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Progressives didn’t want Kamala Harris for VP. They’re backing her anyway.

Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., listens as Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden introduces her as his running mate at Alexis Dupont High School in Wilmington, Del., Wednesday, Aug. 12, 2020.
Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., listens as Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden introduces her as his running mate at Alexis Dupont High School in Wilmington, Del., Wednesday, Aug. 12, 2020. (Carolyn Kaster / AP)

From the moment Bernie Sanders exited the presidential race in early April, many activists, organizers, progressive groups and elected officials had held out hope that Joe Biden would elevate one of their ideological allies to the vice presidency — someone like Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts or Rep. Karen Bass of California. Kamala Harris, an establishment-friendly senator from California and more of a moderate, was near the bottom of their list.

So when Biden announced Tuesday that he had selected Harris as his running mate, his choice reaffirmed what many progressives had long feared: that any potential Biden administration would govern as the former vice president had spent most of his career — firmly rooted in Democratic establishment politics.

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But rather than revolt, many progressive activists and elected officials immediately snuffed out their criticisms and instead proclaimed their support, applauding the selection and reiterating that removing President Donald Trump from office was their electoral priority. Even those prone to denouncing Biden and other moderates largely tried to make peace.

“At the end of the day, this isn’t some democratic decision,” said Evan Weber, the political director for the Sunrise Movement, the climate advocacy group, which endorsed Sanders in the primary. “This was always going to be a decision that was up to the vice president and a personal one of his.”

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Larry Cohen, the chairman of the Sanders-aligned group Our Revolution, described Harris as “extremely competent.”

“She’s not Warren or Bass in terms of her background, but I don’t think it makes sense for us to criticize the reality,” he said.

The public declarations of enthusiasm for Harris underscore how delicately progressives are approaching this moment, as they try to balance their demands for change with the understanding that Democrats across the spectrum must remain united behind Biden to defeat Trump. They are also negotiating another political reality: that Harris could be the party’s face of the future, and crossing her now will have political consequences that did not exist at the week’s outset.

Unlike Biden, who became vice president after decades of establishing himself as a Washington moderate with a talent for wheeling and dealing, Harris remains somewhat ideologically undefined. In treading lightly, some progressives are hoping that it allows them to make inroads in her circle of influence and create openings that may not exist with Biden.

“I don’t know that the left is more excited by the Harris-Biden ticket than they would’ve been otherwise,” Weber said. “But it’s clear that she’s to the left of Biden and she’s been more accountable to movements throughout her career.”

Sara Nelson, the president of the Association of Flight Attendants union and a Sanders ally, said she was focusing on how Harris, as California attorney general, had helped secure a nationwide settlement with big banks.

“When I think about this moment that we’re in, and I think about the fact that she was one of the AGs to take on the banks during the financial crisis and to stand up for working people — I’m hanging on to that right now,” she said. “I can get excited about that.”

But while many groups and officials tended to toe the party line, others spoke more cautiously of their support. Cori Bush, a progressive activist who will almost certainly head to Congress after unseating a House member in a Democratic primary this month in St. Louis, said she was “torn” about the selection of Harris.

“I’m not going to tear down another woman of color,” Bush said. “But as a progressive, I have to stand with my progressive values.”

Bush acknowledged the magnitude of the moment, especially for older Black woman who were excited to see — and vote for — another Black woman on a national ticket. But she also said that Harris’ rise to prominence discounted some historically marginalized communities.

“I applaud her for the way that she has evolved, but people were hurt while she was figuring out how to evolve,” she said, referring to Harris’ oversight of the criminal justice system in California. “And we cannot forget that those people matter. I stand with them and want them to know I will represent them as hard as I can.”

In the months since Sanders dropped out of the race, effectively making Biden the nominee and starting the clock for the vice-presidential selection, progressives have had a string of victories further down the ballot. Challengers backed by groups like Sunrise and Justice Democrats won in New York and Illinois, including in some races against prominent House incumbents. Each member of the so-called Squad, the group of progressive women of color in the House who have at times rankled House leadership, secured reelection with comfortable margins.

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The biggest victory came in St. Louis, when Bush unseated a longtime congressman, Rep. William Lacy Clay, and provided a new playbook for how to appeal to Black voters with the progressive platform.

The growing grassroots power of these progressives, if sustained, could set up a clash with Biden and Harris, who have a shared instinct for political caution. During the primary campaign both were targeted relentlessly by the progressive left but rarely budged. Biden tailored his message to focus on how he could defeat Trump, sidelining policy as a focus. Harris moved in the opposition direction, rejecting “Medicare for All” after initially co-sponsoring Sanders’ bill on the health care plan.

This leftward shift could change the dynamics in Washington, said Mondaire Jones, a lawyer who won the primary in New York’s 17th Congressional District and is most likely headed to Capitol Hill in the fall. Jones praised Harris’ selection as historic, but suggested that liberals would continue to press their agenda.

“The left in recent years has never shied away from a fight with members of the Democratic Party, and I see no reason why we won’t flex our newfound muscle in a Biden-Harris administration,” Jones said.

“Biden and Harris would be working with the most progressive Congress we’ve seen,” he said. “And I’m ready to make sure they’re sticking to their promises and will be part of the effort to push them to be more in line with progressive values.”

Among liberals, the acceptance of Harris, if reluctant, still amounted to a surprising about-face after months of lobbying for her more progressive rivals to appear on the ticket.

In urging Biden to name Warren as his running mate, liberals pointed to her policy plans on issues like student debt and her readiness to lead the country should she have to step in — one of the central criterion Biden had laid out during his search.

Warren, for her part, had publicly signaled her interest in the No. 2 job, answering an emphatic “yes” when Rachel Maddow asked her on MSNBC in April if she’d accept the offer from Biden.

But after George Floyd’s killing by the police in late May intensified calls for racial justice across the country, some Democrats began more forcefully pressing Biden to put a Black woman on the ticket, and Warren’s prospects seemed to dim. Though some progressives continued to lobby for Warren, many also began publicly pushing Biden to select Bass, the head of the Congressional Black Caucus, who had a long history of espousing progressive policies.

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Then revelations that Bass had spoken favorably about Fidel Castro brought a swift backlash against her, particularly from Florida Democrats who argued that her past positions were particularly offensive to older Cubans with memories of the Cold War.

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During the primary campaign and even before Harris entered the race, the progressive wing had expressed particular concern about her ties to big donors and aspects of her record as a prosecutor.

In her interview, Bush said she was open to speaking to Harris and building a relationship with her.

Asked if she was worried that criticizing Harris would put off her future Democratic colleagues in Washington, Bush rejected the idea outright.

“Not at all,” she said, adding that her commitment to removing Trump from office could not quash her advocacy. “Cori is going to be Cori, and my experiences are my experiences.”

c.2020 The New York Times Company

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