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The Veep's VP: Inside Joe Biden's search for his own running mate

The journey that led to Biden's selection of Kamala Harris as his running mate began two years ago, say those familiar with the process.
Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., speaks with Joe Biden before a campaign rally at Renaissance High School on March 9, 2020 in Detroit.
Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., speaks with Joe Biden before a campaign rally at Renaissance High School on March 9, 2020 in Detroit.Adam Schultz / Biden Campaign

WILMINGTON, Del. — “You ready to go to work?”

That simple question from Joe Biden to Kamala Harris ended one of the most-scrutinized and secretive vice presidential search processes in American history.

Twelve years earlier, Biden “was going a mile a minute” when Barack Obama offered him the job, as the former president would later tell a top aide, whereas Harris initially responded Tuesday with a stunned silence.

“Oh, my God," she then answered, "I am so ready to go to work.”

Ninety minutes later, the public would learn of the history made in that conversation. But the journey leading to the moment began two years ago, according to conversations with multiple people familiar with the process.

Talking with a close adviser while traveling home from one of the dozens of campaign events Biden held for Democratic candidates in the 2018 midterm races — mostly women — Biden shared privately something he would pledge publicly toward the end of the Democratic nomination battle: that there was a deep bench of qualified women who could be vice president and, given the chance, he would probably choose one.

Biden’s formal search for a running mate, though, only began in April, once he was the apparent nominee. The daunting task of managing the process fell to a core group of trusted advisers and political allies, led by formerSen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut, Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester of Delaware, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and a longtime aide, Cynthia Hogan. His political kitchen cabinet would weigh in throughout, as would his wife and sister.

During the primary campaign, Biden was never bashful about discussing what he would look for in a vice presidential pick. A former VP himself, and the front-runner when he joined the 2020 contest, it was a question voters asked almost immediately — many already entertaining their own perfect Biden match.

But if Biden had an initial preference by the time he was ready to begin the formal search, it was not one that was communicated to his team. He made clear he wanted the process to be thorough and deliberate, and based it in part on advice from the man who chose him in 2008, Barack Obama.

The co-chairs of his search committee, splitting up into pairs, spent more than 120 hours combined with party activists, interest groups and other key stakeholders “to gather input and ensure a wide range of views were being taken into account for this decision,” a source close to the process said.

They also met with groups that have long worked to help elect women to public office, gathering advice and perspective on how to prepare for the unique environment the choice would face, and learn best practices for dealing with scenarios a male candidate would never confront.

The team cast a wide net to survey the party for possible choices, and ultimately narrowed the list to more than 20 names, each of whom would get an initial interview with the search committee. Questions to each included, “What would your agenda be?" And, "What do you think Trump’s nickname for you will be?”

A presentation was made after this first phase to both Joe and Jill Biden, offering readouts of the interviews and their general assessments. And after additional one-on-one meetings between Biden and each of his search committee co-chairmen, he narrowed the list down to 11.

At that point, the more intense vetting process began, overseen by high profile Democratic attorneys Bob Bauer, Lisa Monaco and Dana Remus and staffed by more than a dozen lawyers, working pro bono. Their work was again presented to Biden before he met one-on-one with each of the 11 candidates.

Advisers say Harris showed both a command of the issues and confidence in her ability to take the fight to Trump in the campaign. Perhaps most significantly, she reflected on her relationship with Biden's son Beau, both personally and professionally as the two state attorneys general — the younger Biden in Delaware, Harris in California — partnered on major cases, most significantly against financial firms following the mortgage foreclosure crisis. (Beau Biden died of brain cancer in 2015.)

“It is through my friendship with Beau that I truly came to know Joe Biden, not just as a leader, but as a person,” Harris said as she introduced Joe Biden in 2016, their first major joint public appearance as he supported her candidacy for Senate at the California Democratic Party convention.

A message Biden wrote on a notecard this summer — preparing for a question that was never asked about the July 2019 debate moment that many felt would threaten a Biden-Harris partnership — was true: He didn’t hold grudges. While the clash in Miami stung him, it lingered longer for those on his campaign team and in his own family than for him.

In October, with both of their campaigns struggling to maintain footing in Iowa, Harris and Biden had an unexpected opportunity to commiserate about the grueling race. Separate flights from Ohio for another primary debate were rerouted to the same airfield because of an outage in Columbus.

While aides had cupcakes celebrating the birthdays of Harris and her husband, Biden and Harris had some one-on-one time. The clear personal bond that to many had made them such a natural pairing long before both entered the race was still intact.

Just over a month later, when a reporter informed Biden that Harris was suspending her campaign, he returned to the press scrum to offer his thoughts. “My reaction is that she is a first-rate intellect, first-rate candidate, and is a real competitor. I have mixed emotions about it — because she is really a solid, solid person,” he said. “I’m sure she's not dropping out on wanting to make the changes that she cares about.” Later, he reminded reporters he was not good at holding on to hard feelings, and said she was capable of doing anything, including being on his ticket.

Harris proved herself more than willing to help Biden work to unite the party and campaign in what became a largely virtual race.

She held five fundraisers for the Biden campaign, did press calls and surrogate events, both nationally and regionally focused. But Harris wasn’t alone. All of the finalists had opportunities promoted by the campaign — often with Biden or his wife — to help build their public profiles and show their potential strengths, if not on the ticket, potentially in a Biden administration or in higher office for themselves.

Throughout the process, Biden’s team was aware of pressure from various corners of the party about what to consider in his choice, sometimes in contradiction to one another. One constant pressure point: choose a woman of color.

Biden, though, always resisted making that commitment, in part not to be boxed in on his choice, but also because there was concern that making that pledge would risk undercutting the final selection, leaving his choice to be seen not as the most qualified person for the job, but simply the most qualified Black woman.

In the end, Biden made it clear: He “wasn’t looking to make a geographic or political or demographic choice,” Garcetti said on MSNBC ahead of the pick.

But Biden always knew the historic import of the moment.

In the end, the man who served loyally and faithfully as vice president to the nation’s first Black president would make history again — by choosing the first Black woman to run for vice president.

Kristen Welker, Marianna Sotomayor and Deepa Shivaram contributed.