Harris makes case to Black women, escaping questions on Biden at Essence Fest

NEW ORLEANS — With all eyes on Kamala D. Harris amid turmoil in the Democratic Party, the vice president focused squarely on the stakes of the election in remarks Saturday at one of the largest annual gatherings of Black women.

During a roughly 25-minute-long conversation, Harris was not asked by the moderator about the debate over the president’s reelection bid, and she only mentioned her running mate when asking attendees to raise their hands if they received student debt relief.

“Joe Biden and I came in office and were able to forgive billions of dollars of student loan debt — understanding how it impacts all communities and especially ours,” she said here at the 30th annual Essence Festival of Culture.

Harris, speaking in conversation with Essence CEO Caroline Wanga, framed the choice in November as “the most significant election of our lifetime.”

Wanga did not touch on the recent questions about Biden continuing as the party’s nominee, even as some Democratic members of Congress, top donors and strategists have both publicly and privately pressed for Biden to end his reelection bid.

At a panel earlier in the day, members of the Congressional Black Caucus pledged loyalty to Biden while lavishing praise on Harris.

“People are talking about ‘Biden is too old’ — hell, I’m older than Biden,” Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), 85, said to a standing ovation. “And I get up every morning. And I exercise. And I work late hours. I take care of Black people. Trump has told you who he is, he defined himself. He is a no good, deplorable, lying, despicable human being.”

“No matter what anybody said, it ain’t going to be no other Democratic candidate. It’s going to be Biden,” Waters added.

Harris has been steadfast in her support and loyalty to Biden in the tumultuous week since the debate, but that hasn’t stopped speculation about her political future if the president decides to step aside. Biden has repeatedly said he is not ending his campaign and did so again in an interview on Friday with ABC News.

As first in line to the presidency, Harris is seen as the likely front-runner if Biden were to suspend his bid. Harris trailed Trump 47 percent to 45 percent in a hypothetical matchup in a CNN poll released Tuesday, which is within the margin of error. The same poll found Trump leading Biden, 49 percent to 43 percent.

Harris attacked Trump and his policies, noting that “the United States Supreme Court essentially told this individual who has been convicted of 34 felonies that he will be immune from essentially the activity he has told us he is prepared to engage in if he gets back into the White House.” She also warned that Trump “has openly talked about his intention to weaponize the Department of Justice against his political enemies, who has talked about being proud of taking from the women of America a most fundamental right to make decisions about your own body.”

She ran through an array of Democratic priorities and accomplishments during the conversation including Black maternal health, the cost of insulin, and abortion — a key issue this November and an area in which she has distinguished herself from Biden.

Many Black women here at the four-day event said that if Biden were to step aside, their hope is that Harris would become the nominee. They pointed to Harris as a younger face of the campaign who could help further mobilize Black voters as Biden’s appeal to the constituency has weakened. But some said they would still like to see a primary if Biden were to suspend his bid, or expressed concerns about the sexism and racism she would likely face if leading the ticket.

“She’s just younger, she actually tries to connect with my demographic,” Ashtyn Weathersby, 18, an incoming student at Louisiana State University, said of Harris. She said she plans to vote for Biden if he remains the nominee, but noted “he’s not my ideal candidate, but I think he’s just better than Trump.”

Harris has spoken at the Essence Festival for the past two years. The White House announced this week that Harris will deliver the keynote at the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority’s 71st Boulé in Dallas on Wednesday and will participate in a conversation at the Zeta Phi Beta sorority’s Grand Boulé in Indianapolis later this month.

Harris is a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha, and the trips offer another opportunity to engage with Black women, a key constituency of the Democratic Party.

“Identity matters, representation matters. And the vice president … represents so much for the Black community and she has been showing up. She’s been working really, really hard,” said DNC political director Brencia Berry. “Yes, the spotlight is on her now. But that’s not because she hasn’t been working.”

“This is just a weekend that is a manifestation of all of that,” said Berry, pointing to Harris’s recent campaign travel and calling her “the epitome of what Essence Fest represents when it comes to Black culture and excellence as our first Black woman vice president.”

Polling shows that fewer Black Americans plan to vote this November, including women and young people, who made up a majority of attendees at Essence Festival.

An April Washington Post-Ipsos poll of more than 1,300 Black adults found that 62 percent say they’re “absolutely certain to vote,” down from 74 percent in June 2020. That was also a higher drop-off in desire to vote when compared to all Americans polled.

The same poll found that 41 percent of Black people ages 18 to 39 are certain to vote this year, a 20-point decrease from 61 percent in June 2020.

Among Black women ages 18 to 39, the drop was more pronounced — from 69 percent in 2020 to 39 percent this year. The poll also found that 55 percent of Black Americans under 30 disapprove of Biden, compared to a 56 percent approval last spring.

Cleve R. Wootson Jr., Emily Guskin and Scott Clement contributed to this report.

This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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