US elections: At Essence, Black Democrats rally behind Biden and talk up Kamala Harris

Harris’s appearance at the nation’s largest annual celebration of Black culture underscores what a difficult task it is for the White House and campaign to navigate questions about the president’s aptitude.
Kamala Harris
Vice President Kamala Harris speaks with Essence CEO Caroline Wanga during the 30th annual Essence Festival of Culture in New Orleans, Saturday, July 6, 2024. Photo | AP

NEW ORLEANS: As President Joe Biden tries to revive his embattled reelection bid, Vice President Kamala Harris led a parade of Black Democrats who warned Saturday that the threat of another Donald Trump presidency remains the most important calculation ahead of November.

Yet in more than 20 minutes on stage at the Essence Festival of Culture, Harris did not acknowledge Biden’s dismal debate performance or calls for the 81-year-old president to end his reelection bid. In fact, she barely mentioned Biden at all – a stark contrast to the Congressional Black Caucus members who forcefully and repeatedly defended the president by name.

“This is probably the most significant election of our lifetime,” Harris said, before riffing on Trump musing about being a dictator, pushing the Supreme Court rightward and promising retribution on political enemies. “In 122 days, we each have the power to decide what kind of country we want to live in.”

Harris’s appearance at the nation’s largest annual celebration of Black culture underscores what a difficult task it is for the White House and campaign to navigate questions about the president’s aptitude. The dynamics are especially fraught for Harris, the first Black woman and person of South Asian descent to be elected vice president, and for the Black Democrats who were so instrumental in electing Biden and her in 2020.

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On one hand, Harris fills the traditional role of loyal lieutenant, a job she did enthusiastically — and on the fly — in television appearances immediately after Biden’s lacklustre debate ended. Yet should Biden ultimately decide to step aside as presumptive nominee, she would be among the favourites, if not the favourite, to carry the Democratic banner against Trump.

Black leaders and voters who gathered in New Orleans, meanwhile, walked the line Saturday between backing Biden and insisting that, if he does end his campaign, the party should elevate the barrier-breaking vice president rather than consider governors like Gavin Newsom of California or Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan, both of whom are white.

“The purpose of a vice president is to be a No. 2, to be able to step in,” said Glynda Carr, who leads the Higher Heights political action organization that works to elect more Black women. “If this was an all-white male ticket, would we be talking about other people who have less experience, less qualifications?”

Antjuan Seawright, a Black Democratic consultant who is close to House Rep. Jim Clyburn, a Biden ally, put it more plainly. “Joe Biden isn’t going anywhere,” he said. But if he does, “anyone other than Kamala would be malpractice — and it would tear the party apart.”

Seawright argued that the pressure on Biden to step aside is coming only from white Democrats so far, at least publicly. He said that divide is mostly about Black voters’ trust in Biden and their recognition of his record. But he said it’s also about what’s good for the party as a whole, including Black politicians. Risking a contested convention, even one that nominates Harris, could ensure widespread losses, and in turn, make it less likely than ever to see Democratic House leader Hakeem Jeffries become Speaker or Harris or another Black woman sit in the Oval Office.

Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., and her colleagues echoed some of those sentiments.

“People say Joe Biden’s too old. Hell, I’m older than Biden!” said the 85-year-old congresswoman. “It ain’t gonna be no other Democratic candidate, and we better know it.”

Rep. Joyce Beatty, D-Ohio, played up the power Harris already holds.

“We got a Black vice president of the United States of America, a sister who came here to be with us today,” she said. “So, let’s not get it twisted. I know who I’m voting for. I’m with the Biden-Harris team because we’re still going to have a sister in the White House fighting for us and making a difference.”

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Waters said Biden’s support of Black communities and the contrast with Trump should be enough. She called the former president “a no-good, lying, despicable human being” with a white nationalist agenda. “Who the hell do you think he’s going to come after?” Waters asked, noting Trump’s support from groups like the Proud Boys. “You know he means business.”

In more than a dozen interviews with Essence attendees, opinions varied on Biden’s strength as a candidate and his abilities to serve another four years. But there was a clear consensus on several points: Only Biden can decide his fate; if he does step away, he should back Harris; and defeating Trump is the top priority.

“I’m with him, absolutely,” said Erica Peterson of New Orleans. “He’s delivered, and one debate is not going to change my mind. ... And if it’s not Joe Biden, I’m with her.”

Star Robert, a 37-year-old nurse in New York City, said if there’s a shift, then Biden and Democrats could not credibly choose anyone other than Harris, given that the president, party and voters already chose her as second-in-line. Still, she was sceptical about Harris’s prospects.

“I’m not sure that she’s done enough to generate the trust of enough voters,” Robert said. “I don’t know if that’s all her fault, I just haven’t seen enough of her, we haven’t. I don’t know what her angle is.”

Regardless, Robert added, “I’m not sure the country is ready for another Black president, and if we were ready for a woman, Hillary Clinton would have beaten the clown (Trump) the first time he ran.”

Harris, for her part, answered that kind of scepticism even as she studiously avoided the immediate campaign drama.

“Ambition is a good thing. We do not need to step quietly,” she said of being a woman of colour in powerful circles. “People in your life will tell you it’s not your time. It’s not your turn. Nobody like you has done it before. ... I like to say that I eat ‘no’ for breakfast.”

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