Q&A: Harris says Democrats need to listen to young voters

Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., speaks during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on police use of force and community relations on on Capitol Hill, Tuesday, June 16, 2020 in Washington. (Jonathan Ernst/Pool via AP) (Jonathan Ernst)

WASHINGTON – Sen. Kamala Harris of California says that Democrats need to listen to young voters seeking change and that she won't “be played" by Republicans when it comes to police reform legislation.

She's a top contender to be presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden's running mate. But she won't directly address whether she thinks Biden should choose a Black woman as his vice president.

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Harris spoke Tuesday with The Associated Press about her efforts and the Democratic Party's relationship with Black voters. The following Q&A has been edited for clarity and length.

AP: Do you think that swift compromise is still possible (on police reform legislation)? And if you do have to compromise, what do you think are the pieces in your bill that have the most potential to save lives?

HARRIS: The problem is that we have American lives that have ended at the hands of excessive force and police brutality. And we need to address it, and (Democrats') bill, the Justice in Policing Act, is frankly quite narrowly tailored to specifically address the need for accountability and consequences when there is the situation where police officers have broken the rules and broken the law.

You have the Republican leader, (Mitch) McConnell, essentially saying that he is not going to invite any kind of conversation or discourse before a vote (on the Republican bill) Wednesday. The two lead senators on the Justice in Policing Act, Sen. Cory Booker from New Jersey and myself, both serve on the Judiciary Committee. The Judiciary Committee was designed just for this type of issue.

So if there was an intent to have a meaningful dialogue and discussion toward real solutions that have teeth, it should have gone there. And instead it's “We’re in leadership, we hold all the cards, you take it. You take what we’re offering you even if it’s crumbs on the table." Well, we’re not going to go for that. And frankly, I will speak for myself, I’m not going to be played that way.

AP: Some of these things that are in the Justice in Policing Act are things that are either still allowed in California or were only recently reformed. Could you have pushed harder for some of these things to happen earlier in California?

HARRIS: The point of your question actually speaks to the issue at hand, which is even in a state like California, which has been a leader on reforming the criminal justice system, we still aren’t where we need to be. And it speaks to the fact that I know well that there are a lot of folks and a lot that is invested in the status quo, it is deeply rooted. Within the system, there is a real hesitance, if not hostility, to reform and change.

One of the greatest, I think, counterforces to that status quo ... has been Black Lives Matter and the brilliance of that movement and its leaders. That has created this kind of counterforce, so that those who are within a system can have greater leverage to force or compel change. But there’s still so much more to do and that speaks to exactly our bill, the Justice in Policing Act, which is these are the things we need to institute at a national and at a federal level.

AP: Vice President Biden has overwhelming support among older Black voters, but he’s struggled to gain more widespread support from young Black and Latino progressive voters. What do Democrats need to do to get those voters energized and come out in November?

HARRIS: We need to listen. The strength and the beauty of this movement around policing is, I think, an extension of what I know from being on the campaign trail for a year, which is that there are a lot of issues that are impacting so-called younger voters that have gone unaddressed. One of the best ways to actually address those issues is to listen and let the people tell you their needs and tell you what they want. We have to listen to them, and we have to respond to their needs in a way that we provide them with their rightful role of leadership as opposed to expecting them to just follow.

AP: Beyond policing, what do you think needs to be done to address inequalities that have been laid bare in the Black community as a result of the COVID-19 crisis that we're in? Do you think that the Democrats need a more robust agenda when it comes to Black America?

HARRIS: There’s a lot that needs to be addressed, and it relates to everything from public health and long-standing disparities based on race. It is about what we need to do around the economy, it is about what we need to do around education. It's about environmental policy and environmental justice and a number of other issues.

One of the things that we need to do is obviously fight to keep the Affordable Care Act. But we also need to address the long-standing disparities that exist when we know that African Americans are 20% more likely to have asthma, 40% more likely to have high blood pressure, that Black women are three times more likely to have lupus than white women, when we know that Black women are three to four times more likely to die in connection with childbirth than other women. So there’s a lot of work to do there, and it is about accessibility, it is about affordability, it is about bias in the health care delivery system — racial bias, institutional and systemic racism.

I have proposed the Racial Disparities Act. It would track where these disparities exist as we continue to deal with the coronavirus pandemic because we still are at a place where hundreds of people are dying in our country a day.

AP: A lot of voices in your party have begun to say Biden needs to have a Black woman on the ticket. Do you think that is what is necessary to kind of rise to the occasion of this moment?

HARRIS: I will tell you and I say this with all sincerity and honesty and candor: I want Joe Biden to pick whoever is going to help him win. Period. He has to win. There is too much at stake in our country right now. Donald Trump has been a failure as a president on almost every level. He came into office trying to sow hate and division among us. He has been dishonest with the American people tens of thousands of times. He has failed to lead on the greatest public health crisis and therefore economic crisis we’ve seen in generations, where he was in abject denial and then basically tried to muzzle the health care experts and mislead the American people. We need a president of the United States who has in their DNA the ability and the desire to lift up the condition and the spirit of the American people. And I know Joe Biden can do that, and he needs to win.


Ronayne reported from Sacramento, Calif.

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