Kamala Harris
US vice-presidential candidate Kamala Harris (Image: Gage Skidmore/Flickr)

Kamala Harris is known for her fierce facial expressions and history as a hardline prosecutor. The daughter of an Indian-born endocrinologist and a Jamaican-born economics professor, Harris is the first woman of colour to be on a major party’s presidential ticket.

But her tough stance on crime during her time as district attorney of San Francisco and attorney-general of California has made some voters balk at her pick as Joe Biden’s running mate.

Why was she chosen?

According to University of Sydney professor of political economy and sociology Sujatha Fernandes, the Democrats wanted to appeal to Republicans who didn’t want to vote for Trump. To do this, they picked two leaders, Biden and Harris, who have a law-and-order approach.

“They’re central Democrats and they’re conservatives … emerging in a moment where there’s massive social protest,” she told Crikey.

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But there are shortcomings in this approach, Fernandes said. By nominating two people with similar stances, the Democrats have ignored the progressive left. They also haven’t appealed to young or Latinx voters.

Fernandes, a US-Australian dual citizen, still voted for Biden and Harris. Like many other women of colour, she supports the Democrats if only to get Trump out.

Is there a risk Harris will lose Black voters?

The Democrats consistently win the majority of the Black vote. Four years ago, 89% of Black voters supported Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.

Even so, University of Melbourne associate professor in American politics Tim Lynch told Crikey there’s a risk Harris’ record could come back to haunt her.

“I think there is a risk [the Democrats] have lost some Black voters [by selecting Harris],” said Lynch. “Prosecutors are often demonised in Black circles.”

During her time as district attorney, Harris’ tough-on-crime approach saw the rate of felony convictions rise from 50 to 76%. As attorney-general she sponsored truancy laws, penalising parents when kids don’t attend school (a law which disproportionately affected communities of colour). She also opposed a bill requiring her office to investigate shootings involving police officers, and has upheld convictions despite evidence of official misconduct.

But Harris has also pushed for criminal justice reform to reduce incarceration and introduced racial bias training in her office.

As a result, the 55 year old has been called a radical by conservatives and a conservative by progressives.

A future president?

Senior lecturer in politics and policy studies at Deakin University Zim Nwokora told Crikey that Harris has had her eye on the presidential position for a while.

“I see a shrewd politician who is trying to play a complicated game,” he said. “She has the ideological maneuverings of a political strategist, rather than someone committed to a grand vision of change.”

Nwokora added that Harris was well placed to assume the presidency after Biden if the Democrats are elected.

“She’s been drafted by a potential president and given this incredible platform to run on, instead of having to scrap for votes in the trenches,” he said.

“After four years maturing in the White House with Biden … she’ll be in an incredible position.”