'It hurt': Women of color from rival campaigns lament Harris' exit

By Caitlin Oprysko

Sen. Kamala Harris may have dropped out of the Democratic primary last week after skidding into a disappointing fifth-place spot, but that won't diminish the impact of her groundbreaking candidacy, Democratic campaign operatives said Tuesday.

Speaking at a “Women Behind the 2020 Campaign” panel at POLITICO’s Women Rule Summit in Washington, three high-ranking women of color serving on different 2020 campaigns opened up about what Harris’ candidacy — which ended last week — meant for diversity in politics.

Watching Harris, once a top-tier contender in the Democratic primary, end her campaign, was “hard to see,” said Alencia Johnson, national director of public engagement for the Warren campaign. “It is hard to see that this could be the greatest achievement for a black woman to accomplish.” Johnson gestured to the other women on stage, alluding to a group chat they were all in. “We literally all were like, ‘Today is really really hard.’”

Johnson called Harris’ withdrawal from the race a bittersweet reminder of how far black women had progressed in politics, from demanding that black womens’ voices be heard by candidates, to black women earning key roles on campaigns, to becoming candidates themselves.

“Now that we have so much diversity of thought and ideology and politics, we’re able to have a black woman candidate and black woman senior staffers throughout all of these campaigns, so it is actually a beautiful story. But it is disheartening, and personally, it hurt,” she admitted.

But Johnson also used the moment to underscore one of the key planks of Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s campaign, her vow to get big money out of politics.

“It just sucks that billionaires can kick really good women — especially black women — out of a campaign,” she added, pointing to rivals like former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg who’s sunk upwards of $100 million into his last-minute campaign. His flurry of spending “makes no sense,” Johnson asserted, “Kamala Harris is out of the race as a black woman and also [Sen.] Kirsten Gillibrand.”

Symone Sanders, a campaign adviser and top surrogate for former Vice President Joe Biden, echoed Johnson’s optimism about the impact of Harris’ failed run, while noting that she too was “absolutely” sad to see her drop out.

“If this cycle has taught me anything thus far, it's that the enormous amount of diversity that is present will reverberate for years to come,” she chimed in. “That's just how important this cycle is.”

Sanders added that Harris' decision to run "meant so much to a lot of people across the country, and myself included."

"At the end of the day," she continued, "I think representation, yes, is really important and it’s important that little girls all over America whether they’re black, whether they’re of Indian descent, whether they’re white little girls — that they look up and they can see that so many people" that look like them are occupying any number of roles in politics — whether it be as a candidate, adviser, or pundit.