‘THE LAST VOICE IN THE ROOM’

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Kamala Harris is expected to fill the role of the vice presidency in some powerful and untraditional ways.

Vice President-elect Kamala Harris looks on as President-elect Joe Biden delivers remarks about the U.S. economy during a press briefing at the Queen Theater on Nov. 16 in Wilmington, Delaware.

JOE RAEDLE/GETTY IMAGES/TNS

BY DAVID LIGHTMAN
MCCLATCHY WASHINGTON BUREAU

WASHINGTON — Joe Biden has promised that Vice President-elect Kamala Harris will be the “last voice in the room” at crucial moments.

She’ll work for a president who knows what it’s like to have her job.

Harris knows the modern, rabidly partisan U.S. Senate, a Senate that Biden left when the tone and relationships were more cooperative and cordial.

On Jan. 20, Harris will become the nation’s first woman, and the first person of color, to be a heartbeat away from the presidency — and will fill the role in some untraditional ways.

Those familiar with her see Biden playing to her strengths.

President in-training

Harris is unlikely to be a big player on national security or foreign affairs, since she’s had little experience in those fields. They say she could use her extensive legal background to become a key player on such issues as law enforcement and criminal justice.

And she’ll play an important political role, thanks to her “first” stature. “She’s advocated for the issues that represent the most pain for our communities right now,” said Aimee Allison, the Oakland-based founder and president of She the People, a national network of women of color.

Harris will immediately become the unofficial front-runner to succeed Biden, who will be 78 when he’s sworn into office. That means she’ll also be a president-in-training.

“He has said many times he wants to pass the baton, and clearly Kamala Harris will be front and center,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D- Wash., co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.

Full partner

She’ll be an unquestioned full partner in a Biden administration, said Debbie Walsh, president of the Center for American Women and Politics.

“I do think that because Joe Biden was a vice president and because he saw himself as a partner to Barack Obama and talks about it and takes great pride in it,” she said. “He was looking for someone who would be that for him.”

Biden has not specifically said what Harris would do in office, other than the pledge that she would be the last person in the room on key matters.

Since President Jimmy Carter made Vice President Walter Mondale an important player in his administration, the second-in-commands have taken on major roles, usually in areas where they had expertise.

Black women advocate

George H. W. Bush and Dick Cheney were foreign affairs specialists. Al Gore tried to reorganize government and championed environmental issues. Mike Pence heads the administration’s coronavirus task force.

What’s known is that Harris will have a similar, if not more profound, stature at the Biden White House. Harris has made it clear she’ll be a forceful advocate for constituencies that have rarely been in the room where White House policy happens.

“I want to speak directly to the Black women in our country,” she tweeted Monday. “Thank you. You are too often overlooked, and yet are asked time and again to step up and be the backbone of our democracy. We could not have done this without you.”

Harris was San Francisco’s top prosecutor for six years, and California attorney general for six years. Her 2009 book, “Smart on Crime,” describes in detail strategies for effective law enforcement.

Criminal justice reform

After George Floyd died in police custody in Minneapolis on May 25, Senate Republicans offered a plan that would take steps to reduce the use of chokeholds and other potentially lethal restraints.

Democrats, led by Harris and Sen. Cory Booker, D- N.J., said it did not go far enough.

They wanted a ban on chokeholds by federal law enforcement officers and a law making it easier to provide criminal and civil penalties for police misconduct. Democrats blocked the GOP bill in the Senate, ending any effort this year to pass changes.

Asked if having Harris as vice president gave him new hope some accord could be reached, Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, the chief GOP sponsor, said he did not want to discuss her role until a presidential winner becomes official.

Key negotiator

Reform advocates are optimistic.

“The history of her career shows she thinks about it in terms of innovation, about how we create a public safely mechanism that protects victims, makes crime less likely to happen and makes communities engaging with law enforcement safer,” said Myesha Braden, a former federal prosecutor and now director of special justice initiatives at the Alliance for Justice.

Braden saw other system improvements that Harris can promote.

“The very fact you have someone who understands instinctively men are not the only concern in the system and women experience the system differently is groundbreaking. It’s going to make a huge difference,” she said.

Biden, a senator for 36 years, was a key player as vice president in negotiating deals with Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell during Obama’s first term.

Important force

But the Senate has since become more rigidly partisan, and the polite public conduct that was for generations a hallmark of the institution has eroded.

Harris, a senator since 2017, gained national attention for embracing the new, more aggressive style when she sharply questioned Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh in 2018.

Experts said she understands the often hard-to-follow ways of the U.S. Senate, and since she’ll be Senate president, with an office and a 51st vote if needed, she’ll be an important force.

“In terms of understanding the realities and dynamics of the Senate at this time, she gets it,’ said Dan Newman, California political strategist who has been a political adviser to Harris.

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