Kamala Harris to make history as first female US vice-president

Election of California senator will send compelling message about what is possible for women and people of colour

Kamala Harris is a serial breaker of glass ceilings but the 2020 US election will shatter the highest ceiling of her political career so far as the first female vice-president of the United States.

The 56-year-old Democrat, a rising star in her party, has succeeded where two failed before her – Democrat Geraldine Ferarro, Walter Mondale's running mate in 1984; and Sarah Palin, who was on the Republican ticket with John McCain, in 2008.

Harris was the first woman of colour to be on a major party’s presidential ticket and will be the first woman of colour to hold the country’s second-highest office.

Joe Biden's status as America's oldest president, at 78 on inauguration day, will catapult the junior senator from California into a more significant role as second-in-command in a Biden White House, potentially putting her in the frame for the top job itself and as a leading contender to be the Democratic Party's nominee in the 2024 presidential election.


The daughter of a Indian biologist mother and Jamaican economist father, Harris, a prosecutor, became the first person of colour to be elected district attorney of San Francisco in 2003.

In 2010, the Oakland native was the first woman, the first African American and the first south Asian American to be elected attorney general for California and, six years later, became the second African-American woman and first south Asian American to serve in the US Senate.

Unflinching adversary

As a senator, Harris garnered attention as an unflinching adversary of Trump. She won plaudits among Democrats for her aggressive interrogations of the president's supreme court pick, Brett Kavanaugh, during his confirmation hearing, and attorney general William Barr during the hearings on the Mueller report on Russian interference in the 2016 election.

Her forceful performances went viral and led Trump to calling her “extraordinarily nasty” – a slur that strengthened her credentials among the president’s opponents.

Trump even complimented her when she decided to enter the presidential race in January, praising her campaign launch at a rally in Oakland, California which attracted a crowd of more than 20,000 people as the “best opening so far”. She raised $1.5 million in the first 24 hours as a candidate and was immediately elevated among the frontrunner candidates.

It was thought that Harris, as the only African-American nominee in the field with a record of mould-breaking in her career as a former prosecutor-turned-politician, could rebuild the broad coalition of voters that helped elect Barack Obama twice.

But she failed to stand out in a Democratic primary dominated by progressive issues. She was lost between the liberal populism of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, the centrism of Biden and the youthful enthusiasm of newcomer Pete Buttigieg who stood out in a turbulent party race.

The highlight of her campaign was her strong performance in a debate in Miami in June 2019 where she showed her strengths as a candidate by leaving Biden flat-footed in a fierce onslaught on his record on race, for working with two senators in the 1970s who favoured racial segregation.

Ideological crossfire

The debate gave her a temporary boost in the polls and in the all-important fundraising stakes but her inconsistency on policies, getting caught in the ideological crossfire between the progressives and moderates in the party, left her languishing in polls in key primary states.

This confirmed her reputation as “Cautious Kamala” developed during her rise in California politics when she was criticised for refusing to take public positions on contentious issues.

Her campaign team was beset by internal rancour with claims of staff mistreatment and no plan to win Iowa, the first state to vote. Lagging the top-tier candidates of Sanders, Warren, Biden and Buttigieg, she dropped out of the race in December 2019 even before the first ballots were cast.

Despite her earlier blistering attack on him, Harris endorsed Biden with “great enthusiasm” as the Democratic Party’s presidential candidate in March after he took the lead in the primary race.

Harris became an immediate frontrunner when Biden said during the final debate in March that, if he won the party’s presidential nomination, he would pick a woman as his running mate.

Chosen by Biden in August, Harris offers valuable executive experience from her time as the highest-ranking legal official in the country’s largest state, which could prove significant, given the enhanced role she may be expected to play in an administration led by a 78 year old.

Biden also answered demands from within the party that he pick a black women. His choice of one of the country’s best-known politicians of colour came at a time when the US president was stoking racial tensions and was a clear attempt to broaden the party’s appeal to minority voters.

Harris’s Californian connections brought Biden access to a deep fundraising network and record sums raised from donors during the campaign.

As a vice-presidential candidate, Harris showed herself to be a solid team player. She was dispatched to key battleground states and was an effective if low-key campaigner during a race upended by the coronavirus pandemic. The Californian’s Converse runners were a regular feature on the trail, setting off a flurry of commentary on social media.

Her election as vice-president will not only send a compelling message about what is possible for women and people of colour, but it will also help calm traumatised sections of an American public reeling from four years of the tempestuous Trump presidency.

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell is News Editor of The Irish Times