SALT LAKE CITY — Former Vice President Joe Biden’s choice of California Sen. Kamala Harris as his running mate is expected to attract more support for the Democratic presidential candidate in Utah, in part because of her law and order background, one of the state’s key Biden backers said.
“I think she’s going to appeal to a lot of Utahns who are in what I call the right of center,” Scott Howell, a former Democratic state Senate leader, said of Harris’ experience as a prosecutor and former California attorney general. “They understand criminal justice has to happen but not so far to the right or left that we become lawless.”
Utah hasn’t voted for a Democrat for president since 1964, but Howell said the “remarkable” choice of Harris as the first Black woman on a major-party ticket will be a boost to Biden among the state’s moderate Republican and independent voters dissatisfied with President Donald Trump.
Her 26 years as a prosecutor in California has drawn criticism from some on the left, but Howell said Harris understands the need for criminal justice reforms that go beyond the efforts to change policing driven by the death of George Floyd, a Black man in Minnesota, after an officer kneeled on his neck.
Harris is “going to be a cheerleader to say this is exactly what we need in our country. Yes, we absolutely need police reform. I don’t think anybody disagrees with that,” Howell said, adding he believes both Republicans and Democrats also want “guidance” to ensure it doesn’t go too far.
Harris is set to be in Utah in October for the vice presidential debate being held at the University of Utah. She will share the stage with Vice President Mike Pence at Kingsbury Hall before what is planned to be a scaled-back live audience due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Jason Perry, U. vice president of government relations and chairman of the campus’ debate steering committee, said Biden’s choice of Harris heightens expectations for the sole vice presidential debate, a 90-minute event on Oct. 7 expected to be viewed by 100 million people worldwide.
“The biggest and perhaps most important campaign question for Joe Biden has been answered with the selection of Kamala Harris as his running mate,” said Perry, who is also director of the U.’s Hinckley Institute of Politics. “Sen. Harris will energize the Democratic Party, and since the University of Utah will host the only vice presidential debate, this will be the debate to watch. The eyes of the world will be on the state of Utah for this historic event.”
Karen Hale, the Democratic co-chair of the non-partisan Utah Debate Commission that is the U.’s partner in putting on the vice presidential debate, said the matchup between Harris and Pence will not only showcase the state, it will be exciting to witness.
“This is a great opportunity for voters in our state to really become engaged,” Hale said.
Pence mentioned the debate in Salt Lake City during a speech in Mesa, Arizona, on Tuesday at an event in what is becoming a battleground state, to launch a “Latter-day Saints for Trump” coalition that is not affiliated with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“My message to the Democratic candidate for vice president? Congratulations. I’ll see you in Salt Lake City,” Pence said to cheers and applause from a crowd that had booed his first mention of Biden’s choice of a running mate.
Harris did not campaign in Utah during her own bid for the Democratic presidential nomination. Her campaign was a victim of a scam by a Taylorsville man later picked up by Wyoming police after fraudulently promoting an appearance by the senator at a Salt Lake City venue.
Jeff Merchant, Utah Democratic Party chairman, said Democrats are excited about Harris, “a fantastic choice” who is also making history.
“She’s from the West. She’s a woman who will be running with Joe Biden in a time when we have a president whose misogyny has been not only uncovered but flouted. I think both women and men throughout Utah and throughout the country are tired of that,” Merchant said. “She’s not the type of person who’s going to put up with that.”
He said Harris, who is decades younger than Biden, “also spans that bridge between the old-school Democrats and younger Democrats,” many of whom backed Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Sanders was the winner of Utah’s Super Tuesday presidential primary on March 3, with more than 36% of the vote. Biden came in second, with just over 18%. Harris had withdrawn her name from the Utah ballot after dropping out of the presidential race in December.
Lex Scott, founder of Black Lives Matter Utah and a co-chair of Sanders’ presidential campaign in Utah, described herself as a reluctant Biden supporter who didn’t want to see Harris on the ticket because of her record as a prosecutor.
Still, Scott said she is encouraging others to vote for Biden as the “lesser of two evils” compared to Trump
“Joe, we need you to do more than find a Black woman as a running mate. We need structural changes in this country that help to end racial inequality. It is symbolic, so thank you,” she said, adding that while many see his choice as something to celebrate, others “need to see more than surface-level” attention to the issue.
Some Democrats are clearly pleased with Harris.
“#MadamVicePresident I’m so happy. Happier than I thought I’d be. Almost in tears,” tweeted Darlene McDonald, a Black Democrat who ran for the 4th Congressional District nomination in 2018. She said before the choice was known that it could be “historic with a woman of color. Dems want our ticket. We’re fired up and ready to go!”
Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson, who had previously endorsed Pete Buttigieg, a former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, in the Democratic race for president, tweeted, “Let’s go get this done @KamalaHarris” along with a picture of herself with Harris.
Utah GOP Chairman Derek Brown didn’t mention Harris by name in his response.
Brown called Biden’s pick “not only inconsequential, it is as predictable as his coming loss this November. His choice, unfortunately, serves as a painful reminder that the extreme wing of the Democratic Party that would control Biden in puppet-like fashion if he were to win, is the same wing also controlling his candidacy now.”
A top Trump supporter in Utah, Don Peay, took a swipe at Harris’ home state, saying businesses and people are “leaving California in spite of its amazing climate and beauty because it has been so poorly managed by its politicians and their policies.”
With many of those same people relocating to Utah, Peay said “it seems like a politician whose policies are driving people out of California is not going to have much appeal to the majority of Utah voters.”