slammed from the left and right, Sen. Elizabeth Warren along with Trump, for backing the law, as both have touted their support for a criminal justice reform law that has lowered incarceration rates.
“Bernie Sanders supported the crime bill … so everyone ought to take some heat” on their past positions, Morial argued. “You can’t stand there and be sanctimonious.”
Others are arguing that there’s no need to spark such a divisive debate among the black community when there are other highly qualified black women from which to choose. Lang strongly backs Abrams, who doesn’t have the law enforcement baggage and instead has spent the last year advocating for voting reforms geared toward providing greater voting access for black and other minority communities.
“I have watched [Abrams] for several years and have a deep respect and admiration for her – especially when it comes to voting rights,” she said.