Just a year ago, Kamala Harris and Joe Biden were sparring over racism on a debate stage. Harris, then a Democratic presidential candidate, attacked her rival over his past opposition to mandated bussing, a policy that aimed to integrate racially segregated schools in the late 1960s and 70s.
In one of the defining moments of the Democratic primary race, Harris - the daughter of Jamaican and Indian immigrants – opened up a little about her own childhood growing up in Berkeley and Oakland in California.
“I do not believe you are a racist,” Harris told Biden, after criticising other off the cuff comments he had made on his fond memories of working alongside segregationist senators.
“There was a little girl in California who was part of the second class to integrate her public schools and she was bused to school every day. That little girl was me.”
— Kamala Harris (@KamalaHarris) June 28, 2019
A year later, Harris is once again sharing a stage with Biden, after agreeing to serve as the former vice-president’s running mate in his bid to unseat Donald Trump. The former rivals have now turned team mates.
Harris is the first woman of color to join a major political party’s presidential ticket, and will be the first Black and Asian American vice-president if she and Biden defeat Trump in the November presidential election. And her career to-date has been defined by trailblazing too.
“I was raised to take action,” Harris says in a video she posted on Twitter on Wednesday, her first since becoming Biden’s running mate. “My mother knew that she was raising two Black daughters who would be treated differently because of how they looked.
Growing up, whenever I got upset about something, my mother would look me in the eye and ask: ‘so what are you gonna do about it?’”
Born in 1964 to Shyamala Gopalan, a Indian-born Tamil American cancer researcher, and Donald Harris, an American economist from Jamaica, Harris has spoken of how her parents bonded over civil rights, and she was taken to protests as a child with her sister, Maya.
After her parents divorced when she was seven, the siblings were raised by their mother, whom Harris has praised as a barrier-breaker with a huge influence on her life.
I’m the daughter of a mother who broke down all kinds of barriers. Shyamala Harris was no more than five feet tall, but if you ever met her you would think she was seven feet tall. She had such spirit and tenacity and I’m thankful every day to have been raised by her. Happy Mother’s Day to all the mothers, stepmothers, and mother figures near or far who are celebrating today.
A post shared by Kamala Harris (@kamalaharris) on May 10, 2020 at 5:36am PDT
Harris is the first person to have graduated from a historically black college and university (HBCU) to be nominated on a presidential ticket for a major political party.
In the 1980s, she attended Howard University in Washington DC, where fellow students remember her as being a “focused” student who “[meant] business” and didn’t back down from making a point.
“[Our generation] came up after the Civil Rights Act. We came up after the Voting Rights Act,” Jill Louis, one of her sorority sisters at Howard, told ABC. “So we believed that the legal barriers were now gone, and now it was about reaching out and grabbing opportunity.”
Fast forward to 2003, and after several years in the Alameda county district attorney’s office, Harris became the first Black woman to be elected as San Francisco’s district attorney. Seven years later, she made history again as the first Black woman to be elected as California attorney general.
“I’m proud to call Kamala Harris my dear friend and sister – and next year, I’ll be even more proud to call her our Vice President,” tweeted fellow senator Cory Booker.
“This is history. Kamala is a trailblazer who will serve this country well as the first Black and Asian American woman on a major party’s ticket.”
As a member of the Senate judiciary committee, she quickly became known for her tough questioning of Trump administration officials, such as former attorney general Jeff Sessions, who said Harris made him “nervous”.
During the tense supreme court confirmation hearing for Donald Trump’s controversial pick Brett Kavanaugh, Harris earned praise from liberals for her line of questioning.
“Can you think of any laws that give the government the power to make decisions about the male body?” she asked the conservative judge as she grilled him on his views on Roe v Wade, the landmark 1973 case that recognized a woman’s constitutional right to abortion.
However, while Harris’ past roles appear to have prepared her well for committee hearings, her prosecutorial record has also attracted criticism, with many criminal justice activists arguing Harris did not go far enough to crack down on police misconduct.
That criticism hampered Harris’s own presidential campaign, which came to an end in December. The rising star had originally been considered a frontrunner for the nomination, and she jumped in the polls after she confronted Biden at the first Democratic debate.
But Harris’ post-debate polling bump was short-lived, and she was forced to suspend her campaign late last year as her fundraising dried up. After her withdrawal, Harris and Biden indicated they were on excellent terms, despite their debate dust-up, and she endorsed her former rival in March.
Harris, 55, had often highlighted the support she received from her husband, entertainment lawyer Douglas Emhoff, who frequently joined her on the campaign trail and spoke at events.
“Finally catching up, and I’m loving all of the amazing responses, reactions, reachouts and of course, just so happy for the #KHive,” he tweeted on Tuesday after Harris’s nomination was announced, using the nickname for her supporters. “But now, the work begins. Let’s all come together and do this for Joe. #KHiveForBiden #BidenHarris2020.”
Raised with Hindu and Christian influences, Harris identifies as a Baptist, and brought another faith into her life in 2014 when she married Emhoff, a divorced father of two children who is Jewish. Harris’s two adult stepchildren have given her the nickname of “Momala,” a rhyme with her name that recalls the Yiddish term “mamaleh.”
There had been widespread speculation that Harris would join the Democratic presidential ticket, particularly because she worked with Biden’s late son. Harris and Beau Biden simultaneously served as state attorneys general, and the pair developed a close friendship as they worked on cases together. Beau died of brain cancer in 2015 aged 46.
“Back when Kamala was attorney general, she worked closely with Beau,” Biden said in a tweet announcing his selection. “I watched as they took on the big banks, lifted up working people, and protected women and kids from abuse. I was proud then, and I’m proud now to have her as my partner in this campaign.”
The selection of Harris could further improve Biden’s standing among Black voters, who were instrumental in his successful bid to capture the Democratic nomination. During her presidential campaign, Harris frequently cited her degree from Howard University and her membership in Alpha Kappa Alpha, the nation’s oldest Black sorority, to help her develop closer ties with African American women.
Harris’ presence on the presidential ticket could help boost African American turnout, but she will also probably face continued criticism over her long prosecutorial career, particularly as the nation experiences a reckoning over racism and policing.
In the weeks after the death of George Floyd, an African American man who was killed by a white Minneapolis police officer, Biden was urged to choose a Black woman as his running mate. However, many progressives complained Harris’s background as a prosecutor made her an inappropriate choice.
Those critiques were clearly not enough to sway Biden, who described Harris as “a fearless fighter for the little guy, and one of the country’s finest public servants”.
Associated Press contributed to this report