Politics

The Case for Keisha Lance Bottoms

Joe Biden’s commitment to picking a woman as veep is flawed, but here’s how he could make the most of it.

Keisha Lance Bottoms in front of a drawing of the American flag and text that says, "2020 Veepstakes."
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Paras Griffin/Getty Images for Essence.

This is an installment of Veepstakes, Slate’s series on who Joe Biden should pick as his running mate.

Last November, in an interview on CNN, Sen. Amy Klobuchar lamented the double standards she saw in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination. Neither she nor her fellow female senators would have made it to the debates with the diminutive résumé of Pete Buttigieg, then the mayor of Indiana’s fourth-largest city, Klobuchar said. She was pointing to a persistent gender discrepancy in politics: Men who run for office are judged on their leadership potential, no matter how young or inexperienced they may be, while women usually have to demonstrate a robust history of relevant experience and expertise before they’re taken seriously as candidates for executive office.

The Democratic primary ended with the most diverse group of candidates in history being whittled down to a contest between two white men, an optical disaster that Joe Biden tried to alleviate by promising to nominate a woman to serve as his vice president. If one good thing is to come of this tacky, tokenizing quest to give a woman second billing in his administration, it might be a lowering of the barrier to entry for capable women in politics. (Raising the barrier for ambitious young men would have been a better outcome, but here we are.) In recent weeks, as the Biden campaign has purportedly been expanding its shortlist to include more Black women, several politicians who’ve previously been skipped by the national spotlight have found themselves in its path. With so few Black women in the usual positions from which candidates source their veeps—governorships, Senate seats—the Biden campaign has had to expand its sights to include some people who might not have otherwise gotten consideration.

This doesn’t make Biden’s gambit any nobler. If Biden had truly wanted to improve the pipeline for women seeking office and help Americans get used to seeing women in charge, he could have quietly chosen a woman as his running mate without the showboating fanfare. Now, any woman who makes the ticket will face even harsher accusations of being an undeserving “diversity hire” than she would have if she hadn’t been delivered as the keeping of a campaign promise. By reducing value of political representation to an ideology-neutral gimmick, Biden elevated his own image at the expense of his future vice president’s.

But I digress! Let’s talk about the silver lining. One of the Black women currently being vetted who wasn’t on Biden’s original shortlist is Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, a former city council member and judge who would make a worthy choice for vice president. Bottoms is one of several U.S. mayors and governors who’ve earned outsize places in national media coverage by filling the vacuum left by the White House’s lack of leadership during the COVID-19 pandemic and persistent protests against racist police brutality. As mayor, Bottoms has enforced strict guidelines to prevent viral transmission in Atlanta even as Gov. Brian Kemp began reopening Georgia while infection rates were still climbing. She’s also been a formidable presence in national conversations about police violence. In a wide variety of forums—including Sesame Street’s CNN special on the protests, the New York Times opinion page, and Oprah’s town hall on racism—Bottoms has delivered personal and passionate analyses of the current Movement for Black Lives and the problems with policing.

On both issues, Bottoms has proved herself capable of many things Biden is not. In her public appearances, she’s what Biden wants to be, and maybe used to be, but isn’t: a compelling and charismatic off-the-cuff speaker. She’s able to speak to the challenges and opportunities of this moment with clarity, humility, and warmth. Biden is prone to dubious, unprompted self-glorification and has rarely finished a train of thought. She can hold up actual policies she’s enacted, such as eliminating cash bonds for nonviolent crimes, as national models for criminal justice reform. Biden is about as far from a progressive reformer as you’ll find in the Democratic Party. Biden hasn’t been directly accountable to a constituency since 2008, but as a current elected official, Bottoms has a very recent record of decisive leadership for voters to judge—both the good, like her swift response to a recent instance of police brutality, and the bad, like what progressives have deemed her inadequate protection of Atlanta residents displaced by gentrification.

Bottoms is no leftist insurgent; like Biden, she’s thoroughly embedded in the Democratic establishment—so much so that she was recently named the chair of the Democratic National Committee platform drafting committee. On race, her rhetoric, though heartfelt and urgent, is more measured politician than militant activist. Though she’s only 50, the way she talks about Biden and race is in line with the worldview of an older generation, at odds with many progressive readings of the issue. “I didn’t know him personally at the time, but I knew his heart,” she told the Los Angeles Times of her early support for Biden. “What was most striking to me … is that he was an older white man willing to stand beside and behind a younger black man to help lead our country.” This reasoning—more concerned with Biden’s personal beliefs and relationships than with his policy platform and leadership record—ignores the systemic racism hundreds of thousands of Americans have been protesting in the streets.

Still, Bottoms’ actual record on racial justice is more impressive than these lackluster statements. In addition to her strides on criminal justice reform, she refused to allow Immigration and Customs Enforcement to continue detaining immigrants in an Atlanta jail. While Biden is out here calling for more police trainings, Bottoms acknowledges that racism transcends lesson plans. “I don’t think that we can out-train our way as a country out of where we are and how we view race,” she said in a CNN town hall. On June 11, she formed a new advisory board on police use of force and asked them to deliver initial policy reform recommendations within two weeks. And, though Bottoms took some deserved heat for scolding protesters who were damaging property, she comes by her caution honestly, as the daughter of a man who spent time locked up and, as she noted at that press conference, the mother of four Black children who she knows would be disproportionately likely to be harmed if police caught them in proximity to unlawful protest.

But the most important reason why Bottoms would make an excellent vice president has nothing to do with her and everything to do with Biden. The presidential candidate doesn’t react well to being told he’s wrong. When confronted with bad behavior from his past and pressed to do better, Biden usually doubles down with defensiveness, half-truths, anger, and blame. Bottoms is well-positioned to get past that shell of egotism and wield some real influence. She has proved her loyalty to Biden by backing him early, before most Democratic officials had picked a candidate, so he may be more likely to listen to her. Her politics appear to be a bit to the left of Biden’s, but he still sees her as an ideological peer. To the extent that a vice president can influence her administration’s broader policy agenda, as many progressives hope a veep to the left of Biden might, Bottoms has a better shot at being heard than some other candidates on the list.

Bottoms, meanwhile, has been praised for her open-mindedness and willingness to learn. “When advocates first began talking about [bail bond reform], she wasn’t familiar with it,” civil rights lawyer Tiffany Roberts, who co-chairs Bottoms’ commission on criminal justice reform, told Atlanta magazine last year. “When she learned more, she was receptive of implementing it.” With Biden leading the ticket, the best progressives can hope for is a vice president who has his ear, and who’s willing to lend them her own.