For Some, Harris' Exit Shows Need For Caucus Changes
California Sen. Kamala Harris’ exit from the presidential contest Tuesday is a loss for some Iowa Democrats who hope to see more diversity in the field. And for some, her departure from the race is also renewing larger debates about the nomination process.
Cedar Rapids elementary schooler Addie Veasey adored Kamala Harris, says her mom Lindsey Ellickson. Addie is biracial, like Harris, whose mother was Indian and whose father is Jamaican.
Being able to see a presidential candidate in the thick of the race who looked like her was so impactful for Addie, Ellickson says.
“There’s this picture of my daughter after one of her rallies here in Cedar Rapids and she’s just looking up at Kamala. She’s super…she’s just staring at her,” Ellickson said.
“During the last debate she’s like, ‘Kamala is my best friend’. And I was like, ‘I don’t know about that’,” Ellickson said, laughing.
"[After an event] I came around a corner and her and Kamala were hugging. And it was just a really cool moment for my daughter to see someone who looked like her, who could basically be like her, running." - Lindsey Ellickson, mother of a biracial daughter
Addie and Harris were able to meet in person at campaign events this cycle, where Ellickson says they formed something of a bond.
“[After an event] I came around a corner and her and Kamala were hugging. And it was just a really cool moment for my daughter to see someone who looked like her, who could basically be like her, running,” Ellickson said.
Addie’s reaction to the news that Harris would be dropping out of the race?
“She cried,” Ellickson said.
Holly Christine Brown, chair of the Asian/Pacific Islander Caucus of the Iowa Democratic Party, says girls like Addie aren’t the only ones who are “heartbroken."
“It was important for a lot of people to see her on the stage. I know a lot of little girls of color are really heartbroken,” Brown said. “They saw her as the future and there were a lot of tears spilt seeing that disappear.”
Harris dropped out of the race Tuesday, citing a lack of sufficient funds. She ended a campaign that kicked off with very high expectations from pundits and politicos, who compared her to former President Barack Obama even before she became only the second black woman ever elected to the United States Senate.
In a video statement released Tuesday, Harris spoke of her efforts to reflect the increasing diversity of the Democratic Party.
“Our campaign uniquely spoke to the experiences of black women and people of color and their importance to the success and the future of this party,” Harris said. “Our campaign showed every child in America regardless of their color or gender that there are no limits to who can lead and hold positions of power in our country.”
Still, Harris invested in field staff in Iowa, and won the high-profile endorsement of Iowa Democratic couple, former state party chair Sue Dvorsky and former state Sen. Bob Dvorsky. But Harris also faced criticisms that she wasn’t spending enough time in the state, spurring her to double down on Iowa, even recently spending the Thanksgiving holiday in Des Moines with family members (and inviting reporters to watch her prep the big meal).
But for Ellickson, who also serves as the chair of the Progressive Caucus of the Iowa Democratic Party, Harris’ departure casts a shadow on the larger Democratic nomination process and raises questions about what structural barriers remain to candidates of color.
"Kamala Harris really is the future that the Democratic Party has been talking about. Her dropping out of the race is...almost gives the impression that as a party we're not ready to support that yet. And that's disappointing." - Holly Christine Brown, Chair, IDP Asian / Pacific Islander Caucus
“I know a lot of folks keep saying, ‘well we were responsible for Obama’. But I also think having a state that is so white makes it very, very hard for non-white candidates to do well,” Ellickson said.
At its peak, this cycle’s crop of Democratic presidential candidates was feted as the most diverse in history. At this stage, there are still a record number of women and candidates of color in the running.
But New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker and former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro have both spoken about dwindling finances that they say may end their bids, and at the time of publishing, only white candidates have qualified for the sixth Democratic debate in Los Angeles later this month (Harris had qualified before she dropped out).
Brown says which candidates have proved viable so far this cycle sends a signal that the nominating process makes it harder for non-white candidates to succeed.
“Kamala Harris really is the future that the Democratic Party has been talking about. Her dropping out of the race is…almost gives the impression that as a party we’re not ready to support that yet,” Brown said. “And that’s disappointing.”
And Brown believes Iowa’s caucus process and the state’s overwhelmingly white population is playing a role in slowing the rise of candidates of color, and says the system must be changed.
“We aren’t representative of the country and our being first disenfranchises a lot of fellow Iowans,” Brown said. “It’s not right. It doesn’t represent our values as a country or as a party to continue the caucus process.”