Kamala Harris is undergoing yet another transition.
Less than a year after assembling a mostly new team to help settle her into the vice presidency, key members of Harris’ orbit are leaving and even more are eyeing the exits.
Some Harris confidantes and Democratic allies are urging her to more aggressively embrace the concept of a reset, arguing that she needs to put her rocky first year behind her and openly embrace the idea that she’s entering a new phase. But others, including some top aides, are resistant to signaling a major shift is afoot, suggesting that the internal restructuring only feeds a narrative of disorder and that most of the new blood coming to the vice president’s office won’t be visible to the wider public anyway.
Harris sidestepped questions about the staff turnover and potential for a reset when asked about it by POLITICO, and her office declined to comment for this story. But behind the scenes, advisers have spent weeks researching possible replacements for important posts and feeling out others who passed on roles in the office earlier this year, to see if they would be more amenable to joining in a second round.
Four staffers have announced their departures from the vice president’s office in recent weeks. They include the high-profile exit by one of Harris’ closest aides, Symone Sanders, who serves as senior adviser and chief spokesperson, as well as Ashley Etienne, the office’s communications director. Officials maintain those departures were long-planned and not evidence of the turmoil. But they are part of a wave that could grow larger as staff inside the vice president’s office review other opportunities. More aides in Harris’ office have expressed interest in leaving, according to people familiar with those conversations.
Donna Brazile, a veteran Democratic strategist close to the White House and vice president’s office, stressed that turnover at this level of government isn’t surprising — especially in the case of Sanders, one of the first people President Joe Biden hired when he ran for president. But she said the new vacancies give Harris a chance to reassess.
“Every opportunity that you get in politics to renew and repurpose is a good opportunity,” Brazile said in an interview. “In every stage of [Harris’] life, there were people she could bring with her and then there were people that she had to pick up along the way because of the new responsibilities. And I think that this is an opportunity like she’s done with throughout her career to find people who are able to take their seats at the table because guess what? There’s something new on the menu.”
The shakeup among Harris’ staff has led to speculation about how she and her top aides have managed the office, as well as her own capacity as a boss. Aware of the grumbling, top Harris allies are defending her leadership skills, while characterizing the withdrawals as part of the usual burnout that comes from working in a pressure-cooker environment. There is fear among some confidants that if she is not more centrally involved in hiring at her office, a frustrating first year could become a more painful second one.
“If she’s not allowed to select her own people or have a lot of say in picking her own people, she’s f—ed,” a longtime Harris confidant told POLITICO, arguing she needs loyalists who also maintain support and trust within Biden’s inner circle.
The Biden administration over the summer had already brought in a pair of fixers — Lorraine Voles and Adam Frankel — to assess the vice president’s operation and institute changes. They have shared little about any internal changes, but a person close to Harris described Voles as “a calming influence” who has streamlined bottlenecks.
The vice president’s team declined to comment on what specifically has changed since Voles and Frankel, a former Barack Obama speechwriter, joined the office, but officials acknowledged they were handling long-term planning and organizational development.
Democratic strategists and people closely aligned with both Harris and Biden view the pending reshaping of the office as an important moment for the White House, one where they can plot out how to better deploy a historic figure in the vice president role.
And with the departures of Sanders and Etienne, who are both Black, there’s also been renewed focus among
Democrats to continue to push for more diversity in major jobs and across the Biden administration moving forward.
Harris’ allies also view it as an opportunity for her to embrace a more active role in shaping her coverage. Among them, there is a growing sense of frustration over what is viewed as over-torqued critiques that feed a doomsday assessment of her standing and political future.
“There are definitely some improvements that are widely acknowledged that need to be made in that office. And those improvements are acknowledged by the people in her office and they are acknowledged by the people in the White House,” said a Democratic strategist with ties to Bidenworld.
The strategist added the even though there’s a lot of “talented people in the office,” Harris is now presented with an opportunity to take lessons learned from the first year and “structure the office in a way that meets the needs and goals of what she’s trying to accomplish and what she is accomplishing for the administration.”
Karen Finney, a Democratic strategist who has worked on campaigns for Hillary Clinton and Stacey Abrams, said that despite the headlines, Harris had done laudable work on voting rights, meeting with people not traditionally heard from around D.C., and by helping put a “human face” on the president’s sprawling legislative agenda via her travel around the country.
“Vice President Harris is doing the job of the vice president,” Finney said. “That is to be the No. 2, to help push and get passed the president’s agenda, to represent the United States around the world and help repair our global alliances; and on the pandemic to get the aid package passed and travel the country urging Americans to get vaccinated.”
Harris has long had trouble finding her early footing in offices to which she’d just been elected, even those where she had considerable experience. In the span of a decade — 2011 to 2021 — she rose from attorney general of California to U.S. senator to vice president.
With the exception of her four years in the U.S. Senate, the learning curve has led to early missteps and rough patches in every job she’s held. But she’s always recovered, in part by excelling in the work, aides noted. “And that recovery is a result of people focusing on what she is doing and not on what people are saying,” one longtime former Harris aide said.
Harris has few advisers around her with long-standing personal relationships. And throughout her career in elected office, there have been staff exoduses. However, it wasn’t until her tailspin in the 2020 presidential campaign that they began to creep into the actual news coverage of her. Some fear that if she doesn’t create some stability within the top ranks of her office with the necessary help of Biden’s team, that type of coverage will come to define her.
“The ceaseless staff turnover will continue unless the White House takes charge and provides stewardship for the vice president’s office,” said Gil Duran, a former top Harris aide in California who is now the opinion editor of the San Francisco Examiner. “The stakes for President Biden and the nation are high, and so this narrative of division and dysfunction must be swiftly put to rest.”
Harris’ press operation is undergoing the most visible retooling. When it was conceived, officials conceded, neither the White House nor Harris’ office was prepared for the level of scrutiny on the vice president, both for the historic nature of her position and as the No. 2 to a president many Democrats aren’t convinced will run again in 2024.
“Her press corps, her press contingency, is much larger and much more robust than previous vice presidents,” a Democratic strategist aligned with the White House said. “There’s just a different level of scrutiny and a different level of coverage. That goes back to the original discussion about how the team can construct the office in a way that helps meet those demands of the press corps in this press environment.”
Harris, herself a relative newcomer to Washington, has had to adapt to the traditionally understated role of vice president. She has been reluctant to forge relationships with members of the news media, and there has been little in the way of proactive pitching of stories on her — magnifying the impact of process pieces from mainstream press outlets and fierce criticism from right-wing outlets.
“Why is it that if Kamala goes to the bathroom, everybody says ‘she used toilet paper’ or if she goes into the kitchen, everyone says ‘she bought a new pot?’” Brazile said. “How many people have left the West Wing? How many people have said, ‘I’m only going to do this for six months.’ There’s this insatiable appetite to carry every conversation that Kamala is having into the press but it’s never one that says, actually, what’s going on.”