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Why Having Kamala Harris On The Ticket Is Meaningful To So Many

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

With Tuesday evening's announcement that Senator Kamala Harris will join presumptive presidential nominee Joe Biden on the Democratic ticket this November, the California senator is making history several times over. As the daughter of Jamaican and Indian immigrants, she's both the first Black woman and the first Asian American to appear on a major party's presidential ticket. And she's the first vice presidential nominee to graduate from a historically Black college or university, HBCU.

For a perspective on what this historic announcement may mean for communities who are seeing themselves represented in a position like this for the first time, we're joined by Dr. Wayne Frederick - he's the president of Howard University - Chanda Parbhoo, founder of SAAVE, South Asian American Voter Education Engagement and Empowerment, a voter outreach organization in Dallas, and Andra Gillespie, a professor of political science at Emory University.

Thank you all so much for being with us.

ANDRA GILLESPIE: Thank you.

CHANDA PARBHOO: Thank you.

FADEL: Chanda Parbhoo, let's start with you. Just speaking from a personal perspective, what was it like to see the first South Asian candidate ever on a presidential ticket?

PARBHOO: Oh, it was beyond exciting. Our community and our activists - you know, we're bursting at the seams. Everybody in our group was so beyond excited. We had so many people come out of the woodwork who have kind of been sitting on the sides during this election knock at our door. What can I do? How can I get involved? I think she has really inspired the activism community, and we're beyond excited. I think she's made a connection to our community that our community hasn't seen before.

FADEL: Dr. Frederick, after Senator Harris was tapped to be Biden's running mate, you said in a statement, as Senator Harris embarks upon this new chapter in her life and in our country's history, she is poised to break two glass ceilings in our society with one fell swoop of her Howard hammer. The HBC community and I will be watching. Can you tell us a little bit more about that and what you meant?

WAYNE FREDERICK: Yeah, sure. You know, I think Howard as an HBCU has had a longstanding history of preparing its graduates for this. So when you look at everybody from (unintelligible), the first popularly elected Black senator, Edward Brooke, Toni Morrison, we've been doing this all along. And so she is well-prepared, and that's her Howard hammer. The fact that she will break those glass ceilings with this also allows us a clear path.

And so when she went to the Senate, she started a Kamala Harris congressional fellowship that has now expanded into Howard University congressional fellowship. We're placing Howard students in the offices working on policy and research on both sides of the aisle. And I think that that just says a lot for - about who she is, and that this is not just about her, but she's trying to bring along the entire community.

FADEL: Professor Gillespie, as we mentioned, Senator Harris represents many communities. She's a South Asian and Black woman and HBCU alum and a member of the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority, the oldest African American sorority in the country. A lot of your research looks at Black politicians in the post-civil rights era. Tell us a little bit about how Senator Harris fits into that framing. What does her being tapped for this position say about Black political leadership today?

GILLESPIE: Well, it says a lot about Black political leadership. It's central to the Democratic Party. African Americans because of their overwhelming support for Democratic candidates in the last two generations play an outsized role in Democratic Party politics, so her nomination in part reflects demands from party activists to see greater representation of African Americans and African American women in positions of leadership and in high-profile candidate nominations.

And I think she actually is - you know, is in some ways like President Obama. She has the potential to be a bridge-building candidate because of her many identities. She also, you know, perhaps even a little bit differently than President Obama, has just naturally cultivated some of her ties to these communities.

So, you know, President Obama certainly did this by choosing to do community organizing work in Chicago. A lot of people attribute his popularity in African American communities and his embrace - and the fact that African American communities embraced him in part because he married Michelle Obama, who has a more sort of clearly identifiable African American lineage.

But when Kamala Harris made the decision as a teenager to, you know, embrace her African American heritage and enroll in Howard University and pledge Alpha Kappa Alpha and to continue to engage them as an adult, she actually sort of, you know, paved the way for her to be fully embraced as both Black and as South Asian.

So I - you know, I think that she's just doing this naturally, and her sort of, you know, natural background and - you know, and her behavior sort of as an adult over the course of her life is going to lend itself well to being able to build networks and build communities and build bridges between different groups.

FADEL: On that note, Chanda Parbhoo, you mentioned earlier about the excitement that came with this announcement. How do you think her South Asian heritage will play out on the campaign trail?

PARBHOO: She's going to bring out a lot of new voters who've been sitting out on the side. We suspect that not a lot of people came out to vote this last election cycle, and we're hoping that she will bring in a fresh, new breed of nonvoters into the spectrum. Oftentimes, I feel like our voting population doesn't often feel represented. And I think having her at the top of the ticket really is going to bring in fresh voters that, you know, weren't engaged before, and they feel a real connection to the ticket.

FADEL: Dr. Frederick, you spend a lot of time around young people, and I wonder if you see among students an excitement around Senator Harris being on the ticket.

FREDERICK: Yeah, most certainly. She has been connected to our students since she's been in the Senate, and therefore many of us spend more time in D.C. So she's appeared on campus in many different roles. She was our commencement speaker for 2017. And so I think the students see in her someone who has walked, you know, their path that they are on right now, and she's very relatable.

So that younger group, as a result, I really think that she's created a lot of excitement among some - amongst them in terms of the election. And I also think on our campus, we have a lot of advocacy and policy discussions, which I think is critical for the young voter as well.

FADEL: Now, professor Gillespie, you spoke about her appealing to all these different identities that exist in the United States. But she's also been criticized for her record as a prosecutor. And this summer, there's been a reckoning about racism in law enforcement. Can you talk a bit about how her being on the ticket will impact not just Black voters but Biden's efforts to appeal to a broad range of voters?

GILLESPIE: So her prosecutorial experience was actually a good training ground for the rest of her political career. The issue in this particular moment is that there are progressive activists who probably would have preferred some other candidate who wasn't so closely tied to law enforcement, given the - their demands for policing reform. And they may view Senator Harris with a little bit of skepticism about whether or not she's going to be receptive to their interests.

And so what she and Vice President Biden are going to have to do is they're just going to have to make an effort to reach out to those constituents and make the case about why they are listening, how they are actually incorporating their demands into their policy platform and how they plan to bring people together on both sides of this issue to move towards a meaningful reform.

So that's going to involve taking responsibility for policy decisions that were made in the past that may have seemed like a good idea in the moment but that in hindsight may now look a little bit different and to explain what they've learned as a result of those policy mistakes. For any politician who has, you know, held office for a certain period of time, there are votes that you regret. There are policy decisions that were made that with more information you would have done a little bit differently.

And so I think she's - they're going to have to make the case about sort of asking for grace and talking about how people learn over time and how policies can actually be adjusted and refined based on feedback and based on what we see happening.

FADEL: In the 30 seconds we have left, I did want to ask each of you what you're going to be paying most close attention to as we approach the November election. And we'll start with Dr. Frederick.

FREDERICK: You know, that - I'm paying attention to the fact that people will look at her substance. I think for all the discrimination we've had over time, I hope people will see her intellect more than (unintelligible).

FADEL: And as we've seen already, there have been some racist attacks. Chanda Parbhoo, what about you?

PARBHOO: You know, the same thing. I think everybody's going to be going through her policies with a fine-tooth comb. And we're going to have our ears to the ground to hear what the activists are saying and making sure that we have a winning ticket for November.

FADEL: Professor Gillespie.

GILLESPIE: I think the bigger question is how much of a net positive she has on the ticket. We assume based on her qualifications that she would be at least neutral, which is what most vice-presidential nominees are to the ticket. But given Vice President Biden's age, we'll really be curious to see sort of, you know, whether or not she actually gets more votes for him. That could be significant in tilting the Electoral College.

FADEL: That's Andra Gillespie, professor of political science at Emory University in Atlanta, Dr. Wayne Frederick, president of Howard University, and Chanda Parbhoo of SAAVE, a South Asian voter empowerment organization in Texas.

Thank you all so much for joining us.

GILLESPIE: Thank you.

PARBHOO: Thank you.

FREDERICK: Thanks for having us. I appreciate it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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