By Jessie Seigel / Washington, D.C.
Much has been made of Kamala Harris being a first—the first female, the first South Asian American, the first Black American—to hold the office of Vice President. Some have emphasized her importance as a role model, that seeing someone like yourself in such a position is necessary for young girls of whatever background to believe that they can aspire to such a role. Amanda Clayton, a political scientist at Vanderbilt University, has stated, “There’s a lot of empirical evidence that you can’t be what you can’t see.”
While that, if true, may be relevant to the study of social psychology, far more important to social policy than being a role model is what one stands for and how a person will use power. It does no good to put a Black man in a position of power if he is a Clarence Thomas rather than a Thurgood Marshall. Electing a woman because “it is time for a woman” could just as easily inflict a Sarah Palin or a Marjorie Taylor Greene on us as give us an Elizabeth Warren or an Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
Thus, in the case of Harris, more important than her being a first is what she stands for and how she is using the power of her office to further it.
As Vice President, Harris broke the 50-50 tie in the Senate to pass the Administration’s Covid-19 relief legislation. Given the Senate’s even division between Democrats and Republicans, and the Republican Party’s determination to obstruct anything proposed by the Democrats, she is likely to be called upon to do so again many times.
Harris is also leading the Administration’s diplomatic effort to deal with Mexico and Central American countries on immigration. This is a role Biden had when he was vice president.
Within the last month, Harris has taken to the road, educating the public about various aspects of the Administration’s $2 trillion infrastructure plan, officially known as the American Jobs Plan. She recently gave a major speech in North Carolina advocating for this legislation, highlighting its proposed $20 billion investment in converting gasoline- and diesel-powered school buses to electric vehicles. She also spoke about the Administration’s intention to make the largest jobs investment since World War II. In addition, Harris visited a water treatment facility in Oakland, California, to promote the legislation’s proposed $111 billion investment in water infrastructure.
But Vice President Harris is not just a spokesperson selling the infrastructure program. Much of that plan’s content is based on bills she developed and/or cosponsored while she was a senator.
Harris introduced a 2019 bill to electrify the nation’s school buses, which make up 90 percent of the country’s bus fleet, in order to alleviate diesel fuel pollution that is thought to contribute to child respiratory illnesses. Citing senior Administration officials, the Washington Post wrote that the infrastructure plan’s proposed conversion from diesel to electric “is derived directly from Harris’s original bill.”
The infrastructure plan’s proposed replacement of the nation’s lead pipes and service lines to ensure clean drinking water and reduce lead exposure in schools, homes, and child care facilities is similar to Harris’s proposed 2019 Water Justice Act.
Portions of the infrastructure plan also parallel a bill Harris cosponsored in the Senate to invest in building high-speed broadband in underserved and unserved communities.
In addition, last summer, then-Senator Harris—together with Senator Cory Booker and Representative Karen Bass—introduced the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which would lower the criminal intent standard for law enforcement officers, limit qualified immunity, and create a National Police Misconduct Registry.
After the conviction of Officer Derek Chauvin for George Floyd’s murder, Harris spoke eloquently, stating that racial injustice “is not just a Black America problem or a people-of-color problem. It is a problem for every American.” She noted that we are all a part of George Floyd’s legacy and that “this bill would hold law enforcement accountable and help build trust between law enforcement and our communities.”
The fact that so much of the infrastructure plan incorporated Senate bills Harris was instrumental in developing or sponsoring, as well as her role in authoring and introducing desperately needed legislation to curb police murder, speak not only to Harris’s work as a senator but to the influence she has as vice president, and the partnership she and President Biden have forged in only a few months.
On March 24, Biden announced he was tasking Harris with the diplomatic effort to coordinate with Mexico and the Northern Triangle countries (Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador) for their acceptance of returnees and for enhancement of enforcement at their borders. However, the larger purpose of the diplomatic effort is to address the causes of mass immigration in the countries where they begin so that their citizens will not feel the need to leave in the first place.
In discussing her role, Harris emphasized this: “We all know most people like being at home. They like being where they grew up….So we have to ask ‘why do people leave that?’ and usually they leave because there is a lack of opportunity or it is just not safe. And so my area of focus on the Northern Triangle is to deal with some of those issues.”
In an effort to discredit Harris, Republicans have begun a campaign to mischaracterize her role as one with responsibility for the entire problem at the border itself and claim, after a mere month, that she is failing at the job.
The Republican National Committee’s rapid response director Tommy Piggott wrote, “Kamala Harris is a so-called manager who refuses to actually visit the scene of the crisis.” North Carolina Senator Thom Tillis, on returning from his theatrical but meaningless tour of the border area Rio Grande River with Ted Cruz, John Cornyn and other Republican senators, said, “Get down here. Get informed and recognize you’ve got a crisis and it’s on you to fix it.” One must ask, where were all these Republicans during the four years of the Trump Administration’s deliberate neglect and cruel aggravation of border immigration problems? Oh. Right. Their fix was to steal children from their parents and put them in cages.
In reality, in accordance with her job description, Harris made contact with the President of Guatemala within a few days of the assignment. She reaffirmed “the Administration’s commitment to working together and expanding partnerships to benefit the people of the region” and discussed “the significant risks to those leaving their homes and making the dangerous journey to the United States, especially during a global pandemic.”
Piling on, the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS), which describes itself as having a “pro-immigrant, low-immigration vision which seeks fewer immigrants but a warmer welcome for those admitted,” complained that Harris failed to extract a commitment to stem the flow of immigrants in that initial conversation with Guatemala’s president. Even if one assumes CIS was reacting in good faith, it apparently has no understanding of how diplomacy works. International diplomacy does not reap results in one day or in one phone call.
Some in the media, whether unwittingly or deliberately, are playing into the Republican narrative.
When Harris received an extensive briefing by the Senior Coordinator for the Southern Border, the National Security Council Senior Director for the Western Hemisphere and the Special Envoy for the Northern Triangle, CNN stated “While aides work in the background, Harris has been busy getting up to speed on the region’s specifics.” This phrasing seems to suggest that Harris is unprepared and that her aides must do her work while she comes “up to speed.” But Presidents (except perhaps for former president Donald Trump) regularly are briefed by experts on the various issues they must address. Why would a vice president not also be briefed on an issue she was going to deal with?
Referring to Harris’s statement about investigating what causes people to leave their home countries, The Hill had the temerity to accuse Harris of lacking a basic knowledge of immigration law, writing: “Asylum isn’t given to migrants who come here because there is a lack of opportunity or it just isn’t safe in their own countries.” It has to be based on “persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution.” Since Harris was not addressing asylum or whether immigrants could enter the U.S., The Hill was demonstrating its own ignorance or deliberately misconstruing her words.
Furthermore, as a senator, Harris made it her business to stay extremely well informed on immigration issues. Her very first speech on the Senate floor attacked Trump on immigration. According to Politico, “Harris would head home with huge binders of stats and data on the immigration system, scribble notes in the margins asking for more info and then come back to aides for what has been described as intense preparation sessions that the staff called ‘the hot bench.’” Harris clearly does her homework—something that neither the last administration nor her current Republican detractors ever bother to do.
The Republican and right-wing media barrage, whether based on her being Black, South Asian, a woman—or just a Democrat—should fall flat, given Harris’s impressive credentials and performance. And ultimately, Kamala Harris’s vice presidency should be remembered for her diligent, incisive work, not for the novelty of her being the first of any kind.
Jessie Seigel is a fiction writer, an associate editor at the Potomac Review, a reviewer for The Washington Independent Review of Books, and a dabbler in political cartoons at Daily Kos. She has twice received an Artist’s Fellowship from the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities for her work. But, Seigel also had a long career as a government attorney, in which she honed her analytic skills. Of this double career, Seigel would say, “I guess my right and left brains are well balanced.” More on and from Seigel can be found at The Adventurous Writer, https://www.jessieseigel.com.