kamala harris
Kamala Harris live.staticflickr.com

Originally published by The 19th

On Friday, Vice President Kamala Harris appeared with frontline Democratic Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon and the “One Tree Hill” actor Sophia Bush at Bryn Mawr College in the Philadelphia suburbs. They were discussing reproductive rights, one of dozens of similar events Harris has held in the weeks leading up to the November 8 midterms.

She was fired up — especially about politicians pushing abortion bans without exceptions.

“These extremist so-called leaders would dare to say and suggest that that individual, furthermore, will not have the right to make decisions about what comes next as it relates to their body,” Harris said. “This is immoral. It's unconscionable.”

Nearly two years into her vice presidency, Harris has eagerly embraced a role as the face of the Biden administration’s efforts on abortion access and reproductive health. She sprang into immediate action as the point person on the issue after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade this summer and has gone all-in, with dozens of official events and campaign stops focused on abortion ever since.

Harris and President Joe Biden’s approval ratings remain underwater with Americans overall, and Harris hasn’t appeared alongside many of the candidates running in the most competitive races of the 2022 midterms. Her role, rather, has been to use the power of her office to support state lawmakers and abortion advocates on the ground, and to speak to the voters who are key to the Democratic base, advocates and officials say.

It began before Roe was overturned: After Texas passed a six-week abortion ban in September 2021, Harris convened what is believed to be the first-ever official event featuring abortion providers and patients hosted by any presidential administration. Since the draft of the Supreme Court’s decision overturning Roe v. Wade leaked in early May, Harris has held over 35 official events focused on reproductive health access in 14 states and Washington, D.C., according to her office.

“She's very well-versed in the topic, and it's something she feels very passionately about,” said Brian Brokaw, a California-based political consultant who previously served as Harris’ campaign manager during her run for attorney general. “In an election season where abortion rights are front and center, it’s a particularly good issue for her.”

Women of color have long played a leading role in reproductive justice movements. And the Supreme Court ending almost 50 years of federal abortion protections coincided with Harris serving as the highest-ranking woman and woman of color in American history.

“When access to critical reproductive health care is banned, including abortion, Black and Indigenous women disproportionately shoulder most of the burden due to systemic racism. It’s evident in the country’s abysmal maternal mortality rate,” said Alexis McGill Johnson, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood, who participated in an October discussion on reproductive rights with Harris and Rep. Jahana Hayes in Connecticut. “And, in a moment like this, the response must center the voices of the people impacted most.”

Harris’ remarks at these events often follow a similar flow: She starts by talking about her mother, Shyamala, a cancer researcher whose two goals in life were to raise her daughters and cure breast cancer. Harris recalls how words like “mammary glands” and discussions of reproductive health care were common at the dinner table during her childhood. She also invokes her work prosecuting sex crimes and gender-based violence in California.

“This issue — it really does relate to a lot of work that I've done in the past,” Harris said in Bryn Mawr. “And I feel a great sense of commitment, as do we all, to stand up and speak out about it.”

Since May, Harris has convened doctors and abortion providers, attorneys general, civil rights and faith leaders, constitutional law experts, college presidents, and student activists at roundtables and meetings around the country.

She’s also met with dozens of state lawmakers representing 15 states, from deep-blue California and New Jersey to the swing states of Pennsylvania, Nevada and North Carolina and the traditionally Republican strongholds of Indiana, South Dakota and Utah, including one event specifically focused on Latina legislators.

“As a Black woman working in government or in elected life, she is someone that we all look to and someone that we're very proud of,” said Virginia Del. Candi Mundon King, who attended Harris’ July roundtable with Virginia lawmakers. “But to be in the room with her was just really a humbling experience. And she also made it clear that she was there to listen.”

Democratic Rep. Angela Romero of Utah, a vocally pro-abortion rights lawmaker in a deep red and religiously conservative state, said it was “an honor and a privilege” to both be in conversation with Harris and share her broader concerns about health care access.

“She was there as a mentor to us. She said she wanted to make sure that we had a place at the table just like she does, and so that was her commitment to us being in a mentoring role,” said Romero, who is also the president-elect of the National Hispanic Caucus of State Legislators. “That was really significant to me.”

In October, Harris held six official fireside-chat-style events focused on reproductive rights in six states, that featured a Democratic official or candidates; reproductive health advocates, including the presidents of Planned Parenthood and NARAL Pro-Choice America; and celebrities like Bush.

Three days before the Pennsylvania event, the vice president was on stage in Albuquerque with New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham — who is up for reelection this year — and Dr. Eve Espey, an OBGYN. The week before, Harris was in the Twin Cities and Los Angeles for similar reproductive-rights-focused official events featuring Minnesota Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan and Los Angeles mayoral candidate Karen Bass, both of whom are on the ballot in November.

“These events are being done in a really smart way, leveraging the muscle behind her name, her office and the White House, and pairing that with local elected officials who people know and are familiar with,” McGill Johnson said. “The vice president brilliantly reinforces the fact that we need an all-of-government approach in response to this fundamental right being taken away – and this message should continue well after the election.”

Harris’ visits to Florida and North Carolina did not include appearances with Democratic U.S. Senate candidates Val Demings and Cheri Beasley, who are running to be the first Black women in the Senate since Harris became vice president. Biden, however, headlined a recent rally supporting Demings and gubernatorial candidate Charlie Crist.

The vice presidency is a loosely defined role that can be difficult to navigate. The first year of Harris’ tenure was marked by numerous headlines detailing low morale and high staff turnover in her office. Harris has also reportedly struggled to make clear-cut, tangible progress on the major elements of her assigned policy portfolio, which includes Democrats’ still-unsuccessful effort to pass a major voting rights bill through Congress, and U.S. relations in the politically tumultuous Northern Triangle region of Latin America.

Harris has become the administration’s main voice on abortion, an issue that Biden, whose views on abortion have substantially evolved over his five decades in office and came under scrutiny in the 2020 primary, has historically been less eager to embrace.

“Without a doubt, she has had to take on some very challenging issues. As vice president, your job is to support the president and take on the tough challenges,” Brokaw said. “I think this too, falls into that category of difficult challenges, but it's one where the public sentiment is largely with her, and she is somebody who can be a very compelling messenger.”

Leaning into abortion and reproductive rights has enabled Harris to champion an issue that mobilizes voters far more than voting or immigration policy. Abortion isn’t the top voting issue for most Americans. Still, the overturning of Roe v. Wade is energizing Democrats — especially the women and women of color who make up the party's base — to turn out.

“The role that abortion plays for women, for women of color, is much broader,” said Aimee Allison, founder and executive director of She The People, which supports women of color for office. “It's about Black maternal health and whether you can afford health care in the first place. It's about the cost of rent and food, the cost of child care, whether you're getting fair pay for your work. All those issues are tied up with abortion.”

Harris and Biden are walking a difficult political tightrope of utilizing their platforms to boost Democrats' prospects in the midterms while not hurting down-ballot candidates in states where both leaders are unpopular. Nationally, Americans disapprove of Harris’ job performance by 12 percentage points on net, 38 percent to 50 percent, according to FiveThirtyEight’s polling average.

The federal government also has limited tools at its disposal when it comes to bolstering abortion access. But the administration has taken various actions to shore up patient privacy, expand reproductive health grants under Title X, reinforce nondiscrimination protections, and defend the rights of patients to travel across state lines for abortion care.

And instead of headlining lots of big political rallies, Biden and Harris have mostly held smaller events with candidates and lawmakers focused on specific topics. Harris, in particular, has been out on the road touting new programs funded by the Biden administration’s economic agenda and its efforts on reproductive health.

“I think the White House has been very strategic about how both the president and vice president are used,” Brokaw said.

Reproductive rights and abortion aren’t going away as campaign issues, especially for Democrats. Allison said the new era in politics “is led first and foremost by women of color” — and Harris is one of the figures pioneering if and how Democrats should connect reproductive rights to economic security and other essential freedoms.

Allison said that what Democratic leaders do in 2022 “is also a lesson for going forward, because the battle for 2024 is being formed now.”

Romero said she’s “nervous” looking toward the midterms — and for the future of reproductive rights and health for her constituents and women of color.

“For me as a woman of color, to be able to have a seat at the table with the vice president of the United States, who's also a woman of color, just shows me that we've come a long way,” Romero said. “But we can't go back in time. We still need to keep on pushing forward.”