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  • Sen. Mia McLeod

Harris’ historic spot on presidential ticket energizes Black women, could impact SC voters

Aug 12, 2020

COLUMBIA — When state Sen. Mia McLeod says U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris “looks like me,” she means it in a more literal sense than most other Black women who use the same phrase.

The two Democrats, one representing Columbia in the Statehouse and another representing California in the Capitol, bear such a resemblance that McLeod often got stopped when she was out in public during the presidential primary race by people who wanted to take a selfie with someone they thought was a White House hopeful.

The similarities don’t stop with their appearance.

Both were elected to their respective senates in the same year, 2016. Both are sisters in Alpha Kappa Alpha, the historically black sorority with some 300,000 members, dozens of whom often showed up to Harris’ campaign events in South Carolina wearing the sorority’s traditional pink and green colors.

McLeod first met Harris when she was laying the groundwork for her presidential campaign in South Carolina, spending time with her on a drive down from Greenville to lower Richland County as Harris stumped for Democrats weeks before the 2018 midterms.

“I learned that we had a lot more in common,” McLeod said. “I learned she, too, was a fighter, and she is always fighting for what’s right and fighting for those who are forgotten by some of our other leaders and the system itself.”

So when former Vice President Joe Biden decided to name Harris as his running mate Tuesday, McLeod sent Harris a message about how powerful it was for her.

“I don’t think the historical significance of this is lost on any of us,” McLeod said. “Black women have been the backbone of the Democratic Party for eons, so to see one of us on a presidential ticket, it was a very poignant moment. It just gives us hope. And we really needed that right about now.”

That message was echoed by Black women across South Carolina on Wednesday as they reflected on Harris’ elevation to the highest echelons of American politics, becoming the first Black woman in the nation’s history to join a presidential ticket — and, potentially, the first female vice president.

“It’s about time,” said Brenda Murphy, head of the South Carolina chapter of the NAACP. “It’s been a long time coming.”

Roslyn Artis, president of Benedict College, a historically black college in Columbia where Harris twice visited during the presidential campaign, said it would be “a very big deal” for her own young daughter.

“For little girls of color across this country to see someone on a national ticket that reflects their own values and appearance, creates an aspirational value, creates a sense in them that they can be whatever they strive to achieve,” Artis said.

For all the symbolic significance of Harris’ pick, Lyric Swinton, a recent University of South Carolina graduate now working at a political consulting firm in Columbia, cautioned that “pure symbolism of selecting a Black woman isn’t enough for many younger voters.”

“Sen. Harris is immensely qualified and I look forward to watching her thrive in this role, but as educated voters, we are still going to hold her and Vice President Joe Biden accountable as it relates to policy and the work they do to improve the lives of the American people,” Swinton said.

The pick also helped beat back claims from some Harris critics during Biden’s vetting process that the California senator is “too ambitious.”

“The fact that Sen. Harris is an HBCU grad, a member of a historically Black sorority, and didn’t go to an Ivy League is a very relatable story for many ambitious Black women,” Swinton said. “Senator Harris possibly being our next vice president is an affirmation that as Black women, our ambition is not a bad thing and we can truly be limitless.”

Whether Harris’ selection will have a substantial impact on November’s election, both at the presidential level and lower down the ballot, remains unclear. Political experts caution that the impact of running mates is often overstated and that most voters cast their ballots based solely on the presidential nominee.

Trump himself, in an interview this week with sports radio host Clay Travis, said people “just don’t seem to vote for the vice president.” Even Harris’ most vocal boosters acknowledged that most voters who care about Tuesday’s announcement were already looking forward to casting their ballots.

“People are already geared to get out and vote,” said Joe Darby, the pastor at Nichols Chapel AME in Charleston. “This is just extra motivation.”

Republicans, meanwhile, saw opportunity in the selection of Harris, who took more progressive policy positions than Biden during the primary.

Unlike with Democrats’ 2016 nominee Hillary Clinton, Republicans have been less aggressive in their efforts to link down-ballot candidates to Biden, an indication that they view him as less alienating to moderate voters.

Tim Pearson, the chief strategist behind former Gov. Nikki Haley’s victories in South Carolina  and who now works for Gov. Henry McMaster’s campaign, said Harris may change that, predicting she would appear in far more GOP ads in the lead-up to the election.

“Biden is largely absent from TV ads right now because it’s not accurate to tie him to positions that are dramatically unpopular with the swing voters, but it is easy to tie her to those because she believes them or has taken those positions,” Pearson said. “Mitch McConnell would probably have been a happy man yesterday.”

By Wednesday, down-ballot Republican candidates in South Carolina were already latching on to the news.

Nancy Mace, the GOP state lawmaker challenging U.S. Rep. Joe Cunningham, D-Charleston, in the Lowcountry’s hyper-competitive 1st Congressional District race, sent a fundraising email to supporters saying Harris “has proved time and time again that she is WAY out of touch with South Carolina voters.”

“She’s a California liberal and one of the most radical and partisan members of the Senate,” Mace wrote.

T.W. Arrighi, the spokesman for U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham’s reelection campaign, noted that Harris has voiced support for government-funded single-payer healthcare and the Green New Deal.

“The only difference between Harris and Harrison is that Harris actually stands up for what she believes in, while Harrison hides his true liberal identity,” Arrighi said.

Harrison campaign spokesman Guy King countered that Harris would boost their efforts to turn out Black voters in South Carolina, calling Biden’s pick an “amazing development” for Harrison’s bid to unseat the incumbent.

Many South Carolina Democrats are particularly familiar with Harris, who spent more time campaigning in the Palmetto State than almost any of the two dozen contenders who sought the party’s presidential nomination.

In a series of polls conducted in 2019 by The Post and Courier and Change Research, Harris was often the third or fourth choice of likely South Carolina Democratic primary voters. She would jostle at 10 percent support with fellow Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren behind Biden, who led all S.C. polls even before he even formally entered the race. 

Among Black voters, however, Harris typically was the second favorite behind Biden.

That dynamic frustrated Harris’ campaign at the time. 

Jalisa Washington-Price, who was Harris’ S.C. campaign director, recalled how many voters, even at Harris’ own campaign events in South Carolina, would say they liked what they heard from Harris but were sticking with Biden because “we can’t risk not getting Trump out of office.”

But voters also often said they hoped to eventually see a Biden-Harris ticket, a wish that eventually came true.

The timing worked out for Washington-Price. She is now six months pregnant, expecting a girl just a few weeks after the election.

“I just can’t wait for her to be here and for her to possibly enter into a world with a Black woman vice president,” Washington-Price said.

Jessica Holdman, Schuyler Kropf and Andy Shain contributed to this report

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