With barely seven months into the Trump White House, already there are rumblings about the 2020 presidential race. On the Republican side, politicians are waging a shadow campaign, smelling blood in the water in light of a real possibility the investigated and scandal-plagued Donald Trump will not make it beyond a year in office, much less to 2020. On the Democratic side, among the serious contenders discussed for a presidential run, three are African-American: Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA), Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), and former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick. At a time of white backlash and antipathy toward the first Black president, and a host of policies reflecting an attempt to erase the Obama legacy, the notion of a second Black president is appealing to some.
The former California State Attorney General and San Francisco District Attorney, Kamala Harris is a freshman senator who has wasted no time making her mark on Capitol Hill and carving out a leadership role in her party. Although she just arrived on the scene in Washington, Sen. Harris is a seasoned prosecutor whose skills were on full display as she grilled U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions and others before the Senate Intelligence Committee. A hot commodity, Harris is assisting her incumbent colleagues as well as Democratic challengers with fundraising. She recently met with Clinton donors in the Hamptons, and is reportedly their favorite, a factor which could prove a benefit and a liability with different segments of the Black electorate.
“Kamala is the big Democratic star right now, at a time when they badly need a star. She’s coming to the Hamptons to meet key people as she takes a national stage, and expands her influence and ambitions,” one political insider told Page Six. Harris has reportedly downplayed her presidential ambitions.
Harris is carving out her niche as a criminal justice reformer, co-sponsoring a bill with Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky to encourage states to reform the system of money bail, the practice of requiring people to remain in jail if they cannot pay for their release. “In a system that is supposed to have blind justice, is it not an injustice that the person who can pay to get out of jail gets out for the same offense, but the person who can’t pay to get out of jail sits in jail with all these other residual consequences?” Harris said at last month’s NAACP convention, making the case that the issue is about criminal justice reform and economic justice.
Along with colleagues Booker, Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), and Richard Durbin (D-IL), Harris introduced the Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act. The legislation is designed to reduce the negative impact of imprisonment on women by prohibiting solitary confinement, the shackling of pregnant prisoners and other measures.
Kamala Harris has faced criticism for being the only Democrat to receive a 2016 Senate campaign contribution from Steven Mnuchin, now Trump’s Treasury Secretary, and for failing to prosecute his bank, OneWest, for fraudulent foreclosure practices.
With an African-American father of Jamaican descent and a mother from India, Harris is a member of both the Congressional Black Caucus and the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus. If elected in 2020, she would become the first U.S. president of Asian descent in addition to the second Black commander-in-chief, and the first female president.
Cory Booker, the senator from New Jersey and former mayor of Newark, has built a reputation as part of the resistance to Trump administration policies. For example, Booker was praised and criticized for testifying against his colleague Sen. Jeff Sessions during his confirmation hearing for U.S. Attorney General, becoming the first sitting senator to testify against another senator up for a cabinet post.
Sen. Booker recently introduced a racial justice bill that places the legalization of marijuana as its focus. The Marijuana Justice Act would legalize marijuana on the federal level, and provide incentives to states to change their marijuana laws if they disproportionately impact the poor and non-white communities. “Our country’s drug laws are badly broken and need to be fixed,” Booker said. “They don’t make our communities any safer — instead they divert critical resources from fighting violent crimes, tear families apart, unfairly impact low-income communities and communities of color, and waste billions in taxpayer dollars each year.”
The dynamic Black lawmaker has faced criticism for being seen as too close to Wall Street and the pharmaceutical industry, for opposing cheaper prescription drugs from Canada and for supporting public school privatization. Booker was also closely tied to current Secretary for Education Betsy DeVos, and he sat on the board of her organization, Alliance for School Choice.
In July, Booker told CNN he did not rule out a presidential run. “I don’t know what the future’s going to bring,” Booker told David Axelrod on “The Axe Files.” “I’m not making predictions, but I want to unleash the fullness of who I am right now, and I want to call out injustice where I see it.”
Another potential candidate for the presidential race is Deval Patrick. The former governor of Massachusetts is the favorite of Barack Obama and his inner circle, a factor which could amount to something among the core Democratic base that enthusiastically supported the first Black president. Like Obama, Patrick is a powerful orator and a skilled politician. Both men hold a Harvard law degree and have Chicago ties. A popular governor who won reelection by a large margin, Patrick was known for a complex legacy as governor, with successes in areas such as education reform and marriage equality, and a lasting impact on the state judiciary. Specifically, as the Boston Globe noted, he appointed 40 percent of the state’s judges, and five of the seven justices on the Supreme Judicial Court, Massachusetts’ highest court.
“He has the ability to touch people’s hearts as well as their minds,” said Obama White House adviser Valerie Jarrett of Patrick. The former Massachusetts governor is what “her heart desires” according to Jarrett. “I think our country is ready for that now — let alone in three years.”
A managing director at Bain Capital, Patrick is running a social good private equity fund called Double Impact, which invests in small- and medium-sized companies that focus on community building, sustainability, health and wellness. The former governor’s ties to Bain have drawn the ire of leftists and progressives in the Bernie Sanders wing of the Democratic Party who note that the investment firm was founded by 2012 GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney.
All three Black politicians — Patrick, Booker and Harris — face opposition from leftist Democrats who believe they are too establishment and too beholden to corporate interests. “The Democrats will not win until they address income inequality, no matter how they dress up their next candidate,” said Sanders supporter Nomiki Konst, who serves on the DNC’s Unity Commission. “If that candidate is in bed with Wall Street, you may as well lay a tombstone out for the Democratic Party now. Voters are smart; they can follow the money.”
“[Harris] is the preferred candidate of extremely wealthy and out-of-touch Democratic party donors,” said Winnie Wong, co-founder of People for Bernie. “Her recent anointing is extremely telling. These donors will line her coffers ahead of 2020 and she will have the next two years to craft a message of broad appeal to a rapidly changing electorate.” Wong said Harris would have to get behind universal healthcare, free college, a federal $15 hour minimum wage, criminal justice reform and an expansion of social security to advance her political career, positions the senator already supports.
“One group that believes that Democrats shouldn’t overtly represent the interests of the wealthy, in fact, is the current Democratic Party,” wrote Ben Mathis-Lilley in Slate, arguing the Wall Street influence of Democratic politicians is a matter of principle rather than strategy or mere optics. He noted that Bernie Sanders Democrats learned to vilify Bain Capital through Obama’s 2012 Obama campaign against Mitt Romney. “And when you’re president — as opposed to the head of a private equity firm—your job is not simply to maximize profits. Your job is to figure out how everybody in the country has a fair shot. Your job is to think about those workers who get laid off and how to pay for their retraining,” Obama said during that campaign, attacking Romney. “If your main argument for how to grow the economy is I knew how to make a lot of money for investors, then you’re missing what this job is about. It doesn’t mean you weren’t good at private equity. But that’s not what my job is as president.
“Individuals whose main day-in, day-out concern is the well-being of financial service executives and corporate shareholders naturally tend to advocate policy goals friendly to the interests of financial services executives and corporate shareholders. Those interests sometimes, but do not always, overlap with the interests of potential Democratic voters,” he added.
Others have called out these critics as purists who have a problem with Black candidates, also noting the need for liberals and progressives to stop their infighting and coalesce around a candidate in order to win and take over the national agenda from the Republicans. Writing for Cosmopolitan, Rutgers University professor of women’s and gender studies Brittney Cooper decries the Sanders supporters for their attacks on Harris and Black women politicians who care about establishment politics. She also argues the DNC is no friend to Black women, citing an open letter to DNC Chair Tom Perez from Black women activists, leaders and elected officials claiming the party is ignoring its most loyal voting bloc. “Kamala Harris doesn’t have a Bernie Sanders problem. The so-called ‘Sanders Left’ has a black-woman problem. In fact, the entire left has a black-woman problem,” she said. Cooper added that Black women exhibit a “visionary pragmatism” in the voting booth that Sanders supporters mistake for a lack of vision, adding that “the vast majority of black women rejected the Sanders solution as a model for the kind of left politics that meets their needs.”
On the one hand, each of these presidential hopefuls, like anyone else, would have to answer for their record. At the same time, the potential of a second Black president — and possibly the first woman — coming on the heels of the Trump administration has significant implications for the Black voter.