WASHINGTON (AP) — Gretchen Whitmer wanted out.
The Michigan governor had caught the interest of Joe Biden and his vice presidential vetting committee, who were drawn to her prominence in a crucial battleground state and her aggressive response to the coronavirus outbreak there. But by late spring, the nation was in the midst of a reckoning over race and inequality following the death of George Floyd, a Black man who died after a white police officer pressed his knee into his neck for several minutes.
Whitmer sent word to Biden’s team that while she was flattered, she no longer wanted to be considered for the running mate slot, according to a high-ranking Democrat familiar with the process. She recommended Biden pick a Black woman.
But Biden still wanted Whitmer in the mix, and he personally called her in mid-June to ask if she would continue on to the second, more intensive round of vetting, according to the official. Whitmer agreed.
But forces in the country, and within the Democratic Party, were indeed pushing Biden toward a history-making pick. As protests over the death of Floyd and other Black Americans filled the streets across the country, an array of Democrats urged Biden to put a Black woman on the ticket — a nod to this moment in the nation’s history, to the critical role Black voters played in Biden’s ascent to the Democratic nomination, and to their vital importance in his general election campaign against President Donald Trump.
On Tuesday, Biden tapped California Sen. Kamala Harris to be his running mate, making her the first Black woman to serve on a major party presidential ticket. This account of how he made that decision, the most important of his political career, is based on interviews with 10 people with direct knowledge of the vetting and selection process. Most spoke on condition of anonymity to disclose private conversations and deliberations.
25 PHOTOSKamala Harris early in her careerSee GalleryKamala Harris early in her careerSan Francisco district attorney candidate Kamala Harris, left, serves lunch to an unidentied visitor while volunteering at Thanksgiving service at Glide Memorial United Methodist Church in San Francisco on Thursday, Nov. 27, 2003. Glide church has been feeding the needy for years, this Thanksgiving about 1,200 volunteers helped prepare 6,000 meals from 1,000 turkeys and 600 hams. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)San Francisco’s new district attorney, Kamala Harris, right, receives the oath of office from California Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald M. George, left, during inauguration ceremonies Thursday, Jan. 8, 2004, in San Francisco. In the center is Harris’ mother, Dr. Shyamala Gopalan, who holds a copy of "The Bill of Rights." Harris, a political novice and career prosecutor, became San Francisco’s chief law enforcer Thursday and California’s first district attorney of Indian and black descent. (AP Photo/George Nikitin)San Francisco District Attorney Kamala Harris poses for a portrait in San Francisco, Friday, June 18, 2004. The December election of a new district attorney was supposed to signal a turning point for police-prosecutor relations in San Francisco, where lofty, ultra-liberal ideals sometimes clash with the street-level realities of law enforcement. But after ousting her former boss on a pledge to restore order to the DA’s office, Kamala Harris has faced unforeseen trials with her colleagues in blue. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom holds a Thanksgiving meal while volunteering at Glide Memorial United Methodist Church in San Francisco Thursday, Nov. 25, 2004. Glide prepared more than 5,000 meals for Thanksgiving. Also pictured are San Francisco District Attorney Kamala Harris, center, and Newsom’s wife Kimberly Guilfoyle Newsom, second from right. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)California Attorney General Kamala Harris, who as a prosecutor once specialized in child sexual assault cases addresses the Domestic Human Trafficking symposium in Los Angeles, Friday, April, 25, 2014. According to a 2005 International Labour Organization paper, human trafficking, or sexual servitude and forced labor, brings in about $32 billion annually, making it the second most profitable criminal enterprise after illegal arms trafficking. The vast majority of those trafficked are women and children, from all milieus of society. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)** CORRECTS SPELLING OF LASHUAN HARRIS ** San Francisco district attorney Kamala Harris, right, speaks at a news conference about Lashuan Harris in San Francisco, Friday, Oct. 21, 2005. Lashuan Harris, the women seen dropping her young sons into San Francisco Bay, pleaded innocent to three counts of murder. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)Kamala Harris, San Francisco District Attorney (Photo by Steve Jennings/WireImage for Conde Nast media group) *** Local Caption ***Belva Davis, Kamala Harris, San Francisco District Attorney, and Laura Michalchyshyn of the Sundance Channel (Photo by Steve Jennings/WireImage for Conde Nast media group)VENICE, CA – NOVEMBER 03: San Francisco District Attorney Kamala Harris attends the ‘Choose Or Lose Your Toys’ event at the Obsolete Gallery on November 3, 2009 in Venice, California. (Photo by Jesse Grant/Getty Images for Obsolete)En esta fotografía de archivo del 17 de junio de 2009, la fiscal de distrito de San Francisco Kamala Harris, a la izquierda, aplaude mientras el nuevo jefe de la policía George Gascon, en el podio, es presentado por el alcalde Gavin Newsom, a la derecha, en San Francisco. Las actitudes tolerantes que tuvieron hacia los indocumentados podrían descarrilar las candidaturas a gobernador de California de dos prominentes figuras de la política en San Francisco: Harris y Newson. (Foto AP/Eric Risberg, Archivo)San Francisco District Attorney Kamala Harris was one of six candidates taking part in the democratic primary debate for Attorney General at the Milken Institute in Santa Monica, May 18, 2010. The remaining four candidates are Chris Kelly, Ted Lieu, Pedro Nava and Alberto Torrico. (Photo by Jay L. Clendenin/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)SALINAS, CA – NOVEMBER 01: San Francisco district attorney and democratic candidate for California attorney general Kamala Harris laughs as she sits backstage before a get-out-the-vote rally at the National Steinbeck Center on November 1, 2010 in Salinas, California. With one day to go until Election Day, Jerry Brown is wrapping up his three day campaign trip throughout California in hopes of defeating his republican challenger and former eBay CEO Meg Whitman. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)In this photo taken Tuesday, Nov. 30, 2010, California Attorney General Kamala Harris gives her first news conference in Los Angeles. Harris asked a federal appeals court on Tuesday, march 1, 2011, to allow gay marriages to resume while the court considers the constitutionality of the state’s voter approved ban on same sex unions. The request came after the California Supreme Court said it needed the rest of the year to consider a legal question the appeals court said it needs answered before it can resolve the case. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)NEW YORK CITY, NY – OCTOBER 01: Jason Binn and Attorney General of California, Kamala Harris pose at Provocateur circa October 2011 in New York City. (Photo by Jason Binn/WireImage)BEVERLY HILLS, CA – JUNE 05: Attorney General Kamala Harris attends the Fifth Annual Kidstock Music and Arts Festival at Greystone Mansion on June 5, 2011 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)BEVERLY HILLS, CA – MARCH 18: California Attorney General Kamala Harris speaks onstage at the Public Counsel’s William O. Douglas Award Dinner held at the Beverly Hilton Hotel on March 18, 2011 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)California Attorney General Kamala Harris, right, and Michael Troncoso, Senior Counsel to the Attorney General, left, listen as mortgage fraud victim Jacqueline Marcelos speaks at a roundtable of foreclosure victims at Mission Economic Development Agency in San Francisco, on Monday, Nov. 21, 2011. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)LOS ANGELES, CA – DECEMBER 13:California Attorney General Kamala Harris participates in TheWrap’s ‘The Power Of Leadership’ brunch at Scarpetta on December 13, 2012 in Los Angeles, California.(Photo by Jerod Harris/Getty Images for TheWrap)Californbia Attorney General Kamala Harris speaks to the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, NC (Photo by Ralf-Finn Hestoft/Corbis via Getty Images)California Attorney GeneralKamala D. Harris at the Time Warner Cable Arena in Charlotte, North Carolina, on September 4, 2012 on the first day of the Democratic National Convention (DNC). The DNC is expected to nominate US President Barack Obama to run for a second term as president. AFP PHOTORobyn BECK(Photo credit should read ROBYN BECK/AFP/GettyImages)SAN FRANCISCO, CA – JULY 11:California Attorney General Kamala Harris (L) looks on as California Governor Jerry Brown (R) speaks to reporters after signing the California Homeowner Bill of Rights (AB 278 and SB 900) on July 11, 2012 in San Francisco, California.Gov. Jerry Brown signed the California Homeowners Bill of Rights that establishes landmark protection rules for mortgage loan borrowers. The laws go into effect on January 1, 2013.(Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)California Attorney General Kamala D. Harris speaks with supporters at the California Democrats State Convention in San Diego, CA on Saturday, February 11, 2012 in San Diego, CA. Harris has helped Californian homeowners by lobbying for a large share of federal funds to help with the massive foreclosure crisis in the state. (Photo by Sandy Huffaker/Corbis via Getty Images)MOUNTAIN VIEW, CA – DECEMBER 12:California Attorney General Kamala Harris arrives at the Breakthrough Prize Inaugural Ceremony at NASA Ames Research Center on December 12, 2013 in Mountain View, California.(Photo by C Flanigan/FilmMagic)SAN FRANCISCO, CA – JUNE 30:California State Attorney General Kamala Harris appears at the Gay Pride Parade on June 30, 2013 in San Francisco, California.(Photo by Arun Nevader/FilmMagic)LOS ANGELES, CA – MAY 17:California Attorney General Kamala Harris speaks at a news conference on May 17, 2013 at the Los Angeles Civic Center in Los Angeles, California. Harris hosted a meeting of the state’s district attorneys to develop recommendations on reducing gun violance.(Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)Up Next
Biden, well aware of the potential pitfalls of being a 77-year-old white male standard-bearer of a party increasingly comprised of women, people of color and young voters, made clear even before he had clinched the Democratic nomination that his running mate would be a woman.
His initial list of possible contenders was sprawling: roughly 20 governors, senators, congresswomen, mayors and other Democratic stalwarts. They were young and old; Black, Hispanic, white, Asian; straight and gay. Some, including Harris, had competed against Biden for the Democratic nomination.
From the start, some Biden advisers saw Harris as a logical choice. She was among the party’s most popular figures, a deft debater and a fundraising juggernaut. She had been thoroughly vetted during her own campaign and Biden’s team expected there would be few surprises if she was the pick.
Indeed, Harris’ potential downsides were well-known to Biden advisers. Her record as a prosecutor in California was already viewed skeptically by some younger Democrats during the primary and would face even more scrutiny against the backdrop of a national debate over inequality in the criminal justice system.
There were also nagging questions about Harris’ most high-profile moment of the primary campaign — a harsh and deeply personal broadside against Biden over his position on school busing in the 1970s. Though Biden would later brush the moment aside as campaign tactics, the attack was said to have stunned the former vice president, who had considered his relationship with Harris strong. It also raised concern among a small cadre of Biden advisers that Harris would be eyeing the Oval Office herself from the start, a particular worry given that Biden has not firmly committed to serving two terms if elected in November.
And so, as spring turned to summer, a string of other Black women would take a turn in the spotlight as Biden weighed his options. Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and Florida Rep. Val Demings impressed Biden’s team with their leadership during the police brutality protests.
Some House Democrats — including South Carolina Rep. James Clyburn, a close Biden confidant — advocated for Rep. Karen Bass, a Californian who chairs the Congressional Black Caucus. Biden also took a strong interest in Susan Rice, with whom he worked closely when she served in the White House as President Barack Obama’s national security adviser.
The leading contenders, who also included Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Illinois Sen. Tammy Duckworth, submitted reams of financial records, texts of speeches and other personal information. Biden’s selection team canvassed a vast array of Democrats to ask for their views on the candidates’ temperament and families, then grilled the candidates on much of the same.
Biden, too, regularly discussed his potential pick with his sprawling network of friends and advisers. He used Obama in particular as a sounding board, though confidants to both men say the former president was careful not to tip his hand in those conversations as to whom he preferred.
But in private, Obama suggested to others that he believed Harris was the favorite.
In one of Harris’ conversations with the vetting committee, Chris Dodd — a longtime Biden friend who served alongside him in the Senate — asked if she had remorse for her debate stage attack on his busing record.
Harris, as she had previously done so publicly, brushed it aside as simply politics. Dodd, a member of the running mate selection committee, was put off and let that be known. The incident was first reported by Politico and confirmed to The Associated Press by a person with direct knowledge.
The public disclosure of Dodd’s comments angered some of the highest-ranking women on Biden’s campaign team. Some of Harris’ allies also mobilized to defend her, including California Lt. Gov. Eleni Kounalakis, who organized a call with Biden’s vetting team about two weeks ago to assuage any doubts about whether the senator was the right choice for the ticket.
On the 45-minute call, Kounalakis and other statewide officials, labor and business leaders took turns sharing their personal histories with Harris and their impressions of her as a leader.
“Speaking out as strongly as we did, collectively, helped them understand how supported she is and why,” Kounalakis said on Tuesday.
The call ended with Biden’s vetting team telling the Harris supporters that they had all recommended her as one of the top candidates for the job.
The pandemic had largely grounded Biden in his home state of Delaware throughout the summer, and also upended some of the ways he had expected to build a rapport with the running-mate contenders. There were no joint rallies or carefully orchestrated, yet casual-looking, outings to local restaurants in battleground states. Biden was also accepting few in-person visitors at his home.
But he did want to speak one-on-one with the women who had made it through the vetting process and interviews with his selection committee. He would hold conversations with 11 women in the final nine days before he made his pick — a mixture of in-person meetings and video teleconferences.
Whitmer was among those who flew to Delaware for an in-person audience. She boarded a private plane in Lansing, Michigan, on Aug. 2, spending just a few hours on the ground before returning to Michigan.
Rice, who had perhaps the closest personal relationship with Biden of all the contenders, spoke twice with Biden in recent days. Duckworth also had a formal interview over the weekend, as did Georgia Democrat Stacey Abrams, who was initially viewed as a leading contender for the job.
On Tuesday, in the hours before his campaign announced Harris as the pick, Biden would call each of those women to inform them that they had not been selected. Warren, whose relationship with Biden has deepened in recent months through regular policy discussions, was also among those to receive a personal call from the former vice president.
In some of the conversations, Biden left open an opportunity. Please consider joining me in another role in the administration, he said.
Eggert reported from Lansing, Mich., and Ronayne from Sacramento, Calif. Associated Press writers Bill Barrow in Atlanta, Will Weissert in Wilmington, Del., and Laurie Kellman in Washington contributed to this report.
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