Kamala Harris advocates for black women at Essence Fest, but receives no questions about Biden

NEW ORLEANS — While all eyes were on Kamala D. Harris amid the turmoil within the Democratic Party, the vice president focused squarely on the election stakes at one of the largest annual gatherings of black women on Saturday.

During the roughly 25-minute conversation, the moderator did not ask Harris about the debate on the president’s re-election campaign. She mentioned her running mate only when she asked attendees to raise their hands if they would receive student loan forgiveness.

“Joe Biden and I came into office and were able to cancel billions of dollars in student debt. We understood how this impacts all communities and especially ours,” she said here at the 30th annual Essence Festival of Culture.

Harris, speaking with Essence CEO Caroline Wanga, called the November choice “the most important election of our lifetime.”

Wanga did not address recent questions about whether Biden is still the party’s nominee, even as several Democratic congressmen, top donors and strategists have publicly and privately urged Biden to end his re-election campaign.

During a panel earlier in the day, members of the Congressional Black Caucus pledged their loyalty to Biden and praised Harris.

“People talk about, ‘Biden is too old’ — hell, I’m older than Biden,” Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), 85, said to a standing ovation. “And I get up every morning. And I exercise. And I work late. I take care of black people. Trump has told you who he is, he has defined himself. He is a worthless, despicable, lying, contemptible human being.”

“No matter what anyone says, it won’t be another Democratic nominee. It will be Biden,” Waters added.

Harris has been steadfast in her support and loyalty to Biden in the tumultuous week since the debate, but that hasn’t stopped speculation about her political future if the president decides to step aside. Biden has repeatedly said he is not ending his campaign, and did so again in an interview with ABC News on Friday.

As the first in line for the presidency, Harris is seen as the likely front-runner if Biden suspends his bid. Harris trailed Trump 47 percent to 45 percent in a hypothetical matchup in a CNN poll released Tuesday, which is within the margin of error. The same poll showed Trump leading Biden, 49 percent to 43 percent.

Harris attacked Trump and his policies, noting that “the Supreme Court of the United States has essentially said to this individual who has been convicted of 34 crimes that he will essentially be immune from the activities that he has told us he is allowed to engage in.” is prepared to step up to the plate when he returns to the White House.” She also warned that Trump “has spoken openly about his intention to use the Justice Department as a weapon against his political enemies, who have said they are proud to have denied America’s women a fundamental right to make decisions about their own bodies.”

During the call, she discussed a range of Democratic Party priorities and achievements, including Black maternal health, insulin costs and abortion — a key issue in November and an area where she stands apart from Biden.

Many black women here at the four-day march event said that if Biden were to step aside, they hoped Harris would become the nominee. They pointed to Harris as a younger face of the campaign who could further mobilize black voters as Biden’s appeal with the constituency has weakened. But some said they would still like to see a primary if Biden were to suspend his bid, or expressed concerns about the sexism and racism she would likely face if she were to lead the race.

“She’s just younger, she’s actually trying to connect with my demographic,” Ashtyn Weathersby, 18, a rising student at Louisiana State University, said of Harris. She said she plans to vote for Biden if he remains the nominee, but noted “he’s not my ideal candidate, but I think he’s just better than Trump.”

Harris has spoken at the Essence Festival for the past two years. The White House announced this week that Harris will deliver the keynote address at the 71st Boulé of the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority in Dallas on Wednesday and will participate in a conversation at the Grand Boulé of the Zeta Phi Beta sorority in Indianapolis later this month.

Harris is a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha and the trips offer another opportunity to connect with black women, an important group within the Democratic Party.

“Identity matters, representation matters. And the vice president … represents so much to the black community and she’s there. She’s really worked very hard,” DNC Political Director Brencia Berry said. “Yes, the spotlight is on her right now. But it’s not because she hasn’t worked.”

“This is just a weekend that is a manifestation of all of that,” Berry said, pointing to Harris’ recent campaign travels and her being “the epitome of what Essence Fest represents in terms of Black culture and excellence as our first Black female vice president.”

Polls show that fewer black Americans plan to vote in November, including women and young people, who made up the majority of Essence Festival attendees.

An April Washington Post-Ipsos poll of more than 1,300 Black adults found that 62 percent say they are “absolutely certain they will vote,” down from 74 percent in June 2020. That was also a larger drop in the desire to vote compared to all Americans surveyed.

The same poll found that 41 percent of Black people between the ages of 18 and 39 are certain they will vote this year, down 20 percentage points from 61 percent in June 2020.

Among Black women ages 18 to 39, the decline was steeper, from 69 percent in 2020 to 39 percent this year. The poll also found that 55 percent of Black Americans under 30 disapprove of Biden, compared with 56 percent approval last spring.

Cleve R. Wootson Jr., Emily Guskin, and Scott Clement contributed to this report.

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