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Can Kamala Harris excite more Latinos for Joe Biden?

Supporters cite her record and her favorability in Latino voter polls, but others point out she needs to engage young Latino voters seeking real law enforcement reform.
Image: Democratic Presidential Candidate Sen. Kamala Harris Attends Asian and Latino Coalition Discussion At Iowa Capitol Statehouse
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris fields questions at the Asian and Latino Coalition at the Iowa Statehouse in Des Moines, Iowa on Feb. 23, 2019.Stephen Maturen / Getty Images file

Critics have seized on Kamala Harris’ prosecutions of Latinos and African Americans, but those cheering Joe Biden’s pick of the California senator for his running mate say she could help mobilize diverse Latino voters and pull in the record numbers of naturalized citizen voters.

“She has a track record Latinos can have confidence in,” Julián Castro, the only Latino Democratic 2020 presidential candidate, told NBC News. "She's going to be listening and thinking about the community as she campaigns with Biden."

As California's Attorney General, "she was as progressive as AGs and DAs get," said Castro. "She tried to move the ball forward in terms of reforming the criminal justice system."

Harris became better known to Latinos nationally in the first Democratic primary debate held in Miami in June 2019.

Post-debate polling showed Hispanic voters felt Harris performed best and she was the candidate most likely to get their vote. "Latinos were clearly listening to what she had to say," said Anais Lopez, an analyst for Latino Decisions, a polling firm which conducted the poll last year.

Harris left the race in December as Biden’s and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ favorability with Latinos rose. But a Latino Decisions poll released last month found that 59 percent of 1,200 Latinos eligible to vote in six battleground states would be either very excited or somewhat excited if Biden chose Harris as his running mate. The Biden campaign has since hired Latino Decisions principal Matt Barreto.

While several believe her addition to the ticket can excite Latino voters — because she is a daughter of immigrants, based on her voting record and because she's from the state with the largest Latino community — she'll have to address specific ways to alleviate the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on Hispanic families.

A May poll for UnidosUS of 1,829 Latinos, most of whom were registered voters, found that one out of four Latinos knows someone who has been infected by COVID-19 and among those, one-third know someone who has died. The economic toll has been tremendous, with many losing jobs or experiencing pay cuts. Long before the pandemic, health care costs and access had registered as a top issue for Latinos.

A small percentage of Latino small businesses got pandemic relief loans and many Latinos and Latino families were unable to get stimulus funds because they or someone in their family lacks a Social Security number and pays federal taxes with an tax ID number.

Vanessa Cardenas, a Democratic strategist and former Biden campaign staffer, touted Harris' involvement in working on free testing and treatment for communities of color and her support for giving help to families excluded from pandemic stimulus payments.

"She has been at the forefront of this and understands the impact probably better than most senators, given her track record on health and health equity and access," Cardenas said.

Engaging young Latinos, addressing police reform

Biden has done well with older Latino voters, but Sanders won the Latino vote in key states' primaries including Texas and Nevada and mobilized new and young voters.

Stella Rouse, director of the Center for Democracy and Civic Engagement at University of Maryland, said Harris’ history with law enforcement will make a lot of young people — especially young Latinos and African Americans — hesitant to get behind Harris “full throttle”.

“Young people really want police departments to be reformed significantly. How she responds to that will be an issue,” Rouse said.

A July Latino Decisions poll found strong or some support for Black Lives Matter protests that erupted after the death of George Floyd among 78 percent of all Latinos and 81 percent of Latinos ages 18-29.

On her prosecution record, Amanda Renteria, former national political director for the 2016 Hillary Clinton campaign, said that now that Harris has moved from enforcement of laws to writing them, she has evolved with the times and used the opportunity to make a difference.

In the Senate, Harris has become a leading voice on criminal justice reform and helped draft the Democrats’ police reform bill this year. When the bill was unveiled, Harris called for a national use of force standard.

"Right now, the question asked if there is police misconduct and excessive force is...'Was it reasonable?' Well, as we all know, we can reason away just about anything," Harris said in June. "The appropriate and fair question to ask is, 'Was it necessary?'"

Support in the immigrant community

Harris likely will find backing in the immigrant community and among its advocates and allies.

“She’s always been on the forefront of supporting (immigrants),” said Larry Gonzalez, a principal in the Democratic lobbying firm Raben Group. “She’s been supportive of DACA, worked on citizenship, encouraged people to naturalize.”

But Biden and Harris should make it clear that if they're elected, they will push for immigration reform early on, said University of Maryland's Rouse. This didn't happen under the Obama administration, which instead saw record deportations. "Many Latinos haven't forgotten," said Rouse.

A daughter of Jamaican and Indian immigrants, Harris has been able to connect with younger immigrants and children of immigrants. In this election, a record high of 1 in 10 Americans eligible to vote are immigrants. They'll go to the polls following the Trump administration's four years of hardline immigration policies, including restrictions on legal immigration.

Biden’s pick of Harris comes two weeks after the Trump administration released a memo saying it would not take new applications for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program that has allowed many young immigrants to remain in the United States and work and study, and try to end it.

Cristina Jiménez, co-founder of United We Action Fund, the political arm of the largest activist network of young immigrants without permanent legal status, said in a statement that Harris is not the perfect candidate, but she has fought alongside immigrant youth and families the past four years.

“When Trump attacked DACA, when he released the Muslim ban, and when he snatched children from the arms of their parents, Senator Harris defended our communities," Jiménez stated. "Senator Harris is also a staunch supporter of a pathway to citizenship for all immigrants and defunding the deportation force” of Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Customs and Border Protection.

In February, Harris and Rep. Joaquín Castro, D-Texas, introduced a resolution condemning the presence of Stephen Miller in the White House and called for his immediate resignation. Miller is seen as the architect of Trump’s immigration plan who espouses views of white nationalists.

Civil and labor rights icon Dolores Huerta backed Harris early in the primary race, but endorsed Rep. Karen Bass, D-Calif., for vice president. The farm worker activist said she was not disappointed by Biden’s pick. He has chosen a person of color — “the most important thing” — but also someone who connects well with Latinos, who has always talked to the community on a personal basis, Huerta said.

Californias' Latinos may have another reason to want Harris as vice president— a chance to put a Latino in the U.S. Senate to fill her seat.

“There’s a lot of Latinos who could serve in her capacity,” said Juan Proaño, founder of a technology firm that works with campaigns and non-profits. “Make her VP and make a Latino senator.”

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