Politics

24 Hours With Vice President Kamala Harris

She closed out Women’s History Month with a reception at her private residence.

At Vice President Kamala Harris' house, she hosted local leaders for a Women's History Month celebra...
Courtesy of the White House

Breonna Randall has never seen the vice president speak. The twenty-something college senior is sitting in the front row of Cramton Auditorium at Howard University, where she’s a month from graduation. In a few minutes, alumna Kamala Harris will approach the lectern in the same auditorium in which she attended freshman orientation 40 years ago, but befitted differently from her collegiate days, in a navy pantsuit and her signature black pearls. “We all love homecomings, don’t we?” she says to the group of about 100, who’ve gathered in honor of an expanded Small Business Administration program. “And this is a homecoming for me to be on this stage,” she adds. “In many ways, this is where it all started.”

Like Harris, Randall hails from California, which is where she cast a ballot for then-Senator Harris in the 2020 Democratic primaries. At the time, the Los Angeles native was enrolled at Howard but taking classes remotely. “Being a [Howard] student, you hear so much about how people don’t view historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) like predominantly white institutions (PWIs), but now you can’t say that, because our vice president went to an HBCU,” says Randall, who’s back on campus in Washington, D.C., and covering this March 30 event for the college’s news service. “There’s a lot of pride in knowing that she came from where I came from. It all just seems possible.”

In my 24 hours shadowing Harris, these types of statements surfaced organically around her. The night before, she hosted her largest reception to date at her home in honor of Women’s History Month. “Pretty much every day I think, ‘That’s a big deal,’” said Jennifer Klein, co-chair and executive director of the White House Gender Policy Council, of having a woman vice president. “It doesn’t get old.”

Harris has been living this reality for more than a year now. Each day brings visual reminders that she’s the first woman and Black and South Asian person in the role. Take, for example, her ceremonial office. The ornate room is decorated by white, male portraits, and since the ’40s, former veeps have signed the desk’s top drawer — names like Vice Presidents Dick Cheney, Al Gore, and Dan Quayle. Her name, if she adds it, would again make history.

Vice President Harris addresses guests at her home during a Women’s History Month celebration.Courtesy of the White House
In the Vice President's Ceremonial Office, the desk’s top drawer features signatures of Harris’ predecessors.Courtesy of Lawrence Jackson, the White House

To reach the Vice President’s Residence, housed on the 72-acre grounds of the U.S. Naval Academy, visitors on foot must first pass through a fortified security gate and then wind their way to the plot’s hilltop manor, a three-story Queen Anne-style home with green shutters and a wraparound veranda porch. It’s here where Al Gore played touch football with his kids and the Pences raised honeybees.

Here, on March 29 shortly after 5 p.m., a mix of about 200 mostly women leaders got together before finding their way out back to the poolside patio. Guests included a local restaurateur, members of the Kappa Alpha Kappa executive board, and familiar faces in the press like U.N. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser, labor rights activist Dolores Huerta, and actor-producer Reese Witherspoon, who wore a flamingo pink pantsuit with a matching topcoat and pumps. Also in attendance were a few of Harris’ former staffers, such as Ashley Etienne, her former communications director, and Symone Sanders, her former chief spokeswoman who in January joined MSNBC as an anchor.

“It was the first big reception she’s really had at the Vice President’s Residence,” says Rohini Kosoglu, the domestic policy adviser to the vice president. “Women were looking around, saying, ‘It’s all women. We have a female vice president.’ There are times when it feels so surreal.” (Harris did host a reception for women senators last summer.)

In a short speech, Harris nodded to current challenges like Russia’s war on Ukraine and stateside maternal mortality, while also looking toward a new era, one in which women will have outsize leadership roles compared to previous generations. “We will not be shamed into talking about things like fibroids,” she said during a section about gender-specific health disparities. The crowd laughed. “We’ll talk about it!”

During the speech, about a dozen U.S. representatives arrived and tucked into the crowd, including Reps. Barbara Lee, Pramila Jayapal, Debbie Dingell, Veronica Escobar, Sylvia Garcia, and Lois Frankel. The vice president announced them to cheers.

At Howard University, Harris announced a $4.7 billion investment to assist regional small businesses.Courtesy of the White House
Harris meets with Jamaica Prime Minister Andrew Holness (right, in blue tie) in her ceremonial office.Courtesy of the White House

The following morning, it was back to business as usual: first, receiving the daily briefing in the Oval Office with President Joe Biden, followed by traveling to Howard around 10 a.m., and then heading back to the White House for a regular lunch with Biden in his private dining room. Her days are also peppered with staff briefings and occasional trips to Capitol Hill to break 50-50 Senate votes — on March 30, for example, to progress the nomination of Alvaro Bedoya to the Federal Trade Commission.

The day-to-day schedule, for the most part, differs from her four years as California’s junior senator, but her overall approach to policy issues remains the same, according to Kosoglu, who worked on Harris’ Senate and presidential campaign teams. “She encourages us to really think about issues holistically,” says Kosoglu, who says Harris wants everyday folks to see themselves reflected in the administration’s policies. “She will ask questions [like], ‘Well, how would this affect a child?’ or ‘How would Native Americans on tribal lands experience this?’”

Of late, she and her team are focused on a broad portfolio of issues, while separately onboarding many new staffers, such as a new communications director, press secretary, and deputy press secretary, among others.

In the coming weeks and months, Harris plans to take to the road regularly to tout the administration’s accomplishments heading into the midterms, according to The Hill. It’ll test whether she’s well-suited to translate Beltway jargon to the masses, but regardless, she’ll arrive with the built-in “awe factor” of her history-making tenure.

And, I’ll admit, I’m surprised by how many people comment on it over a year after her inauguration. I’d supposed, erroneously, that it’d lost its luster, shadowed by coalition-building, an agenda stymied in part by a couple Senate democrats, and her subpar approval rating.

But not so. For example: A little after 5 p.m. on Wednesday, Harris stood before a small press pool in her ceremonial office alongside Jamaica’s prime minister, Andrew Holness, with whom she’d spent the previous hour discussing U.S. financial investments into issues like economic growth and vaccine availability in Jamaica. But when Holness addressed the room to summarize their meeting, his talking points started elsewhere: “Madam Vice President, you have been a source of inspiration and great pride for many Caribbean people,” he said to Harris, who grew up visiting Jamaica and whose family is from St. Ann Parish. “In particular, [for] our young women in the region, and we are, indeed, seeing an increase in the political participation of young women.”

It appears the shine is still there, at least to those in her orbit. Harris nodded to Holness in appreciation — and also because it’s a sentiment she’s probably used to hearing.