Biden's vice presidential choice just got simpler. He needs Kamala Harris or Val Demings.

Jill Lawrence, USA TODAY

Joe Biden has a profound opportunity, if he chooses to take it. It starts with picking Sen. Kamala Harris or Rep. Val Demings as his running mate.

Biden, Harris and Demings all have come under criticism for overly tough or insufficiently reformist approaches to law enforcement and criminal justice in their earlier respective roles as Senate Judiciary Committee chairmanprosecutor and police chief. With George Floyd dead in Minneapolis, American cities burning and President Donald Trump fanning the flames, the historic moment has now rushed forward to meet them.

Harris is the daughter of immigrants, a Jamaican economist and an Indian breast cancer researcher. She grew up in a modest neighborhood and, as she told Biden in an attack on his 1970s anti-busing position, was bused to a better school in a wealthier, whiter neighborhood. The confrontation shocked Biden and backfired on Harris, who later dropped out of the Democratic presidential race and endorsed him. But that fearless engagement would be an advantage against a Republican ticket.

Tough on crime and, now, inequity 

Demings is a descendant of slaves, the daughter of a maid and a janitor, the last of seven children and the first in her family to go to college. She became a social worker, then a night patrol officer, then chief of police, then a member of Congress and an impeachment manager in Trump’s Senate trial. Like Harris, she would take the fight to the GOP.

"This president time and time again demonstrates that he is totally unfit for the office that he holds,” Demings said when asked about Trump's response to the Floyd killing. “The nation is on fire, and the president of the United States is standing there with gasoline.” 

Biden, Harris and Demings all have said in recent years that they own guns. And all three have changed with the country as news coverage, cellphones and social media have exposed and spotlighted tragic inequities in policing and criminal justice. Biden was part of the Obama administration drive to release prisoners sentenced under harsh and discriminatory drug laws. In a lengthy criminal justice reform proposal, he says he'd end mandatory minimum sentences and the disparity between federal crack and powder cocaine sentences. He’d also restore what has been lost with Trump, including Justice Department leadership to "root out unconstitutional or unlawful policing."  

From left, Val Demings and Kamala Harris

Harris has an even longer reform proposal from her presidential campaign that covers much of the same ground as Biden’s.

Demings just wrote an op-ed reminding her "brothers and sisters in blue" that they need trust to function. She wants a national review of hiring standards and practices, diversity, training, use-of-force policies, early warning programs, recruit training programs, and pay and benefits (because “you get what you pay for”). 

Harris had trouble winning black support in the 2020 presidential primaries — in part because of her record as San Francisco prosecutor and California attorney general, but also because Biden was so popular with African American voters. Demings has some of the same potential liabilities in the criminal justice area, and is untested nationally.

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But these problems might be overblown. Serving on juries in Washington, D.C., years ago, my husband and I had similar experiences: He was the wimpy white liberal holdout wondering whether there was guilt beyond a doubt; I was the liberal white wimp obsessing over sloppy police work (“The report said the shirt was white but in the photo it’s purple”). The black women on our juries rolled their eyes and lectured us on our naivete. They would no doubt agree that black lives matter, but they also wanted safer neighborhoods — an argument both Demings and Harris have made.

'Nixon to China' on race and police?

Would a black woman on the Democratic ticket scare white voters? Or would this pair's law-and-order credentials be a reassuring neutralizer? Would those credentials turn off black voters, or would the choice of Harris or Demings turn them out? It's impossible to say.

What's indisputable, however, is that the greatest leaps forward sometimes come from unlikely people. There’s a reason “Nixon to China” has become a cliché. Richard Nixon was a notoriously anti-communist Cold Warrior — yet in 1972, as president, his historic trip to China put the two nations on the road to normalized relations.

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A more recent example is Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat nearly forced to resign early last year after the revelation that racist photos had appeared on his page in a medical school yearbook. He pledged to devote the rest of his term to reducing racial inequality in health care, housing and education, and started delivering on that promise almost immediately. This year, he signed new laws to reform criminal justice, expand access to votingremove racist language from Virginia laws and allow localities to remove Confederate statues.

In 2009, President Barack Obama signaled the importance of recession recovery by installing Biden to oversee $800 billion in recovery funds. Right now, with stark health and economic disparities laid bare by the coronavirus pandemic, punctuated by the searing deaths of black people at the hands of cops and a former cop, maybe it’s time to finally to put racism at the top of the American agenda; to finally acknowledge and begin to repair the enduring damage wrought by America’s original sin.

Biden should run with one of these women and put her in charge of this historic project. It is sorely needed — not just to right racial wrongs, but also to restore the character of a country.

Jill Lawrence is the commentary editor of USA TODAY and author of "The Art of the Political Deal: How Congress Beat the Odds and Broke Through Gridlock." Follow her on Twitter: @JillDLawrence

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Joe Biden should narrow vice presidential search to Harris and Demings