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Harris excites Michigan's Black community, but not progressives

Leonard N. Fleming
The Detroit News

The historic choice of Kamala Harris to be the first woman of color tapped for a major party vice presidential nomination was cheered as an acknowledgement of the importance of Black women in the Democratic Party.

But it remains unclear how much Harris will help in Michigan, where presumptive presidential nominee Joe Biden already has strong backing among African Americans that helped propel him to primary wins in the state and elsewhere across the country.

Although the selection of the junior senator from California is seen as strength against the Republican ticket of President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence in the fall, some African-American progressives in Metro Detroit like Horus Bennett are not impressed. It is because of her background as California attorney general and a district attorney in San Francisco where she embraced policies that critics contend may have incarcerated innocent Black men and women.

"Quite frankly between her and Biden, they've done unimaginable harm" to the Black community, said Bennett, 28, of Southfield. "There would automatically be a position of distrust just because of her history. And not only her history but Biden's history. Both of them encompass all of the legislative damage of the '90s."

In this March 9, 2020, file photo Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., speaks at a campaign rally for presumptive Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden at Renaissance High School in Detroit.

Biden was criticized during the Democratic primaries for his support of a 1994 crime law that imposed tougher prison sentences at the federal level and encouraged states to do the same. The legislation put in place punitive policies that criminal justice reformers have been trying to reverse.

As the party faithful laud the Biden-Harris coalition at the virtual Democratic National Convention, there is fierce debate among black progressives in Michigan and around the country about whether they will back the ticket or stay home. Harris will address the convention Wednesday and Biden on Thursday as both accept their nominations.

While Harris has voted along liberal lines in the U.S. Senate, she has faced criticism for her role in controversial cases as a state and local prosecutor. Her policies included an anti-truancy program that threatened parents of students who skipped school with prosecution, and critics have questioned her handling of claims from men of color who had been wrongfully convicted of criminal charges.

But the Biden campaign has played up the past moderate stances of the former vice president and Harris as the Democratic ticket seeks to win over moderate Republicans with surrogates such as former Ohio Gov. John Kasich and independent voters.

This positioning is causing serious concerns for progressives like Bennett, who said he isn't going to vote in the presidential race — unless he hears concrete plans from Harris and Biden to invest in Black urban communities.

Others are also uneasy about Harris and Biden but still are going to support the ticket.

"I never wanted Biden (Harris). He wasn't my choice, but I'm stuck with him because he is the head of the (Democratic) ticket. But Harris disappointed me and it made me not want to vote at all," said Michael Page, 48, of Detroit. "I just don't like her politics."

But the key for Page is the U.S. Supreme Court, where conservative justices appointed by Republican presidents hold a 5-4 advantage. He wants a Democrat to choose a replacement for Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg if she retires or dies given her longstanding health problems.

"She probably won't survive another term," said Page, who supported Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont in the primaries. "The bench is the only reason why I thought about supporting the ticket. But I didn't have any plans on voting for president. I was going to vote Democrat on down except for the president."

The Biden-Harris ticket is "upsetting" to some Democrats who are canvassing for votes to get Trump booted from office, said Mario Morrow, a longtime Democratic political strategist based in Detroit.

"There's a chance that they can win them over," Morrow said about the disaffected progressive voters. "It's upsetting that people — especially educated, bright, intelligent young people — are still talking about staying home and not voting. That vote that you don't cast actually helps the other candidate."

Trump won Michigan by a slim 10,704 votes in part because Detroit voters didn't turn out in the same large numbers for Democrat Hillary Clinton as they had for Barack Obama. Former President Bill Clinton visited Detroit for a hastily organized meeting six days before the general election four years ago because signs pointed to lackluster enthusiasm in the city. 

A similar development this time around would be "devastating" and could hinder the Biden-Harris campaign, Morrow said. 

In this July 31, 2019, file photo, then-Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., listens as Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden speaks during a Democratic presidential primary debate at the Fox Theatre in Detroit.

"It's a danger to democracy. It is saddening and it could have a negative impact on the Democratic nominees, Biden and Harris, but they can overcome it," Morrow said. "They have to convince people like Bernie Sanders and (U.S. Rep) Rashida Tlaib and (Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez) AOC to go out and pound the pavement and convince these progressives that they must come to the tent and support Biden and Harris."

Sanders delivered a convention speech Monday in which he unequivocally backed Biden and warned of the "rise of authoritarianism" under Trump.

U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence, D-Southfield, said she "will caution America" not to repeat the same mistake as 2016 when some progressives failed to back Clinton by either not voting or backing a third party candidate such as the Green Party's Jill Stein.

"I can tell you from someone who is in the room where it happens, another four years of Donald Trump, I don't know if our country can sustain that," Lawrence said, adding that allegations that Trump continues to race bait and has failed on the COVID-19 response should be reason enough to vote against him.

Lawrence defended Harris' record, which she said is of "being compassionate, fighting to save homes in California." She added that Harris "is a person I trust. And I'm a Black woman and the mother of a Black son."

"If anyone can stand up and point to the flaws that they see in Sen. Harris, I would ask them to do a comparison to the flaws in Donald Trump," said Lawrence, who endorsed Harris in the primaries. "We have a ticket that has the two most compassionate people that I've seen. We have two people who understand the legislative process."

It's unclear how much help Harris will be on the campaign trail. 

She was forced to drop out of the Democratic presidential primaries in December 2019 before a ballot was even cast.

Harris scored points against Biden in a June 2019 debate by questioning his relationship with segregationist lawmakers and position on school busing of minorities. But her candidacy faded after a lackluster Detroit debate performance in which critics questioned her wavering support for a Medicare for All health policy that would eliminate private insurance.

Jerroll Sanders isn't convinced. The one-time Detroit mayoral candidate said she won't commit to supporting the Biden-Harris ticket. She cited the former vice president's support for the 1994 crime law during Bill Clinton's presidency that sent hundreds of thousands of Black men and women to prison.

Harris' record, she said, is not stellar because it arguably resulted in the wrongful prosecution of people of color, too.

"Now is not the time for him to pick a former prosecutor to be his co-running mate given the options that he had," Sanders said.

The Biden-Harris ticket "could redeem themselves" with a robust and expansive plan to "stem mass incarceration" and restructure policing, said Sanders, who has been advocating a proposal called the Uniform Reporting Law Enforcement Improvement Act to revamp policing in America.

"People only hold your past against you when you don't have something in the future to offset what you've done in the past," Sanders said. "But let me be very clear about this. Trump is not an option for me. But you're balancing now the distrust, the disgust with watching Black bodies killed in the street, Black bodies in prison."

Their disenchantment with the Biden-Harris selection, she said, signals a "deaf ear to their concerns about criminal justice. Sanders wouldn't say if she will back the Democratic ticket.

Keith Williams, a former Wayne County commissioner and chair of the Michigan Democratic Black Caucus that endorsed Harris in the primaries last year, said progressives need to get behind the California senator.

"They keep saying that she put a lot of brothers in jail, but she was a prosecutor. Her job was to prosecute crimes," Williams said. "She was doing her job. Maybe she didn't do all the things that the street brother and street sister think she should have done. I look beyond that. I'm looking at the future."

U.S. Senator Kamala Harris engages with fourth-grade students at Miller Elementary School in Dearborn.

Harris' Senate record needs to be considered, too, he said.

"You want four more years of a bad virus or you want to move forward with Joe and Kamala who are going to give you a chance at a brighter future?" Williams asked.

Still, Bennett isn't persuaded, even as Democrats tout Harris being the first Black and Asian American vice presidential nominee. It "means nothing," he said, adding that he wants results.

What Page wants his a platform that gets "concrete resources into my community, flat out.

"I don't care about the symbolism. I don't care what the color of somebody is who brings economics back into my community. I just care that it gets done."

lfleming@detroitnews.com

(313) 222-2620

Twitter:@leonardnfleming