In early April, a month after a trip to Poland and in between making dozens of calls to senators to push the confirmation of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, Vice President Kamala Harris took a day trip to, of all places, Greenville, Mississippi.
A rural town of 30,000 along the Mississippi River is not your stereotypical stop for a national Democrat, let alone one serving as the second most powerful politician in the country. But Harris had, nevertheless, traveled there that day as part of an effort to talk about small businesses and community lending programs.
“She wanted to understand the needs in places like the Delta and then in the Alabama Black Belt and in the Deep South,” Bill Bynum, who served as a member of an agency review team during the transition, recounted to POLITICO.
Bynum had first touched base with Harris last year when, on the phone for 30 minutes, the two discussed how the administration could play a role in increasing investments in underserved communities. His answer to her was simple: “Well, Madam Vice President, if you really want to see what’s going on, you come to the Mississippi Delta.”
Sure enough, months later, she arrived.
The swing to Greenville is part of an under noticed strategy for the VP’s office, one in which she’s homed her focus on the ways in which administration policy is intersecting with overlooked communities. It’s brought her to other far-off, non-traditional locales, including a recent swing to Sunset, Louisiana, a rural town of fewer than 3,000 people, to tout the administration’s work expanding rural broadband. And it’s manifested itself in the ways in which she’s approached some of the White House’s big-ticket items.
Weeks after the bipartisan infrastructure bill was passed into law, Harris convened a briefing with administration officials to go over the part of the bill related to charging stations for electric vehicles — an interest that had animated her dating back to her time in California politics. As staff went from page to page of the briefing document, she peppered them with questions. How would 500,000 charging stations be built and distributed? Who would build them? What would it mean for overlooked communities?
“[She said] ‘Talk to me about a community that has been left behind, a rural community. Where are they going to go? How are they going to get put there?” Mitch Landrieu, senior adviser to the president, recounted to POLITICO. “Now talk to me about an urban neighborhood that has been left behind where people are renting.’”
A month later, she was in Brandywine, Maryland, a majority Black city — though not exactly a locality at the vanguard of electoral politics — talking about EV stations and announcing the administration’s plan to make sure its charging network made it to communities like theirs.
The electoral benefits of going to remote communities in non-swing states seem decidedly limited for those in the Beltway, especially at a time when the White House is trying to turn around its polling nosedive and gain praise for the state of the jobs market. But administration officials contend that the symbolism of a vice presidential trip matters, and that when it’s tied with some larger announcement, it has a clear downstream upside.
“It’s not necessarily that we’re going to win Mississippi or Louisiana, but it makes a difference in people knowing that they’re seen and they’re heard,” senior adviser to the president Cedric Richmond told POLITICO. “And what we hope is that the communities around the country that look like those communities will see that we see them even if we don’t make it to their particular community.”
For much of last year, Harris’ strategy played out largely behind closed doors in conversations that often occurred in the VP’s ceremonial offices in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building. But as Covid restrictions have rolled back, she has pushed her team to hit the road more, adding those unconventional swings alongside high profile travel to places like Poland and Philadelphia.
“We’re obviously as a team working through what places she has not been to, what places are we going to go to highlight?” said Harris’ Domestic Policy Adviser and one of her longest-serving aides, Rohini Kosoglu. “But some of our recent stops have been because she has said, we need to get to the South.”
Administration officials say Harris is known to come back from trips with stories or ideas that she believes could influence White House policy. Landrieu, for one, said his staff has been fed material from Harris’ team that it then takes “to the Cabinet secretaries meetings and then we start over again and we keep going.”
For Harris, the trips have the added benefit of as she finds her footing in the second year of her vice presidency. Despite being Biden’s No. 2, she remains a bit of an unknown to voters around the country after her swift rise to the vice presidency. She consistently polls in the 40s and 30s and there has been chatter among Democrats that she isn’t currently well positioned to succeed the president should he choose not to run again in 2024.
But allies say the pandemic has made it difficult for the administration to really get out, see voters and sell their accomplishments until now. “I feel that the administration is getting their sea legs. She’s reaching out more. She’s getting out more. She has really redoubled efforts to make sure that she’s there,” said former DNC Chair Donna Brazile, an ally of the White House who is part of a loose and unofficial network of Harris confidants. “In addition to bringing a handful of people into Washington, she’s able to go outside and really, really get people enthusiastic about the work.”
Vice presidential historian Joel K. Goldstein says Harris’ approach could help her turn the corner on how she’s perceived in the press and across the country. “It’s part of sort of strengthening the perception so that six months from now, people are writing stories about how effective she’s being internally rather than why is her staff leaving,” Goldstein told POLITICO.
“You’re putting yourself in a position if it’s done right of being somebody who’s out there helping other people in the administration, not somebody who’s competing with them,” Goldstein added. “And that puts you in a position of where people will then come to you with things and will respond to your requests.”
In addition to an uptick in travel, Harris’ media strategy has also expanded. She has sat down with a number of national outlets over the last six months, and her team has also increased the number of interviews with local press and journalists who don’t typically get a sit down with any vice president. The goal is two-fold: continuing to find ways to talk to overlooked folks and bypassing what they perceive as some of the focus on process reporting in the D.C. press.
“It’s not the natural inclination [in D.C.] to focus on these things. It’s far from the Beltway,” Herbie Ziskend, Harris’ senior adviser for communications, said. “And when the vice president goes to Poland and Romania and meets with world leaders and refugees and then flies back, and then the next morning she gets on a plane and flies to Selma. A lot of that might not be noticed in the Beltway press.”
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