How Black Lives Matter Changed the Veepstakes

In May, Film & Politics outlined 13 contenders to join Joe Biden’s presidential ticket. Since then, the political landscape for this decision has drastically changed. While the United States is still dealing with COVID-19, the murder of George Floyd has served as a tipping point for massive protests for racial justice. The pandemic is no longer the sole focus of the election, putting pressure on Biden to sufficiently address the concerns Black Americans are voicing.

Even before the protests, it was becoming clear that the pressure to select a Black woman as his Vice President was building. In mid-May, several prominent Black women posted a video through The Washington Post, telling Biden that they are owed representation in his ticket. In truth, Biden owes his primary comeback and victory to Black women showing up; often considered the backbone of the Democratic party, it appeared as though Black women were cashing in their chips. 

Then, Biden made what is, thus far, the worst gaffe he could have uttered. In a conversation with Charlamagne tha God, Biden said “if you have a problem figuring out whether you’re for me or Trump, then you ain’t Black.” To many, this was confirmation of what Black people have consistently raised concern about: the Democratic party taking advantage of its Black support. Because less than 10% of Black voters ever swing Republican, focus tends to be spent elsewhere in terms of winning demographics over.

But 2016 showed that turnout among Black voters was not guaranteed; and with this statement, the prospect of picking a Black woman shifted from potential benefits to negating possible losses. With their biggest request being a Black woman on the ticket, Biden choosing to pick a white woman to attempt to win over undecided voters began to look like a knife in the back to those that revived his campaign. With younger Black voters having supported Bernie Sanders and not believing Biden would bring about the systemic change they need, these comments only threw gasoline on the fire.

Despite the gaffe, conventional wisdom still pointed towards making a Midwest gamble. Biden vetted several white women, such as Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Sen. Maggie Hassan, Gov. Gina Raimondo, and Sen. Tammy Baldwin. Though they wished Biden had rephrased his words, leaders in the Black community still had great relationships with the former Vice President. It was still possible to circumvent the negative headlines of a white VP.

That all changed when George Floyd was murdered and the country erupted in outrage. Immediately, the once safe option of Klobuchar was off the table, due to her record as a prosecutor in Minnesota. In terms of the other white candidates, how could someone with as little experience as Whitmer or miniscule name recognition as Hassan and Raimondo possibly pass over a qualified black candidate in this moment? In other words, there needed to be an incredibly good reason to pick a white woman.

For its part, the Biden campaign appears to have listened. From what sources have said about the vetting process, six candidates have reached advanced stages. They include Sen. Kamala Harris, Rep. Val Demings, former National Security Advisor Susan Rice, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren. Outside of the latter, five of these potential picks are women of color and four are Black.

However, there is no candidate that comes without detractions. Having been a contender in the primary herself and the most traditionally qualified, Harris is considered by most to be the obvious choice. While she does have a strong following, her campaign struggled and quickly lost steam. She also attacked Biden in the first debate a year ago on busing, a race issue, complicating the potential partnership. Perhaps most harmful, however, is Harris’ record as California’s District Attorney. Part of what doomed her campaign were attacks that she was ‘tough on crime’ and failed to make necessary reforms, which is out of sync with calls to Defund the Police.

The record of Demings is equally problematic. Previously the Chief of Police in Orlando, Demings ties to the opposition of the current movement are much stronger. During her tenure, the police department was known for excessive force, including an incident where an officer threw an 84-year-old WWII veteran to the ground, breaking his neck. She has changed her tune now, but Demings always vigorously defended her department, despite the criticisms. While Harris’s record has already come to light and partially passed, Demings has yet to be vetted on a national stage and would likely draw more ire from protestors. 

Rice represents the Obama era, having served in the administration. Though she has never held elected office, she’s the only one who has been a part of major presidential decisions. Choosing her, however, brings Benghazi back into play for Republicans, which still burns a fire in even the most liberal conservative. Biden and Rice already have an established working relationship, with Rice most meeting Biden’s desire to have a second-in-command ready to step up, should she need to. Her selection will depend on whether the campaign is willing to go full speed into Obama 2.0, which has some substantial detractions.

From my perspective, Bottoms is the only candidate that actually has far more benefits than detractions. As the Mayor of Atlanta, she has had direct experience with both COVID-19 and massive protests. In both instances, she has gained national attention, first challenging her Republican governor’s decision to reopen the state early, and then when addressing the riots in her city, passionately telling constituents not to destroy the Black neighborhoods and businesses. In the latter, Bottoms demonstrated anger at the murder of Floyd, fear for the racism her children will face, frustration with the violence on her streets, and drive to make change through democratic means. She may be the woman able to appease the most people and turn this movement into votes.

While Grisham is a woman of color, she does not meet the specific demand to select a Black woman. However, Grisham has done a fantastic job in her state dealing with Coronavirus. This is partly due to the governor’s experience as the Secretary of Health of New Mexico, which qualifies her even more for the position. As a Latina, she also represents a race that has never been on a presidential ticket and is lacking in support for Biden. If the fight against Black racial injustice hadn’t exploded these past weeks, I would imagine she would be more of a frontrunner. The only way I can see Biden choosing her would be if he also named a Black, female Attorney General pick alongside Grisham. Solidifying a Black Attorney General to handle police reform, while also bringing the Latinx community into the race, could be just what is needed.

Warren is consistently the most popular choice to be Vice President, not only among white Democrats, but also Black Democrats. This is why she is still in the conversation. I said there needed to be an incredible reason to pick a white woman and uniting the progressive and moderate lanes could be just that. But with Klobuchar stepping aside and encouraging Biden to pick a woman of color, the pressure is on Warren to do the same. Like Grisham, a Black Attorney General announcement could mitigate the fallout of Warren’s selection. Even still, an all-white ticket is not a good look and moderates who have been swayed Biden’s way could balk at her possibly becoming president. She’s become even riskier than she was before, which does not bode well for her chances.

Taking in all of these positives and negative, with the stipulation that all non-Black candidates are announced with a Black Attorney General, the ranking of the women currently in consideration is as follows:

  1. Keisha Lance Bottoms
  2. Michelle Lujan Grisham
  3. Kamala Harris
  4. Susan Rice
  5. Elizabeth Warren
  6. Val Demings

Now, if you are an avid reader of this blog, you may notice that our previous number 1 suggested pick, Stacey Abrams, does not appear to be under consideration. While she tried to get herself into contention, she simply could not gain enough national attention to overcome her lack of experience. Whereas Bottoms catapulted into the spotlight because of the current crisis, Abrams was simply not in a position that allowed her to stay relevant. While she could still very well be the future of the Democratic party and eventually become president herself, one must wonder where she would be if she had won the Georgia governorship and had the power to deal with these issues herself.

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