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From rival to running mate: What 'fearless fighter' Kamala Harris brings to Joe Biden's ticket

Bart Jansen
USA TODAY

As a U.S. senator, Kamala Harris cemented her reputation as a tough questioner, her clashes with Attorney General William Barr and Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh the stuff of Democratic legend.

Now progressives and moderates alike are hoping the senator from California brings that same fire to the Democratic ticket – and an eventual debate with Mike Pence.

In choosing Harris as his running mate, presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden called her "a fearless fighter for the little guy, one of the country's finest public servants."

Harris provides Biden several key attributes that could help him win the White House in November: political experience as a national candidate and holder of statewide office in the most populous state; a prosecutorial background to debate her rivals; and an ability to generate enthusiasm as the first Black and Asian woman on a major-party ticket.

"Today is a spark of hope and a watershed moment for Black women and women of color," said Aimee Allison, founder of She the People, a group that urged Biden to choose a woman of color as his running mate. "This is one step of a much larger fight for representation towards the multiracial democracy women of color have dreamed of, fought for, and bled for, for generations."

But Harris will also face a full-court press of negative framing from her Republican rivals. It started almost immediately after her name was announced Tuesday as Biden's Democratic running mate, with President Donald Trump posting a video on Twitter calling Harris a "phony" and highlighting her clash with the former vice president during a Democratic primary debate last year.

Still, Patrick Murray, director of the independent Monmouth University Polling Institute, said pundits tend to "vastly overstate" the value of a vice presidential candidate.

"A good running mate choice doesn’t gain you new voters. It prevents you from losing voters who are inclined to support you," Murray said. "Harris fits that bill."

Heading to the Nov. 3 election, here's what the Harris pick means for the Biden campaign:

Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) speaks during the hearing for Supreme Court Associate Justice nominee Brett Kavanaugh on Sept. 4, 2018 in Washington.

A history of tough questioning could be a benefit on debate stage

Ahead of announcing her presidential bid, Harris drew the spotlight during the 2018 Supreme Court confirmation hearing for Brett Kavanaugh. Kavanaugh was accused of sexual misconduct by California professor Christine Blasey Ford and fiercely denied the allegations. Trump said Tuesday that Harris was "nasty" in her questioning of Kavanaugh, and he said she was disrespectful to Biden during the campaign.

"I thought she was the meanest, the most horrible, the most disrespectful of anybody in the U.S. Senate," Trump said.

Her sharp retorts have cut both ways. In the June 2019 Democratic debate, Harris challenged Biden over his remarks about working with segregationist senators. She described herself as part of the second class to integrate her school as a child after mandatory school busing, which forced Biden to apologize for his earlier comments.

But Biden didn't hold a grudge. At a news conference July 28, Biden held a note card full of points to make about Harris such as "talented" and a "great help to campaign."

Sen. Corey Booker (D-N.J.) and Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) confer during the confirmation hearing for Supreme Court Associate Justice nominee Brett Kavanaugh on Sept. 4, 2018 in Washington.

Mom's advice: 'Do something'

Harris became the first Black and the first Asian woman to represent California in the Senate when she was elected in 2016. Her father immigrated from Jamaica to study economics, and her mother immigrated from India. Her mother told Harris while she grew up: “Don’t sit around and complain about things, do something,” according to the campaign.

As a student at Howard University, Harris joined protests on the National Mall against apartheid in South Africa. She was the first Black woman to be elected district attorney in San Francisco and as attorney general of California. She eventually managed a $735 million budget as attorney general and oversaw more than 4,800 attorneys and other employees, according to the campaign.

Barack Obama, the first and only Black president, said Tuesday that he has known Harris for a long time and that she is "more than prepared for the job."

"She’s spent her career defending our Constitution and fighting for folks who need a fair shake," Obama said in a tweet. "This is a good day for our country."

Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., and former Vice President Joe Biden face off in Democratic debate July 31, 2019, in Detroit.

Harris was only the second Black woman elected to the U.S. Senate, where she has supported a bill to make lynching a federal crime. She worked to end racial and ethnic disparities in responding to COVID-19, and she took on corporations that defrauded the health care system, according to the campaign.

In the Senate, she joined Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-Texas, in demanding the Department of Homeland Security release migrant children during the pandemic.

Wonder Woman herself congratulated Harris on Tuesday. Lynda Carter, the actress who portrayed the superhero on television, praised the decision as an "extraordinary moment" for women and girls and "those of us who are of mixed heritage."

"This moment is for every American who dares to dream of a brighter future for our great Republic," Carter wrote on Twitter.

Sen. Kamala Harris speaks during the Women's March on Washington on Jan. 21, 2017.

Climate activists cheer choice while seeking 'environmental justice'

As attorney general, Harris sued corporations such as Chevron and BP for damaging the environment and won, and she sued corporations for their role in exposing Californians to excessive levels of diesel fuel, according to the campaign.

"Sen. Harris campaigned fiercely for climate action in the past, and in the Senate, is a leader for environmental justice," said Joe Bonfiglio, president of the Environmental Defense Fund Action. "This ticket shows just how committed Joe Biden is to making real and lasting climate progress and stands in stark contrast to Donald Trump and Mike Pence’s efforts to implement a polluter-first agenda.”

The Sunrise Movement, a progressive group focused on climate change that supported Sen. Bernie Sanders' campaign in 2016, also praised Harris. Varshini Prakash, the group's co-founder, said Harris has "showed her responsiveness to activist and movement pressure to make climate a top priority and demonstrated her willingness to be held accountable."

Prakash also noted that as a young Indian-American woman, "I am holding the significance of this moment to see the first mixed-race Black and Indian woman on a presidential ticket."

Sanders says Harris knows how to 'stand up for working people'

Harris as attorney general won a $20 billion settlement from big banks that were unfairly foreclosing on homeowners, according to the campaign. And as district attorney in San Francisco, she prosecuted companies that cheated workers out of earnings or jeopardized safety on the job, according to the campaign. Harris also supports a $15 minimum wage.

Sanders, a one-time presidential rival who has built his career on advocating for progressive policies, congratulated Harris on Tuesday for making history.

"She understands what it takes to stand up for working people, fight for health care for all, and take down the most corrupt administration in history," Sanders said in a tweet.

Pence welcomed Harris to the campaign from an event in Mesa, Arizona, with a nod to the progressive voices that are now lining up to support Biden and Harris.

"As you all know, Joe Biden and the Democratic Party have been overtaken by the radical left," Pence said. "So given their promises of higher taxes, open borders, socialized medicine and abortion on demand, it's no surprise that he chose Sen. Harris."

Bernie Sanders and Kamala Harris after the second Democratic primary debate on June 27, 2019 in Miami.

Warren calls Senate colleague a 'powerful force' for justice

As district attorney, Harris championed a program to direct young people arrested for drug crimes into training and counseling programs instead of jail, according to the campaign.

While she was attorney general, the state Justice Department became the first statewide agency to mandate a body camera program. The department launched training against implicit bias and created a public database about deaths in police custody and arrest rates, according to the campaign. 

Harris co-sponsored legislation with Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., to allow students with existing debt to refinance at the interest rates available to new borrowers.

Warren tweeted that Harris would be a "great partner" in "making our government a powerful force for good in the fight for social, racial, and economic justice."

Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris take part in a Democratic primary debate in Houston on Sept. 12, 2019.

Contributing: Rebecca Morin