Inside the grueling VP search that led Joe Biden to Kamala Harris
WASHINGTON — Joe Biden sat in front of a laptop computer at his home office in Wilmington, Del. It was around 2:45 p.m Tuesday, and after a months-long search, he was about to reveal one of his biggest campaign decisions to the woman who would make history.
Earlier in the day, Biden called all the women who were finalists in his search for a vice presidential running mate, including Sen. Tammy Duckworth and Rep. Val Demings. He talked about his decision and ultimately informed them he had chosen someone else.
On the former vice president’s desk was a framed photo of the classic cartoon, “Hagar the Horrible.” In one frame, Hagar, a disheveled Viking, says,” Why me?!” In the next, the gods above reply, “Why not?”
The tenuous and drama-filled process that left politicos and voters alike on the edge of their seats was over. He’d made his decision.
He called Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., on Zoom.
“You ready to go to work?” Biden asked her.
“Oh my God. I am so ready to go to work,” Harris replied.
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At 4:14 p.m., the Biden campaign broke the news in a mass text message to supporters. Harris, a first-term senator from California and one of his former Democratic primary opponents, was his long-awaited pick as running mate in a history-making move elevating the first Black woman and first Asian American person to a major party presidential ticket.
Supporters close to Biden described a “deliberative” process that encompassed several weeks, 11 serious candidates, 120 hours of interviews and, eventually, one name.
“He knew exactly what he was looking for in a VP because he’s been a VP,” said Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-La., national co-chairman of the Biden campaign. “He was doing an analysis of one, who he could work with, two, who could help him win, three, who could help him govern. And who he clicked with.
“I think he uses the word, ‘simpatico.’ I think he really spent time figuring that out.”
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A groundbreaking choice and a secret to keep
The selection of Harris, the daughter of immigrants from Jamaica and India, came amid increasing pressure to choose a woman of color for the Democratic ticket, particularly during a period of heightened racial polarization touched off by the death of George Floyd that triggered nationwide protests over police brutality and racism.
While groundbreaking, the selection of Harris was also conventional with Biden opting for Washington experience, a senator and ticket balance. Harris is 55 years old, 22 years younger than Biden, 77, and hails from the West Coast in contrast to Biden’s East Coast roots.
In the hours before Biden broke the news, he called a number of close advisors and told them the secret talking heads across the country spent weeks speculating about.
Richmond was one of the few. “He was excited. I was certainly excited. And it was, ‘Now let’s go win.’ ”
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Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., whose endorsement helped turn around Biden’s floundering primary campaign, was another who got the early heads up. He said keeping the news quiet from his three daughters was a difficult challenge.
“Hopefully they’ll forgive me for not letting the cat out of the bag,” Clyburn said with a smile in a video call with reporters Tuesday.
For Harris’ part, she didn’t give any public indication in the days leading up to Tuesday that she knew she was Biden’s pick.
South Carolina state Rep. J.A. Moore, a supporter of Harris’ primary campaign, received a call from her Sunday, but it wasn’t to talk politics, he said. Instead, she called to sing happy birthday to Moore’s daughter, who had just turned 1.
“I look at her as an auntie,” Moore said of Harris, adding that they have checked in several times since the senator ended her presidential bid.
A running mate search process unlike any other
Making this vice presidential search different than others before it, Biden in March vowed to choose a woman. The vetting process was also constrained by a global pandemic, with virtual meetings replacing some that might normally occur in person.
The selection followed more than 120 hours of meetings via FaceTime between Biden’s vice president selection committee co-chairs – Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester, D-Del., former Connecticut Sen. Chris Dodd, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and Cynthia Hogan, Biden’s legal counsel when he was vice president – and Democratic activists, party leaders, and interests groups.
The group also met with organizations that specialize in getting women elected to office to prepare for hurdles that a male vice presidential candidate wouldn’t face.
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Splitting into pairs, the co-chairs met virtually with an initial group of more than 20 vice presidential contenders, asking each a list of uniform questioning that included, “What would you want your agenda to be? What do you think Trump’s nickname for you will be?”
Biden’s selection committee submitted their findings and assessments to both Biden and his wife, Dr. Jill Biden, who played a central role. The larger list was whittled to 11 finalists, who underwent a deep vetting.
“He said, ‘I’m not looking to make a demographic or a political or a geographic choice, I’m looking for the best partner in governance. I’m looking for the right vice president,’ ” Garcetti told USA TODAY, describing Biden’s directions to kick off the nearly four-month search process. “He was very clear about that.
“Second, he was very protective about everybody in the process. He’s been through this himself. To have Joe Biden ask you to help him find a vice president is like Michael Jordan asking you to find a shooting guard to be alongside him.”
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Richmond said he believes picking a woman of color went into Biden’s thinking but that it wasn’t the overriding consideration.
“Since George Floyd, this country has been in a real inflection point,” Richmond said. “I don’t think that was the major factor. But did he notice she was a woman of color? Absolutely.”
Along with Harris, Demings and Duckworth, the 11 women vetted were Massachusetts U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, California U.S. Rep. Karen Bass, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, voting rights activist Stacey Abrams, former National Security Advisor Susan Rice, and Wisconsin U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin.
Although Biden never eliminated any of the 11 from consideration, he zeroed in closest on Harris, Bass, Duckworth, Whitmer and Rice, whom he’d work with in the Obama administration, according to people familiar with Biden’s thinking.
Leading the vetting process was Bob Bauer, lead counsel for the Biden campaign, Lisa Monaco, Obama’s former Homeland Security adviser, and Dana Remus, deputy White House counsel under Obama. More than a dozen attorneys worked pro bono to conduct a deep dive of the candidates and their backgrounds.
Biden met with all 11 candidates – some in person, others virtually – before ultimately choosing Harris, long considered one of the frontrunners for the job. Among those he met in person were Rice and Whitmer. As a whole, the search committee did not make a final recommendation to Biden, but some senior campaign officials made a strong case for Harris.
“I think there’s a deep bond there – of course momentarily frayed, maybe, in the the campaign,” Garcetti said, referring to the desegregation attacks Harris torpedoed Biden with on the debate stage last year.
During the first Democratic debate last year, Harris went after Biden on his civil rights record and Biden touting his ability to work with Republicans, including segregationist Sens. James Eastland and Herman Talmadge. She went on to criticize his opposition to school busing in the 1970s, telling the story of a girl in California who was part of just the second integrated class in her school.
“That little girl is me,” Harris said in a moment that went viral and was credited in helping give her a short-lived bump in the polls.
“He moved on from that the moment after it happened. I just kind of reminded him that I thought that they had that bond that, he’s running because of Beau’s memory, I think, as much as anything else,” Garcetti said, referring to Biden’s oldest son who was close with Harris before his death in 2015. “And she’s the one who’s the quickest route to that. That can’t be (overstated).”
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Like other search committee members, Garcetti said he learned Harris was the pick from Jill Biden on Tuesday – but he had a “strong sense” that was the direction in the final days. The decision became clearer when he started to get phone calls from other candidates who were just told they didn’t get the nod.
“I would say sometime between Monday morning and Tuesday morning is probably when he said, ‘Let’s go.'”
Hours of interviews and deep dives into history
The process was grueling and at times emotional for the candidates, even more so for those who had not been through such rigorous vetting for a White House position, according to those who were close to the process. Candidates had to block off large portions of their schedules to go through every aspect of their public and private lives, often unable to rely solely on staff because many details are held only by the candidates themselves.
Some candidates reached out to members of Biden’s inner circle for informal advice as they moved through the process. A source familiar with the process said several of the candidates, including Harris, talked with Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., a longtime Biden confidante. Coons would sometimes pass along noteworthy comments to the Biden campaign after those conversations, the source said, but noted Coons would typically direct the candidates to the campaign’s official channels.
Most of the women considered appeared to leave the process with a sense of gratitude and honor.
“It was amazing to be associated with all of them and I know that all of them share the same ceiling that I do, which is deep respect and honor as having been a part of the process,” Bass told USA TODAY.
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After Biden called her Tuesday afternoon with the news she was not his choice, Bass said she was excited and knew Biden would pick “the strongest choice.”
“I think that the vice president, having served as vice president, knows exactly who is the best person for the job, and he made that choice,” Bass added.
Baldwin said she was similarly “excited” about Biden’s selection. In Harris, with whom she serves in the Senate, Biden had found someone who “would be ready on day one.”
According to people familiar with the candidate meetings, the selection committee was impressed with Harris’ command of issues and confidence in her ability to take on Trump. Harris also “spoke powerfully” about her friendship with Biden’s son late Beau. The two developed a bond when Harris was attorneys general in California and Beau Biden held the same role in Delaware. Harris’ personal story, the daughter of immigrants who has experienced the “American success story,” resonated as well.
In the end, sources said Biden saw Harris as someone who could be a “governing partner” – much the way Biden saw his role with Obama. Biden felt a “personal connection” to Harris and saw her as experienced to serve as president if needed.
Clyburn said he’d talked with Biden more over the last four or five days “than I’ve talked to him all year.”
Clyburn, the House Majority Whip, said he and Biden spent the calls discussing the host of candidates and their potential liabilities to his campaign. That included Harris’ past as a prosecutor, Clyburn said, explaining he advised Biden that many of the attacks on past careers were unfair. Some on the left have challenged Harris’ persona as a “progressive prosecutor” and argued she was on the wrong side of several policy issues as a district attorney and then California attorney general.
“I do not wish to see people’s professions held against them,” Clyburn said he told Biden. “This whole notion that if you become a chief of police or you become a prosecutor, you ought not be considered. People ought to be considered for how well they conduct themselves in their chosen professions. How can we ask to have police chiefs of color, prosecutors of color and then hold that against them?”
Clyburn said he did not recommend any single candidate, only offering his views on each of the finalists, who he said appeared to have narrowed down to Harris, Rice and Bass over the last two or three days.
“I said to him, ‘I’m glad it was not me that had to make the choice,’ ” Clyburn said.
Coons, who has known Biden for at least 30 years, applauded the choice, calling Harris a “comforting and supportive” friend.
He said the campaign had looked for someone with the “experience and background” for the role, a person who, along with Biden, would be able to represent the “range and the diversity” of America, and someone with whom Biden had “simpatico,” or a close relationship.
A sort-of audition process for Harris
In what proved to be auditions for vice president, Harris had a dozen Biden campaign appearances since he became the presumptive Democratic nominee, giving her a chance to stump for Biden.
On June 26, Harris participated in a virtual roundtable with Jill Biden for a Wisconsin audience to hear about the president’s efforts to invalidate the Affordable Care Act.
“Obviously, this administration is trying to take health care away from millions of Americans. That’s it. It’s actually not more complex than that,” said Harris. “We need what (Joe Biden) so uniquely has, which is empathy for the American people and an understanding of what suffering is like.”
A month earlier, Harris joined a Women for Biden call May 21 to discuss what was at stake for women in November. She recounted her friendship with Beau Biden and how it opened her to a different side of Joe Biden.
“I got to know (Joe) mostly as a human being and as a person, as opposed to what I knew of him as a leader — a longstanding public servant, a committed public servant,” Harris said.
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“And I’ll tell you guys the kind of love, it was a very special relationship that I witnessed between a father and a son and a son and a father, both of whom were public servants.”
She pointed to the “horrendous loss” and suffering Biden has endured, adding that America not only needs a president with a “lifelong commitment to public service” but someone who is compassionate and “feels a sense of responsibility” to help those in pain.
“Joe’s a fighter,” Harris said, sounding like a running mate back in May. “He fights for people, and that’s what we need right now.”
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Kamala Harris: Inside Joe Biden’s grueling search for a vice president