Black, Latino Groups See Ally In Kamala Harris As Biden Administration Navigates First 100 Days

Kamala Harris has been vice president for just under a month, becoming an active partner for President Joe Biden, with ending the pandemic and pushing the economic recovery package the major priority in her work, and that of the administration.

But the vice president has also charted her own course, leaning into being the first woman and first woman of color in the role to connect with groups that will be key to the administration's success as the recovery unfolds.

On Thursday, Harris met with Senator Catherine Cortez Masto, Representative Barbara Lee, and members of women's advocacy groups including the Black Women's Roundtable, the National Association of Women Business Owners, and the National Congress of American Indians, to discuss what she termed, in a recent Washington Post op-ed, the "national emergency" of 2.5 million women leaving the workforce since the beginning of the pandemic.

Last week, she met with members of the African American Mayors Association, along with the White House Coordinator for COVID-19 Response, Jeffrey Zients, and COVID-19 Health Equity Task Force Chair Dr. Marcella Nunez-Smith.

Harris outreach to women's groups and communities of color has thus far been linked to the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan legislative package, which is the overarching concern of the White House, but she has also been able to use the historic nature of her role to bring that message to groups she says can not be left out of the recovery.

Even before being sworn-in, Harris joined a call with Biden, the United States Hispanic Chamber of Commerce (USHCC), and the U.S. Black Chambers (USBC). While Biden preached patience and warned the group that his first 100 days agenda was bursting at the seams due to the depth of the crises facing the nation and urgent need to get millions of Americans vaccinated as a first priority, Harris stepped in to pivot the conversation back to the group's small business concerns, which was appreciated by the USHCC.

As evidence of her approach as VP, Harris sought to highlight common ground with the groups, those at the meeting told Newsweek, talking about coming from a community of color, and of immigrants, and representing a majority-minority state as a California senator.

"She said she would be an advocate for systemic change and for a commitment to small businesses," USHCC president Ramiro Cavazos said. "She referenced her commitment to small businesses getting the capital they need to rebuild the economy."

However, those commitments will be tested.

During the campaign, Biden made promises from immigration and criminal justice reform to capital for small businesses, and Black and Latino advocacy groups who feel they did their part helping him win the election, will not be lenient on the White House timeline to see changes implemented.

Driven by the weather and power issues devastating Texas, for example, Cavazos told Newsweek he was drafting a letter to the White House to reiterate the USHCC's call to create a Hispanic small business task force "sooner rather than later. "We're nearing the midway point of his first 100 days and we want to get started on that in terms of who needs to serve and begin planning," he said.

Harris is at almost every one of Biden's meetings, according to a White House aide, but the partnership also means sharing the work of leading the country. When the American Rescue Plan was announced in mid-January, Biden called state governors, while Harris called mayors in U.S. cities.

But her influence is felt beyond lightening Biden's workload. One hallmark of the new administration's approach to the coronavirus is a focus on equity, a belief that one of the chief goals of responding to the pandemic includes "mitigating inequities" facing communities of color "caused or exacerbated" by the virus. When the administration announced the COVID Health Equity Taskforce it was taking its cues from similar legislation introduced by Harris in the Senate, a bill that the White House aide called "foundational" to the creation of the task force.

In February, the vice president joined Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen in a virtual meeting with the USBC and Black chambers across the country. Yellen began by sharing the story that after being sworn-in, the first thing Harris asked her afterward was about working on providing more capital to community development financial institutions and minority depository institutions to "serve communities that the wider financial system hasn't served well, particularly people of color."

Harris began by stating that 40 percent to 50 percent of Black businesses have closed due to the pandemic, perhaps permanently, which is why the community needs the help of the relief package. "Black businesses, of course, are engaged in the business of keeping America running," she said.

But asked by a chamber leader about how to ensure the American Rescue Plan aids Black communities, Harris again drew a line from vaccinations to boosting the economy and communities of color. She said federally supported vaccination centers like the one that just opened this week at the Oakland Coliseum were part of the $400 billion in the plan to help stop the pandemic, which she said was the first time the federal government has come in to support states regarding vaccinations. She said vaccination centers and mobile vaccination sites were a "very big deal," including for people in rural communities who don't have access to transportation and can't afford to be left out of the process.

USBC President Ron Busby was grateful for the opportunity to engage the Biden administration, but said there is more work to be done and conversations to be had, which Harris echoed on the call.

"We met with her during her first 30 days as vice president, which is significant to the Black business community," he said, but noted that Black businesses will need concrete policy changes. "Black people felt like there was a great investment made on their part in regards to their vote. So yes, we plan on being a partner with the administration, but that means there needs to be transparency and accountability as well."

As they did during the campaign, those close to the Biden administration note that he too can speak to communities of color, and often has, but Harris has also been deployed for interviews in Los Angeles and Grand Rapids, Michigan, with African American radio stations, sharing news that community health centers were opening with federal funding, and addressing the skepticism about the vaccine among Black Americans. When Harris received her first vaccine dose, for example, she intentionally did so in southeast Washington, D.C., an area that is predominantly Black and Latino.

Sergio Gonzales, the executive director of the Immigration Hub, who did work on the transition, said Biden is using his own experience working with President Barack Obama as the framework for working with his own vice president, but said the unique challenges of the moment are also informing the working relationship.

"One thing that drives the strong partnership, and her being so engaged as vice president, is there is so much to f***ing do," he said. "They came in at a point with multiple crises, a historic pandemic and really difficult economic situation, people in hunger lines, and relationships across the world burnt by the last administration."

Natural allies for the administration include "the same Black-Brown coalition that helped elect them in November," he said.

Harris' work has obviously not been limited to engaging advocacy groups, with recent calls to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and French President Emmanuel Macron, also among her foreign policy outreach.

"The fact that she is in meetings with the president and also making calls to foreign leaders like Trudeau and Macron, on top of talking about the economy, and how the country recovers from COVID-19, means she's a key part of repairing some of the damage done in the previous administration," a White House official told Newsweek.

Though the vice president has a natural ability to engage with and energize these groups, future political considerations can not be discounted, said Peter Jeffrey Kuznick, a professor who specializes in 20th- and 21st-century presidents at American University.

Tracing the history of vice presidents who became president or were interested in the top role, Lyndon B. Johnson had strong connections having been Senate Majority Leader, and George H.W. Bush was a former head of the CIA and had international experience, Kuznick said. But Mike Pence, who clearly has presidential aspirations, strongly tied himself to Trump and his movement, which may not have ended well for him given the fallout of the U.S. Capitol attack.

Harris, he said, must continue to strengthen her bonafides to make her a well-rounded candidate as early as 2024.

"She's clearly a potential presidential candidate in the future, who is focused on that moreso than some other VPs," he said. "Harris compared to most of the others comes in with less experience and needs to network to gain credibility, stature, and experience."

But if that work by Harris was going on during the USBC meeting, the connections didn't appear forced.

Beginning the meeting, she looked at a giant virtual screen filled with Black chamber heads across the country, noting that she saw many friends and familiar faces, the faces of national leaders, she said.

And she thanked Busby, the USBC president, before turning to the agenda.

"I thank you for bringing us together, my Oakland brother," she said with a laugh.

Harris outreach
Vice President Kamala Harris speaks during a virtual listening session at the South Court Auditorium at Eisenhower Executive Office Building on February 10, 2021 in Washington, DC. Vice President Harris, White House Coordinator of the COVID-19 Response Jeffrey Zients and COVID-19 Health Equity Task Force Chair Dr. Marcella Nunez-Smith hosted the session and heard from members of African American Mayors Association and discussed the urgency of passing the American Rescue Plan (ARP). (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images) Alex Wong/Getty