When, after nearly three months of crafting messages about why a high-level vice-presidential trip to the U.S.-Mexican border was not good political optics, staffers in Kamala Harris’ officer were caught flat-footed when it was suddenly announced she would go to El Paso last week.
No one apparently was expecting the announcement, throwing travel, media and administration relations as well as planning staff and speech writers into overdrive to make the event happen.
Unfortunately, such poor communication and lack of organization appears to be the norm rather than the exception for Harris and her senior staff.
Twenty-two current and former Harris aides were interviewed by Politico for an article posted Wednesday on the online media outlet. Those staffers told the publication Harris’ team is mired in low morale, porous lines of communication, and diminished trust among aides and senior officials. Most lay the responsibility for the problems at the feet of Harris Chief of Staff Tina Flournoy.
A veteran Democrat political animal, Flournoy began working for the vice-president earlier this year. Some believe she has set up a wall of protection around Harris, but the result has been an atmosphere were ideas are tossed aside and ignored, while decisions are dragged out unnecessarily.
Others told Politico that Flournoy often refuses to take responsibility for problems that develop as the result of poor communication and mid-level staffers get thrown under the bus for the outcomes.
Still others say Harris herself is to blame.
“It all starts at the top,” said one of the administration officials, who like others requested anonymity to be able to speak candidly about a sensitive matter.
“People are thrown under the bus from the very top, there are short fuses and it’s an abusive environment,” said another person with direct knowledge of how Harris’ office is run. “It’s not a healthy environment and people often feel mistreated. It’s not a place where people feel supported but a place where people feel treated like s—.”
The Biden White House has apparently taken notice, as the image they have created of a close-knit group of specialists striving to smoothly implement the Biden agenda. The dysfunction in the VP’s office is threatening that facade.
Chief Harris spokesperson Symone Sanders called the anonymous criticism “cowardly” and defended both Harris and Flournoy, saying the latter has created an “open door policy” and that “Black women like me would not have the opportunity to work in politics if not for women like Tina.”
Many staffers who were interviewed said they were looking for new jobs just six months into the Biden-Harris term. Others have already left, notably two top advance staffers, Karly Satkowiak and Gabrielle DeFranceschi. They have parted ways with Harris just in the last few days in what they and Harris officials said were long-planned departures. Two others familiar with the matter said that is not true.
“We are not making rainbows and bunnies all day. What I hear is that people have hard jobs and I’m like ‘welcome to the club,’” Sanders added. “We have created a culture where people, if there is anything anyone would like to raise, there are avenues for them to do so. Whoever has something they would like to raise, they should raise it directly.”
But that is the problem, most of the 22 interviewed for the article made clear. Flournoy has taken her role as gate-keeper to the extreme. Staffers who have been with Harris longer than Flournoy said she has shut out past friends and donors who helped Harris get to where she is, and moreover that Flournoy is not allowing the vice-president to use her position to make new connections that will further her political and post-political career.
Vice-presidents in any organization must present a united front with their No. 1 while also keeping options open for future ascendency of their own. Yet it is not clear if Biden will run again in 2024, marking Harris as the logical potential nominee. Given the short window to the next presidential election, it seems logical she would not want to be too political and make enemies who could short-circuit a presidential run.
This is nothing new for Harris. People close to her said she has always functioned by managing chaos. One former staffer said she is not “always predictable” in her demands.
When her presidential campaign died a painful death at the hands of leaks, disorganization and backbiting, she returned to the Senate with her standing office staff while maintaining a small political organization. Biden’s people supplied her the campaign staff once she was tapped as vice-presidential candidate, so she avoided the pitfalls she experienced both before and since the election.
The border visit brought all that chaos roaring back. She has been the target of endless Republican criticism over her role as “border czar” and the disorganized appearance of both her Guatemala-Mexico trip and the hastily thrown-together El Paso trip.
Her staffers say her immediate concern needs to be righting the ship of her office. They told Politico she functions best in an environment where everyone expresses confidence and exudes calm and order.
Right now, she has none of that. It threatens to permanently damage her relationship with the Biden team, the horse of which she may have to take the reins sooner than later.
By: Mike Nichols