Law enforcement credentials once offered an appealing and protective sheen to a handful of the top prospects in contention to be Joe Biden’s potential running mate.
But three of those candidates — Sen. Kamala Harris, Rep. Val Demings and, most notably, Sen. Amy Klobuchar — now find their records under new scrutiny in a presidential race transformed in the wake of national outrage surrounding Monday‘s death of George Floyd under the knee of a white Minneapolis police officer.
As a Minneapolis-area prosecutor from 1996 to 2006, Klobuchar had already earned the antipathy of social-justice activists for her tough-on-crime record and history of handling police violence. But those issues are now radioactive with the caught-on-camera death of a black man at the hands of the same officer who was once probed in a police-related death while she worked as a local prosecutor.
Progressives — and right-wing trolls — have also hammered Harris, a former Democratic presidential contender, for her résumé as a state attorney general and local prosecutor, going so far as to push a “Kamala is a cop” narrative designed to diminish and disqualify her in the eyes of the left.
At one point during her presidential bid last spring, Harris expressed “regret” for backing a controversial truancy law, only to later lean into her record as a prosecutor.
Demings, who served as Orlando’s first female police chief, oversaw a department that has had a history of criticism for using excessive force.
But it’s Klobuchar’s vice presidential fortunes that may end up as the first political casualty of the Minneapolis unrest.
As she ran for Senate in 2006, Officer Derek Chauvin — caught on video in Floyd’s death Monday — was involved in a different police-related shooting. Klobuchar had left office and was serving in the Senate by the time the case involving Chauvin went to a grand jury, which declined to charge him and five other officers. But that didn’t insulate her from sharp criticism this week.
“There is a direct line of culpability between Klobuchar and this officer who lynched a man,” said LaTosha Brown, co-founder of the group Black Voters Matter. She said it was a vestige of racism to compare the records of Harris or Demings with that of Klobuchar.
On Thursday, Klobuchar was asked on MSNBC’s “Andrea Mitchell Reports” if “you should take yourself out of consideration, given that we are now involved in yet another national conversation about racism and about the way white officials have overlooked needed change for decades?” Klobuchar said she was staying in.
House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, a top Biden adviser credited with salvaging the former vice president’s presidential bid, acknowledged the significant impact of Floyd’s death on Klobuchar’s vice presidential prospects.
“The timing of this is horrible for her,” he said in an interview with POLITICO. “When you have things pop up like this it can be catastrophic to some. What is happening in Minneapolis — the timing of that is beyond anyone’s control — the timing is just there. In this business, some things we control and a lot of things we can’t control.”
Prior to the unrest, Biden and his campaign had been lobbied hard by supporters who want a black woman — like Harris or Demings — while other contingents pushed for a progressive pick like Sen. Elizabeth Warren, or a Midwestern moderate like Klobuchar.
Demings and Harris, who are both black, have better records when it comes to social justice, according to some progressive activists and Democratic insiders who argue that black women have a better understanding of the scourge of police brutality. Their law enforcement credentials, some of those Democrats contend, must be viewed in the historic context in which they served as leaders.
“So Val and Kamala have law enforcement backgrounds and we were proud of them when they were able to pierce those veils. Now you’re telling me we gotta hold it against them?” Clyburn said. “No, I don’t think that’s going to have an adverse impact on them.”
While Clyburn said he would prefer a black running mate, he and top Biden campaign officials stress that Klobuchar is still in the running, that she’s highly qualified and that no has been ruled out because of a law enforcement background.
But for Biden — who has a list of about a dozen possible female running mates and has said he plans to name his pick around Aug. 1 — the calculus for selecting his running mate has been altered in recent weeks. A series of incidents has elevated racial issues and placed them at the center of political debate in an election where his chances of winning are contingent on his ability to generate enthusiasm among African Americans, the Democratic Party’s most loyal base.
One week prior to Floyd’s death, the former vice president was forced to apologize after a gaffe in which he told an African-American radio show host that “If you have a problem figuring out whether you’re for me or Trump, then you ain’t black.”
Four days later, Floyd was killed, sparking nationwide demonstrations that included a protest Thursday in Louisville, Ky., over the March 13 mistaken police shooting of a black woman, Breonna Taylor, in her apartment; and the May 7 indictments of two white men — one a former law enforcement officer — in the shooting death of Ahmaud Arbery in Brunswick, Ga. The men were charged only after video of the Feb. 23 incident surfaced.
The attorney for Arbery’s family, Benjamin Crump — who also represents the families of Floyd and Taylor — said the collective weight of the three successive killings have raised awareness about white supremacy, police brutality and the need for Biden to pick a black running mate.
“In my circle, in my community, black people keep saying, ‘they take us for granted.’ When are we going to have a woman on the top of the ticket who expresses our life experience?” Crump, who’s based in Tallahassee, said. “We saved his nomination. We think he should show his gratitude and pick a black woman.”
Al Sharpton, founder of the National Action Network social justice organization and an MSNBC host, said the issue of police brutality and white supremacy will affect Biden’s selection process “in a very significant way” and that it “raises serious questions” that Klobuchar “has to deal with.”
“Kamala has had some questionable cases, but not to the degree of Amy,” Sharpton said. “If I were to list them, I would say Val is the least affected, and Amy is the most challenged by it.”
The head of Sharpton’s network in Orlando, Lewanna Gelzer, has been sharply critical of the Orlando Police Department’s history of use of force and said when Demings led it from 2007-11, “I never saw any real changes during her administration. I didn’t see her reach out and talk to us.”
However, the head of the Orlando-area NAACP when Demings served as chief, the Rev. Randolph Bracy, said he and Demings “worked hand in glove on social justice policy …. We had a great relationship. Orlando hasn’t historically had the problems you see in places like Miami-Dade.”
Demings, a two-term congresswoman who is less well-known than Harris and Klobuchar, started to shape the narrative concerning her views in an op-ed Friday titled, “My fellow brothers and sisters in blue, what the hell are you doing?”
As both a black woman and a former police chief, Deming’s unique biography has further elevated her profile recently with numerous national television appearances. On MSNBC’s “Rachel Maddow” on Thursday night, Demings intoned that “America is on fire right now, and the president of the United States is walking around with gasoline.”
Louisiana Rep. Cedric Richmond, a Biden campaign co-chair who is helping lead his running-mate vetting process, said Friday that he talked four times to the former vice president and “not once did we talk about the politics of Floyd’s death.”
Of African American leaders who called for Klobuchar to be eliminated from contention, Richmond said, “At this moment, a lot of people are talking who don’t represent the campaign. I represent the campaign. I understand what everybody’s saying, but I’m not going to get ahead of the vice president.”
Richmond said it’s not his place “to rule anybody out or suggest that we rule them out. Polling and other things will play a role. He should pick whoever he needs to pick to help him win. If that’s a green-faced Martian, that’s who he should pick.”
But in the era of Black Lives Matter, movement co-founder Alicia Garza said Biden might find the issue so controversial that he picks a running mate without a law-enforcement background.
“It will be a hard row to hoe for black voters, as my grandmother used to say, especially in this moment when there’s so much tension between law enforcement and black communities and policing of black communities,” Garza said.
During the presidential primary, Garza endorsed Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who is white, because she had “the most robust black agenda.”
Harris and Demings aren’t the only black women who have been discussed as prospective Biden running mates. Others include former Georgia state Rep. Stacey Abrams, former national security adviser Susan Rice and Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, a Biden surrogate who earned praise from Biden’s campaign for denouncing unruly protests that erupted in her city Friday.
Angela Lang, executive director of the Wisconsin-based Black Leaders Organizing for Communities, said she favors a black woman running but added that Biden needs to talk more about his own record on criminal justice, specifically the 1994 crime bill, and the role of police and prosecutors.
“When Senator Harris was in the race, what I was looking for is how people reconcile their current values with their past. Was it to the level and degree that maybe I would have liked to have seen? I don’t think so,” Lang said.
“These are worth ongoing conversations and an understanding that there’s so much police brutality in our face,” Lang said. “Police brutality is an issue that Democratic candidates are on the ‘right’ side of it and understand it’s systemic, it needs to be solved, it needs to be changed.”
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