The election hadn’t gone the way she expected, so Kamala Harris needed a new plan. Late on the night of Nov. 8, 2016, the newly elected U.S. Senator gathered her campaign team in a drab gray room in the Los Angeles event venue where she was celebrating her victory–just as most Democrats were mourning the unexpected win of President Donald Trump. “This is some sh-t,” Harris said mournfully, describing a godson who’d come to her in tears. The staffers’ faces were grave and a siren wailed in the background as she groped for words to describe what she was feeling. “We’ve got to figure out how to go out there and give people a sense of hope,” she said.
The four years since that night have been eventful ones–for America, for the U.S. Senate and for Harris, tapped Aug. 11 as the Democratic Party’s vice-presidential nominee. The ambitious pol who won her first national office that day expected to be helping a President Hillary Clinton confirm a Cabinet and Supreme Court, craft comprehensive immigration reform and pass legislation to address climate change. Instead, she found herself in Trump’s Washington, crusading against the President’s polarizing nominees, searching mostly in vain for policy victories, and before long running to oust him.
Harris’ time in the Senate is a relatively unexplored chapter of her record. Scrutiny of her background during her presidential run focused on her time as a prosecutor and her campaign positioning, both of which drew criticism from the left. On the near geologic scale of the Senate, her time there has been but a moment, and she began running for President just two years after she arrived. Yet Harris’ Senate profile sheds light on what she brings to the Biden campaign and what sort of Vice President she could be if elected. It also raises questions about what kind of national leader she may become.
Harris became famous in the Senate for her performance on camera. Colleagues, aides and Senate watchers describe a hard-driving and determined leader who found ways to be effective, creating viral moments with her cross-examinations of witnesses.
“The Senate is a place where they want you to sit and be quiet for three or four terms, and then, after 20 or 30 years, they might pay attention to you,” says Virginia Senator Tim Kaine, who was the vice-presidential nominee four years ago. “But Kamala has really made a mark.”
Off camera, Harris is harder to define. She worked to learn policy and advance legislation, playing a major role in shaping 2018’s landmark bipartisan criminal-justice reform and shepherding it to passage. Allies say she learned quickly on the job. But she lacked a signature cause of her own, and struggled to find her footing on other issues important to Democrats, such as climate, health care and national security. She struck some observers as wanting to be all things to all people–simultaneously progressive and moderate, principled and compromising, a partisan warrior and a dealmaking pragmatist.
Her defenders say her thin record and evolving positions are the natural result of her experience: junior Senator from California was her first time as a lawmaker. Those who have worked with her say Harris thinks through problems like a lawyer, a deliberative style that can appear indecisive but actually reflects an active intellect. Her fans also see undertones of sexism and racism in critiques of her as attention-seeking or opportunistic, qualities that are practically prerequisites to a political career. The Senate’s old “workhorse or show horse” heuristic is a cliché unsuited to today’s dysfunctional Congress and polarized politics. But her tenure reflects the same difficulties that eventually doomed her presidential campaign: a privileging of personality over substance and a lack of a clearly articulated vision. Whether it stemmed from open-mindedness or political posturing, the effect was the same.
What was never in doubt, all observers say, was her instinct for the fight. That night in 2016, with her desolated campaign staff on the brink of tears, Harris outlined a path forward. “I think our campaign is actually not over,” she said. “But it’s a different kind of campaign. It’s not to win an office. But it’s going to be a campaign to fight for everything that motivated us to run for this office in the first place.”
The questions were coming fast, and Jeff Sessions began to stammer. It was June 2017, and Harris kept interrupting the then Attorney General to ask about his contacts with Russians during the 2016 campaign. “I’m not able to be rushed this fast,” he complained. “It makes me nervous.”
It was an attempt at levity on Sessions’ part, but the comment quickly went viral, as liberals relished the sight of a Trump apparatchik squirming under Harris’ gaze. Episodes like these became Harris’ calling card as a Senator, racking up hundreds of thousands of views online. She would go on to earn similar attention for her September 2018 questioning of then Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh and May 2019 interrogation of Sessions’ successor, William Barr. Kavanaugh appeared positively stumped when she asked, “Can you think of any laws that give the government the power to make decisions about the male body?”
Harris was already a political star when she arrived in the Senate, but the hearings helped cement her reputation. In an interview last September, Harris told TIME her interrogations reflected her frustration. “I am new to the United States Congress, and seeing this stuff up close, it’s shocking, the lack of consequence and accountability,” she said then. (The Biden-Harris campaign did not respond to a request to interview her for this article.)
Republicans sometimes accused her of being overly partisan. On two early occasions, the late Senator John McCain interrupted and upbraided her for not letting witnesses finish answering her questions. Those exchanges, in turn, further elevated her profile when fans accused McCain and other Republicans of trying to silence her. Some of her questions that seemed suggestive in the moment didn’t bear fruit, like when she asked Kavanaugh about his contacts with Trump’s personal lawyer’s law firm. Her questioning of Kavanaugh also drew the ire of Trump, who has referred to her as “nasty,” “angry” and a “mad woman” since her addition to the ticket.
But Harris’ colleagues say she didn’t just grandstand; more than many lawmakers, who chew up half their allotted time giving speeches, she actually used hearings to elicit information from often hostile witnesses. “For all of the talents of members of Congress, it still shocks me how infrequently a member can get to their question within the first two or three minutes,” says Senator Brian Schatz of Hawaii. “Kamala, without appearing rushed, without appearing hostile, can dismantle an adversary with a smile on her face.”
Harris’ hearing performances were well suited to a Senate that in recent years has done little traditional legislating. “It’s such a weird time in the Senate, because nobody really does anything,” says Adam Jentleson, a former aide to former Senate majority leader Harry Reid. “It is not a time that has tested people’s dealmaking abilities because there are no real deals to be made, and the few that do get negotiated are mostly done at the leadership level,” says Jentleson, who supported Elizabeth Warren in the presidential primary and is writing a book about Senate dysfunction. As a Democrat, “you’re mostly just voting against Trump stuff the whole time–that’s not a knock on her, it’s just the nature of the institution right now.”
The grillings were also central to why she made the Democratic ticket. They showed her mastery of the modern media environment–a key asset in a campaign against Trump. Introducing Harris as his running mate on Aug. 12, Biden praised her for “asking the tough questions that need to be asked and not stopping until she got an answer.”
With the cameras off, Harris’ prosecutorial edge vanishes, Democratic Senators say, revealing a warm, funny and accessible colleague who wears her star power lightly. In caucus meetings, they say, she provides important context for policy conversations by drawing on her experience as a person of color–one of just six elected Black Senators in U.S. history–and as the child of immigrants. Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon recalled her looking up at him when they first met–he is 6 ft. 4 in. to Harris’ 5 ft. 3 –and cracking, “With you, I’m going to need a ladder!” Senator Mazie Hirono of Hawaii was walking out of the chamber one day last summer when she saw Harris getting into a car and called out, “Kamala, are you going to Iowa?” Harris replied, with a laugh, “I’m fcking moving to Iowa”–an exchange that was overheard by a reporter and subsequently put on T-shirts sold by an Iowa boutique. “Kamala made sure I got one of those T-shirts,” Hirono says.
Aides admit Harris is a tough boss, demanding hard work from those around her and rewarding them with fierce loyalty in return. Early in her tenure, one recalls, Harris held an event at a Syrian restaurant in California addressing Trump’s ban on travelers from Muslim countries. Afterward, her staff sat down to brief her, but she stopped them, insisting that everybody take a breather to eat and talk about their lives. She has worked hard to assemble a diverse staff, not an easy thing to do in an institution that has historically been overwhelmingly white and male.
Many aides recall Harris’ devotion to her former press secretary Tyrone Gayle, a fellow descendant of Jamaican immigrants who died of colon cancer in October 2018. Harris’ mother had died of the same disease in 2009, and she treated Gayle with maternal affection when his disease recurred. “She found a way to treat him with so much compassion and love, but she also held him to a really high standard, which Tyrone wanted and appreciated,” his widow Beth Foster Gayle recently recalled on CNN. “He didn’t want her to go easy on him.” The day he died, Harris dropped her Senate work to join his family at the hospital in New York City, holding his hand and making him smile. To this day, her Senate office is festooned with Clemson pennants in his honor.
Harris drew praise from Republicans and Democrats alike for her work on the intelligence committee. She was “a quick study” and “very effective,” the panel’s former GOP chairman, Richard Burr of North Carolina, told BuzzFeed last year. The committee is known for its unusual levels of both secrecy and collegiality. Because so much of its work occurs behind closed doors, “there’s no press to shine for, and it doesn’t really break down along partisan lines,” says the committee’s top Democrat, Mark Warner of Virginia. Harris’ task was made harder by the fact that she was near the bottom in seniority, he noted. “She’s down there at the end of the line, a spot where most of the questions have already been asked, but she would always find something that hadn’t been asked thoroughly enough or come up with a new line of questioning.”
During the presidential campaign, Harris’ record on criminal justice drew harsh criticism from civil liberties advocates and many on the left, who charged that as a prosecutor she perpetuated a punitive and unequal system rather than seeking to fix it. In the Senate, she focused much of her policy energy on criminal-justice reform. The first bill she introduced was a proposal to give people in immigration proceedings the right to a lawyer. (The bill has since passed the House but not advanced in the Senate.) She teamed up with Republican Senator Rand Paul on a bail-reform bill, which would encourage states to reduce the use of cash bail–a practice that opponents say criminalizes poverty and contributes to unequal outcomes. (That bill also has not advanced.) She worked with Democrat Cory Booker and Republican Tim Scott, the Senate’s other two Black members, on antilynching legislation that is currently blocked despite near unanimous support. Along with Booker, she was a key driver of the federal prison and sentencing reform bill that Trump signed in 2018, one of the few bipartisan accomplishments of his presidency.
Even as many of her proposals have stalled, Booker argues, she has brought fresh thinking to the tradition-bound halls of Congress. “A lot of times, when you bring out a new idea, you’ve got to get people familiar with it,” he says, noting that such efforts may take years to bear fruit. “Kamala came into the Senate and made an impact.”
Harris and Booker also collaborated on the Democrats’ police-reform bill that followed this summer’s racial-justice protests. It passed the House, and the Senators believed it was a good-faith effort at a compromise Republicans might be able to support. But Senate Republicans offered their own bill instead, putting it on the floor instead without the opportunity for committee deliberation, and Democrats blocked it from advancing. “It’s unfortunate that majority leader [Mitch] McConnell was not willing to give that legislation adequate hearing, because I think she was very effective in making the case,” says Democratic Senator Jeanne Shaheen. But Scott, the Republican bill’s author, accused the Democrats of playing politics. In a July interview with TIME, he alluded to Harris’ position in the Veep-stakes, saying, “I’m hoping that the presidential politics of choosing a running mate does not stand in the way of Senate Democrats coming to the table.”
Harris’ defenders say her shift to the left on criminal justice reflects not the political expediency of a primary candidate seeking to please the base, but the evolving national dialogue on a fraught issue. Advocates who worked with her on the topic say she was engaged, substantive–and realistic. “I’m a little frustrated by a lot of the criticism of her evolution on criminal-justice issues,” says Holly Harris, a Republican lawyer who serves as executive director of the Justice Action Network. “We don’t ask a lot of male bill sponsors to explain their evolution. We’re just grateful to have their support.”
Harris had a harder time finding her footing on issues further afield from her own experience. Her presidential campaign notably struggled with the central issue of health care: as a Senator, she co-sponsored Bernie Sanders’ single-payer legislation, but after months of conflicting statements, she issued a plan that would preserve the private insurance system. “Legislating is totally different than being an attorney general,” says an aide to another Democratic Senator. “Not being a veteran of these issue debates, she didn’t necessarily know the fine points of something like Medicare for All.”
Climate change was another issue on which Harris got more assertive over time. She was an original co-sponsor of the left-wing Green New Deal and signed a pledge not to take campaign money from the fossil-fuel industry. But climate activists were skeptical of her as a presidential candidate, particularly when she was the only major candidate not to immediately commit to a September CNN town hall devoted to the issue. After criticism, she changed her mind, and in her 33-minute segment she vowed to back ending the filibuster if Republicans held up climate legislation, endorsed a fracking ban and called for the prosecution of fossilfuel companies. “Everybody was pretty much leading in a progressive direction,” says Julian Brave NoiseCat, a climate activist who is vice president of policy and strategy at the progressive group Data for Progress. “And the question was, How far were you willing to go?”
The initial trepidation followed by outspoken position taking was typical of Harris’ approach to the high-profile issue. Harris subsequently found a niche that suited her comfort zone: environmental justice and environ-mental litigation. In July, she partnered with Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to introduce a Climate Equity Act that would require environmental legislation to receive an “equity score” that judged how it would affect at-risk communities and create new burdens for administrative action. Her office released a new version of the proposal just days before she was announced as Biden’s VP pick. “She’s not driven by a desire to protect the polar bears,” says RL Miller, a California Democratic activist and political director of Climate Hawks Vote, a group that advocates for aggressive climate-change policies. “She is driven by the desire to protect low-income African-American people living next to the Los Angeles urban oil field.”
Harris’ lack of firm stances on many issues contributed to her campaign’s demise. But as a vice-presidential candidate, that flexibility could be an asset. Colleagues and aides say she is passionate but not doctrinaire, a team player open to others’ good ideas. Even some of the progressives who regard Harris with suspicion express hope that her malleability means she can be nudged leftward. The challenge for Harris will be establishing herself as a national figure in that role–showing that her flexibility comes from pragmatism, not opportunism.
When Biden was Vice President, he brought the perspective of an old foreign policy hand to the White House and served as a sort of Senate whisperer for President Barack Obama, who had, like Harris, spent just four years in the chamber. Biden, who fetishizes the Senate as an institution, is unlikely to cede that duty to his own second-in-command. But some on the left hope recent experience will make Harris more inclined than Biden to play hardball with McConnell, who they believe has abused procedural norms to destroy the traditional policymaking process. “I don’t see anything in her record in the Senate that suggests she’s not a strong progressive,” says Jentleson, the former Reid aide. “But the rubber will hit the road on issues like the filibuster. When you want to advance a very progressive policy and get stopped, do you reform the Senate to get things done?”
Aside from Harris’ campaign promise to end the filibuster to pass climate legislation, neither she nor Biden has committed to major changes to Senate rules–a proposition that’s highly contentious within the chamber on both sides of the aisle. Without such changes, it will be an uphill battle to enact the sweeping policy agenda articulated at this summer’s Democratic convention, even if the party wins the Senate majority in November. Would Harris’ time in the gridlocked body lead her to argue for drastic measures? If Biden and Harris are inaugurated next January, how Kamala Harris regards the U.S. Senate could be the question on which a Biden presidency’s legacy depends.
–With reporting by Anna Purna Kambhampaty, Justin Worland and Julia Zorthian
This appears in the August 31, 2020 issue of TIME.