In late April, more than 200 black women who are leaders and activists within the Democratic party signed an open letter to the presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden calling on him to select a black woman as his running mate.
“It is a fact that the road to the White House is powered by Black women and Black women are the key to a Democratic victory in 2020,” they wrote.
In early May, about a dozen of the women who had signed that letter made their case directly to Biden and some of his senior staff in a conference call. Their pitch was about timing and history, but it was also about strategy. They believed a black woman would help Biden win the White House.
No commitments to the specific demands were made, according to two people on the call. But the lines of communication, they say, remain open and they’ve had a few calls with the Biden campaign to discuss the issue.
“That was couple of weeks ago, and now I’m even more convinced than ever that when we see what is happening right now in this country, there is a cry, there’s a clarion call, for us to do something different, for this country to literally face structural racism … We feel like a black woman could actually bring that to the ticket,” said LaTosha Brown, the co-founder of Black Voters Matter Fund and a political strategist who was on the call with Biden.
Brown is not alone. As widespread protests against racial injustice have swept the country in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd, this moment is putting renewed attention on who Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee, ought to choose as his running mate.
The demands to pick a black woman are growing louder, and not just from black voters. Polling from a Politico/Morning Consult survey this week found 46% of Democrats say it’s important for Biden to choose a candidate of color as his running mate. That’s up from 36% in early April.
Former DNC Chair and 2o04 Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean said he’s witnessed an evolution in his own thinking in just the past two weeks.
“I haven’t lived through a time like this since 1968,” he said. Dean said prior to the past few weeks, he thought having a black running mate “would have been nice.” Now he thinks it’s critical.
A black woman, he says, could energize the young voters protesting in the streets and bring about real reform. “I just think it’s smart politics,” said Dean. “If I were, if I were on the vetting team, I would now go back and look again, because I think, I think there’s been an earthquake in the United States.”
For some Democrats, the choice is about strategy — and the realization that Democrats need to have high turnout among a diverse group of voters to win the presidency in November. They believe a black woman will boost turnout among black voters. For others, the decision is about policy — and the belief that a black candidate will have a better understanding of structural racism and push Joe Biden further left on issues of racial justice and police reform, while also giving him credibility with some Democratic voters who might doubt his convictions. And yet for others, this demand is about loyalty.
Black women, they point out, have been the most consistent voting bloc of the Democratic base, they saved Biden’s campaign in South Carolina, and yet they’re never the candidates chosen for the No. 1 or No. 2 spot. The focus on choosing a candidate of color, specifically a black woman, as the vice president comes despite the fact that a historically diverse field of presidential candidates this cycle resulted in a final contest between two white men in their 70s.
“For some people … geographics was important,” said Antjuan Seawright, a Democratic strategist in South Carolina, referring to the Democrats’ attention on winning back the Midwest. “Now I think demographics are important.”
Perhaps because of that there is pressure for Biden to racially balance the Democratic ticket.
Democratic leaders frequently mention California Sen. Kamala Harris, who was a presidential candidate herself this cycle, as one of the most viable options. Other names often mentioned include Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, former national security adviser Susan Rice, Florida Congresswoman Val Demings and former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams.
At the same time, many Democratic activists and leaders agree that this moment has made it clear that one candidate who was being touted just a few weeks ago as a likely pick — Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar — is not a good fit. Black leaders say her record as a prosecutor and her history with the black community have raised questions about how much she genuinely understands the concerns of structural racism. Some went so far as to say that Biden choosing her as a running mate would be “tone deaf” and “disrespectful” to black voters.
Activists are not as critical of Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, but they admit some of her momentum has stalled. Some feel she’s right on the issues, and they personally like her, but the visuals of two white people in their 70s as the Democratic ticket in 2020 compared to Biden next to a young black woman are incomparable.
Brown endorsed Warren and voted for her. But now she’s lobbying for a black woman as vice president.
“I still think that [Warren] would be a wonderful president. There’s nothing about how I feel about her that has shifted,” said Brown. “This isn’t about an individual or picking our particular favorite. That’s not what this is about. This is more about a systemic issue … there’s a larger issue around the underrepresentation of black women.”
Brown questions why black women, who have been the most loyal voters in the Democratic Party, have never been nominated for president or vice president, and yet white men who have “not shown up for the Democratic Party in more than 20 years” are “still considered the prime prize type of candidate and leadership to lead the political party.” No Democrat has won a majority of white men since Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964.
Cornell Belcher, a Democratic pollster who worked on Barack Obama’s presidential campaigns, questions how anyone could think it’s sound strategy for Democrats to have an all-white ticket this November.
“You should have to explain to me how in the hell it makes sense for you not to have a diverse ticket, given the success of our diverse ticket,” said Belcher, referring to the fact that Obama won over 51% of the national popular vote in both of his victories, making him the first president in decades to do so. “History should tell — you should have a reservation about an all-white ticket because we have a lot harder time winning majorities with an all white ticket than we do with a diverse one.”
The electoral benefits of a vice presidential pick are unclear. History shows that rarely does a candidate win a state by picking a candidate from a particular geographic region, but the decision of whom they select is seen as a litmus test for their judgment as president. The VP pick is a presidential candidate’s first major decision and a cue for how voters should judge their thinking. So by picking a black woman, some feel Biden would send a signal about his priorities.
Still, strategists and advocates are eager to point out that they want the right black candidate, not just anybody who fits the demographic description. The killing of George Floyd has raised questions about bias in the criminal justice system and law enforcement’s relationship with the black community. And one complicating factor is that a couple of the black women on the VP shortlist have law enforcement backgrounds. Harris was a prosecutor in San Francisco and Demings was the police chief in Orlando. A law enforcement record was once seen as an admirable trait on a political resume, but some progressives are leery of a candidate with such ties.
Steve Phillips, a Democratic fundraiser who leads an advocacy group called Democracy in Color, has been advocating for Abrams, in part because he thinks her understanding of the criminal justice system is unusual. “She has been very public that her brother was incarcerated, was in prison,” he said. “So that’s a distinguishing dimension to the race at this point in time.”
Some progressives point out that the protests in the street are being led by young people, who are already skeptical of Biden’s campaign. Rather than focusing on just choosing a black face, they say, Biden needs to focus on choosing a candidate who’s credible on criminal justice issues.
“It’s not just enough to have a woman of color in the abstract. We need somebody who is going to be progressive and reform the system that is harmful to people of color writ large,” said Phillips.
But above all, Democrats want Biden to win, and they’re not sure what the right ingredients for victory are. And so, even some of those who say they understand the desire for a black woman say Biden ultimately needs to pick someone he trusts.
“It’s easy to say you should pick this kind of woman or that kind of woman,” said Stephanie Cutter, a veteran of multiple Democratic campaigns. “[But] the chemistry is so incredibly important to get it right.”
Cutter speaks from experience. She worked on the 2004 Democratic campaign when John Kerry chose North Carolina Sen. John Edwards as his running mate.
“They paid a price for it,” said Cutter. “They just weren’t seen as a team.”
She said the campaign chose Edwards over Missouri Congressman Dick Gephardt, even though Kerry had more personal chemistry with Gephardt.
“The decision was to go with Edwards because, you know, he represented a southern states that was moving in the Democratic direction. He was younger. Different generation. And had captured an economic message at that time that really mattered,” she said.
But that personal connection was missing, she said, and voters noticed.
Symone Sanders, a senior adviser to the Biden campaign, told ABC’s The View that Biden “hears the concerns of folks across this country who have asked for an African American woman vice president running mate,” but he hears other concerns too.
“Folks from the Latino community have said he should pick a Latina. There are folks that believe he should pick someone that represents the LGBTQ+ community,” she added. And, ultimately, he hasn’t made a decision.