Before the COVID-19 pandemic, I'm embarrassed to admit that I didn't know who Keisha Lance Bottoms was. This was before the necessary rise of state and local leaders to contend with a crisis that the Trump administration hoped would magically disappear.
By June, though, the Atlanta mayor had delivered a speech full of raw emotion about the rioting in her city that rocketed her to household name status. When I interviewed her by phone soon after, she brought the same candor, telling me about frying fish for her kids at midnight after the electric speech, and how the twin crises of COVID-19 and racial injustice were impacting her Black constituents: "Our communities are sick and they are tired and they are dying," she said.
To Bottoms's credit, it felt like one of the best, most genuine conversations of my career, one that made me understand firsthand why she was being considered as a vice-presidential pick for Joe Biden's 2020 ticket. The significance wasn't lost on her either. "There are 330-million-plus people in America and to have your name mentioned as a potential V.P.? That’s a big deal," Bottoms told me. "It’s a huge honor."
It it remains a big deal, not only for her but the diverse field of female leaders, many of them women of color, who vaulted into the national spotlight as Biden's VP possibilities, including Sen. Tammy Duckworth, Florida Rep. Val Demings, California Rep. Karen Bass, New Mexico governor Michelle Lujan Grisham, Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer, and former Georgia gubernatorial hopeful Stacey Abrams.
Yes, the process was too public, too drawn-out and veered into reductive territory—from the CNBC report that top donors opposed Harris because she was considered "too ambitious" to the Los Angeles Times op-ed imagining contenders clamoring for Biden's final rose. But even as Harris, one of the most high-profile names, prevailed, Biden's search for a female running mate also made clear that it's not just a t-shirt slogan or a bumper sticker: the future of the Democratic party really is female.
U.S. Senator Tammy Duckworth was one of the many impressive women whose national profile was lifted by Joe Biden's vetting process for his running mate.SOPA Images
Women won congressional seats in record numbers in 2018's most diverse freshman class ever, but the Biden selection process—for all its pitfalls—showed there is a long list of qualified women ready for executive leadership. Duckworth, like so many male veterans-turned-politicians before her, has all the courage and grace under pressure of a war hero. Demings, a former police chief, possesses the relevant law enforcement experience to confront the crisis of police brutality and reform. Susan Rice is a national security and foreign policy savant; Whitmer and Lujan Grisham are steering their states through the pandemic and economic collapse far more deftly than the president. Any one of those women could end up in a Biden cabinet. (Rice is almost slotted to be Secretary of State of Biden wins and Demings is surely on the shortlist for Attorney General.)
If we didn't before their names before, we certainly do now.
They are women who deserved to be known even before the "veepstakes," who are anything but blind or token representation. Most were seen as viable candidates up until the last moment. Still, it's especially poignant under the thoroughly white, male, nationalist Trump administration to see a field of leaders who are Black, white, Latina, and Asian-American, leaders who reflect the demographics of the Democratic party itself.
Biden promised to pick a woman, but the fact that his shortlist, and his ultimate choice of Harris, came down to so many Black women, speaks volumes about his commitment to this oft-underestimated backbone of the Democratic party. Black women in particular have been a loyal voting bloc, including overwhelmingly rejecting Trump. They have long been relied upon to "save" elections, but remain woefully underrepresented in seats of power. Enough with lip service and broken promises: shortlisting diverse women, and picking Harris, is a material gain. It brings the country a little closer to seeing women, including women of color, in the White House.
"To see a Black woman nominated for the first time reaffirms my faith that in America, there is a place for every person to succeed no matter who they are or where they come from," Demings tweeted after Biden chose Harris on Tuesday. And while she wasn't chosen herself, Demings echoed Bottoms when she added that being considered was an achievement itself. "For a little girl who grew up poor, Black and female in the South to be considered during this process has been an incredible honor," Demings said. "I feel so blessed."