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BONNIE GREER: Why no black presidential candidate could run a Bernie Sanders-style campaign

DES MOINES, IA - AUGUST 10: Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) speaks on stage during a forum on gun safety at the Iowa Events Center on August 10, 2019 in Des Moines, Iowa. The event was hosted by Everytown for Gun Safety. (Photo by Stephen Maturen/Getty Images) - Credit: Getty Images

BONNIE GREER on why the grassroots are not a good place for a black presidential candidate to be.

A few stats about California, the Golden State…

n Last year it emerged that its GDP had surpassed that of the United Kingdom. If California was a country it would be the fifth most productive in the world, behind the US, China, Japan and Germany.

n Nearly 40 million people live in the state. The Greater Los Angeles area is the second largest urban centre in the US. Its mighty coastal metropolises of San Francisco, San Jose, Los Angeles and 
San Diego are the economic juggernaut of the state.

n California is also the home of Silicon Valley. The San Francisco Bay area alone is home to numbers one, two and three of the 10 largest companies by market capitalisation in the world: Microsoft, Apple and Amazon. The area is also the home of four of the ten richest people on earth: Jeff Bezos; Bill Gates; Mark Zuckerberg and Larry Page.

n The state is the entertainment hub of the entire planet.

n Its Central Valley agricultural heartland helps feed the nation.

There is not enough space to write about California. My theory is that the state is the reason why most Americans do not really travel abroad. Why would you travel if you have California?

There are poor stories, and bad stories, and racists’ stories in California, too. When it is bad in California, that can be writ larger than almost anywhere else. And when it is good there, it is bigger than anywhere else. To be a ‘California Boy’ or ‘California Girl’ can be magic.

And San Francisco is often where the magic in politics in California begins.

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi – under the United States Constitution, the third highest elected official in the country and acting president if Trump and Pence are taken away by aliens – got her start in the bustling world of San Francisco politics. Pelosi won her congressional seat in 1987 and has been in place ever since.

She is, without rival, the most successful woman in American political history. She commands the Democratic Caucus in the lower House, a raucous assembly whose younger members are leaning further and further to the left and out of her grasp.

Meanwhile, the senior senator from California is the Democrat, Dianne Feinstein. Born in San Francisco, she graduated from nearby Stanford University, worked in city government, was elected to San Francisco city government in 1969 and was first female president of the Board of Supervisors. She was in that post when the mayor, George Moscone, and her friend, the city supervisor and LGBTQ activist, Harvey Milk, were assassinated.

Following that, she was the first woman mayor of San Francisco and was elected a senator in 1992. She received almost eight million votes in 2012, the largest number of popular votes in US senate history.

At 86, she is the oldest US sitting senator, and having won re-election in 2018, she will be the longest serving female Senator in US history, when her six-year term ends in 2025.

Senator Feinstein has endorsed Joe Biden as the nominee of the Democratic Party for president of the United States in 2020. It was a surprise to many, since the junior senator from California, her colleague Kamala Harris, is also in the running. When pushed on this point by reporters, Feinstein’s response was: “She’s brand-new here, so it takes a little bit of time to get to know somebody.”

It was a fascinating statement since Harris is fairly well known. In 2004, she became the first female, first black, and first Asian American district attorney for San Francisco. Even in the liberal Bay Area, that was a big achievement.

In 2010, and again in 2014, she was elected as California’s attorney general, then, in 2016, she became the third woman to be elected to the US senate. She is the first woman of colour to be elected to all three offices. Her late mother, a Tamil from Madras, was a breast cancer specialist and her father is a Stanford University economics professor, born in Jamaica.

Like Obama, she has suffered from the ‘not black enough’ accusation sometimes hurled at her from some in the African American community. Senator Harris is a graduate of Howard University, an historical black college, and the Hastings College of Law of the University of California.

She began her rise to prominence in the glittering world of San Francisco society, a beautiful and bright woman who was seen everywhere. In the homes of the rich of Pacific Heights, she was said to have emphasised her humble roots in the much poorer Oakland area, the civil rights activism of her parents and the fact that she was bussed to school in order to desegregate the region.

She needed the attention of the powerful because she intended to climb as far as she could. She had work to do, battles to fight on behalf of the people she wanted to serve.

When she decided to run for president in January, she became only the third office-holding black woman to seek the Democratic nomination for president. 
If elected she would also be the first Asian American and first Indian American, as well as first person of Jamaican decent to be president of the United States.

At a televised debate between Democratic candidates earlier this summer, she turned on Biden and questioned his commitment to racial justice. He was a leading opponent of bussing in the 1970s, a time when she was a child who had to be driven in a special bus in order to desegregate a school.

The former vice president tried to explain in his usual shambolic way what he had meant back then, but Harris was from a new era, a new intake, and the old replies did not suffice.

She used her prosecutorial acumen to probe his intent, just as she did in memorable exchanges with Donald Trump’s controversial Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh during Senate Judiciary Committee hearings last year, where she shone like a beacon amongst a great deal of GOP dross.

It was possible, then, to see her taking the Oath to the Constitution, promising to defend and protect it as president of the United States, the first woman of colour commander in chief. It looked possible that California, too, might be able to achieve some more magic.

But since her high point in the debate against Biden, her polling has gone down sharply. Some say that this is because of some rookie missteps. And some point to something more complex, maybe insurmountable.

In recent years, a handful of black Democrats have been in the running for the presidency: Barack Obama, Cory Booker, a New Jersey sentator, Deval Patrick, former governor of Massachusetts, and Harris. None of these candidates has ever served in the House.

Those elected to the Congress serve only a two-year term, so are on permanent campaign. This keeps you closer to the grassroots. And the grassroots are not considered a good place for a black candidate for president to be.

The Congressional Black Caucus, which now has 117 members and has been in existence since 1971, is largely Democratic, rooted in the black community, and it skews left.

This left-leaning bent may be why longtime congresswoman Barbara Lee of California has never been considered a candidate for president. Black congress representatives are closer to the African American community, the churches and civil rights organisations where non-mainstream political action thrives. Where the status quo is challenged.

Black candidates considered presidential material are usually chosen from a more centrist position. You simply cannot be black and run a Bernie Sanders type of campaign. Your show has to be platinum. So Obama was the first black president of the Harvard Law Review, Booker was a Rhodes scholar who studied at Oxford, Patrick was a Harvard undergrad and grad of Harvard Law School. The exceptional is the norm for a black candidate.

And for a black woman, the road is even steeper. California can bestow its ‘golden state’ on the lucky, on the hard working, on those in the right place at the right time.

But it cannot change the mountain that senator Kamala Harris must climb. 
Being a ‘California girl’ will not be enough for her.

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