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Barbershop: Kamala Harris Suspends Presidential Campaign


We're going to spend some time now talking about the 2020 presidential race. On Tuesday, California Senator Kamala Harris announced that she is dropping out of the Democratic primary, saying she didn't have the money to continue to be competitive. It was an abrupt end to a campaign that had been soaring early on.

Harris, the third black or biracial woman ever to run for president, the victor in a number of successful campaigns in the largest state, had been considered a frontrunner after the first debate. Her campaign wasn't perfect. In recent weeks, her campaign was taking fire over staff turnover and the lack of a clear message on key policy issues, among other things.

But the senator's exit has sparked almost as much commentary as her entrance, with a number of observers asking whether Harris's rough road is just another example of a double standard for women candidates, especially women of color, or whether the challenges were particular to Harris. So we thought this would be a great conversation for our weekly Barbershop roundtable because that's where we talk to interesting people about what's in the news and what's on their minds.

So joining us today are Jennifer Riley Collins. She is an Army veteran, the former executive director of the ACLU of Mississippi, and she most recently ran for Mississippi attorney general.

Jennifer Riley Collins, welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

JENNIFER RILEY COLLINS: Thank you. Glad to be here.

MARTIN: Also with us is Malaika Jabali. She is an attorney and a writer in New York.

Malaika, welcome to you as well.

MALAIKA JABALI: Thanks for having me, Michel.

MARTIN: And last but not least, Kelly Dittmar is a professor of political science at Rutgers University in Camden, where she is a scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics at the Eagleton Institute of Politics.

Kelly Dittmar, welcome to you as well. Thank you so much for joining us.

KELLY DITTMAR: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: And I'm going to start with you because you wrote a piece for CNN a couple of months ago, and you argued that women running for office have to run what you called a dual campaign. I'm going to read a bit from the piece. You write women, quote, "have to oversee a traditional campaign in addition to a second one to convince skeptics of their electability. It puts a strain on the campaign's most vital resources, time and money" - end quote. Do you think that that's a factor here?

DITTMAR: Absolutely. I think when you see what Kamala Harris had to respond to throughout the course of her campaign, from media to voters' questions to even her - on the campaign trail having to tell people that this was possible because folks were asking whether or not a black woman could be elected as president of the United States. And that's something we've seen women and particularly women of color have to deal with because we have not seen them in this level of leadership.

MARTIN: So, Jennifer Riley Collins, I wanted to ask you this because one of the reasons we called you is that you are running to be the chief law enforcement officer of your state. And I wondered if you felt that you had to sort of prove your competency, despite the fact that you had this long career in the Army, you retired as a full bird colonel, you were an Army intelligence officer. So did you still feel, though, that there were these sort of basic questions about whether you could do the job that someone else with a different biography would not have had to do?

COLLINS: Yes, because it's often assumed, particularly in a red state like Mississippi, that if you are not a white male that you are not as electable. You know, one would assume that my resume reads for itself, but the reality is, I had to read my resume repeatedly to people to let them know that not only was I fully qualified but that I was the most qualified.

MARTIN: And, Malaika, I'm going to turn to you because after Harris suspended her bid, you know, you wrote a piece that caught our attention, you know, for The Guardian. You wrote that - and you also felt that even if you credit the double standard to which, you know, women and people of color may be held, you still felt that she had problems in her candidacy, in part due to her policy positions and in part due to the fact that she was a prosecutor. Now, I'm going to ask you first - you're a lawyer yourself.


MARTIN: Was the fact of her being a prosecutor itself disqualifying to you?

JABALI: Oh, absolutely not. I think you can have people who are progressive prosecutors. You can have examples of prosecutors where there is controversial legislation where they would support it or not. And often, Kamala Harris chose silence or to send mixed signals. There was a race that she was running with a Republican opponent. The policy measure was about reforming the three strikes law, and she chose not to, so the Republican opponent ran to her left.

So there are several examples of this throughout Kamala Harris's candidacy where she did not have to choose particular options. So it doesn't suggest mere electability or making herself viable but that these - suggested these are her ideological positions. And in a time where we had multiple black lives who were being just not considered in the justice system, and their families did not receive justice, we can't afford to have people who send mixed messages on our lives and our well-being.

MARTIN: But, Kelly Dittmar, I'm going to go back to you because one of the things that intrigues me is that Kamala Harris's critics criticized her for being too invested in her identity as a cop. And some people thought that that was used to - you know, to her detriment. And as you heard Malaika say, it's not just that she was a cop but the way she was a cop. So I credit her point of view on this.

But I was curious whether - is this, in effect, a kind of a tricky issue for women candidates? Because on the one hand, they are being challenged to prove their toughness, but the very jobs that they would take to demonstrate their toughness - it creates difficulties in - with other constituencies. Do you think that that's true?

DITTMAR: Yeah, I think there's something to that. This double bind that we often talk about when it comes to women candidates is true. And it's particularly true when we're talking about executive office.

And what we've seen historically is that women are expected to be both sort of what I would say man enough for the job, right? - meet the masculine expectations of being tough, of being strong on issues around security or defense or the economy, right? - things that have been unfortunately traditionally associated with male expertise - while at the same time meeting expectations of their gender or race, which would in many cases be sort of incongruent to those stereotypical expectations of masculinity.

MARTIN: So, Jennifer Riley Collins, you know, what about you? You know, you have this incredible resume. I mean, again, as I said, an Army veteran, an intelligence officer and, you know, an officer, but you're also the executive director of the ACLU. So it seems that you also have a firm grounding in civil rights and civil liberties. So what do you - why do you think you didn't prevail in your race? It seems to me that you are as qualified as a person could possibly be.

COLLINS: For the very reason that was spoken about earlier. It's not based on qualifications but based on people's perception of who's done it before. So the same bias that Senator Harris had to deal with for being a prosecutor and, in my opinion, doing her job - because we know as attorneys that we have to provide competent and zealous representation for our client.

At the time of her being a prosecutor, her client was the state of California, and so she was doing what was required of her by the state of California. So I don't necessarily like to see her penalized for doing what she is required to do by the codes of professional conduct - competent and zealous representation of her client.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, I wanted to ask you, Jennifer Riley Collins - and I'll start with you - is, do you draw any message from Senator Harris's experience or from your own experience that you think other people should take note of, particularly women of color who are trying to seek executive positions?

COLLINS: I say still go for it. So I think we have to redefine the metrics against which a woman of color is measured to say whether or not she's viable, whether or not she is then also electable. Let my qualifications, my performance, my potential speak for what I can do, not the money that I can raise.

MARTIN: All right. Malaika Jabali, what about you? Do you draw any lesson from Senator Harris's experience?

JABALI: Yes. So even aside from her kind of - her prosecutorial record, which has been mixed - and, you know, to be fair, that can be - that's arguable. There are 200 black women progressives that have supported Elizabeth Warren because she's been speaking boldly about these issues consistently for several years. And so if Kamala Harris had committed to a particular message, I think that she would have gone farther. But she committed to mixed messages while collecting billionaire donor money.

MARTIN: OK. And, Kelly Dittmar, what about you? Is there any lesson you think that should be drawn from Senator Harris's experience as a presidential candidate? Or is it just her?

DITTMAR: The fact that there have only been 15 black women to ever serve in statewide elected executive offices across this country in all of U.S. history tells me because I know that black women are more than qualified for these positions and have done the work, in fact, to get many other people elected, that something else is going on vis-a-vis stereotypes, expectations and barriers that aren't placed in the way of white men.

And Kamala Harris' particular campaign had a lot of problems. But there's also another thread of the conversation that still should be important to our thinking and analysis about this campaign, which is the role of gender, race and the intersections of those in the barriers we place in the way of women running for office, especially the highest office.

MARTIN: That's Kelly Dittmar. She's a professor of political science at Rutgers University, Camden. We reached her in London. Also with us, Malaika Jabali. She's a writer and attorney in New York. She was with us from our bureau in New York. And Jennifer Riley Collins is a former executive director of the Mississippi ACLU, a former colonel in the Army, and she just ran for state attorney general in Mississippi. We reached her in Mississippi.

Thank you all so much for talking with us.

DITTMAR: Thank you.

JABALI: Thank you.

COLLINS: Thank you, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.