A Kamala Harris staff exodus reignites questions about her leadership style, future ambitions
The rumors started circulating in July: Vice President Kamala Harris's staff was wilting in a dysfunctional and frustrated office, burned out just a few months after her historic swearing-in and pondering exit strategies. A few days later, Harris hosted an all-staff party at her official residence, where most of her office bit into hamburgers and posted pictures of smiling, congenial co-workers on Twitter, pixelated counterpoints to the narrative of an office in shambles.
"Let me tell you about these burgers at the VP's residence!!" chief Harris spokesperson Symone Sanders gushed in a tweet. "The food was good and the people were amazing." Her official defense against reports of staff unrest was more searing. She called people who lobbed criticism behind nameless quotes "cowards" and stressed that working for a groundbreaking vice president was a difficult job, but not a dehumanizing one. "We are not making rainbows and bunnies all day," she told one outlet. "What I hear is that people have hard jobs and I'm like 'welcome to the club.' "
Five months later, Sanders is leaving the vice president's office, the highest-profile member of an end-of-year exodus that includes communications chief Ashley Etienne and two other staffers who help shape the vice president's public image. Sanders told The Washington Post her departure is not due to any unhappiness or dysfunction, but rather because she is ready for a break after three years of the relentless pressure that came with speaking for and advising the vice president and president while navigating a global pandemic.
But the quartet of soon-to-be-empty desks reignited questions about why Harris churns through top-level Democratic staff, an issue that has colored her nearly 18 years in public service, including her historic but uneven first year as vice president. Now, those questions about her management extend to whether it will hamper her ability to seek and manage the presidency.
Critics scattered over two decades point to an inconsistent and at times degrading principal who burns through seasoned staff members who have succeeded in other demanding, high-profile positions. People used to putting aside missteps, sacrificing sleep and enduring the occasional tirade from an irate boss say doing so under Harris can be particularly difficult, as she has struggled to make progress on her vice-presidential portfolio or measure up to the potential that has many pegging her as the future of the Democratic Party.
"One of the things we've said in our little text groups among each other is what is the common denominator through all this and it's her," said Gil Duran, a former Democratic strategist and aide to Harris who quit after five months working for her in 2013. In a recent column, he said she's repeating "the same old destructive patterns."
"Who are the next talented people you're going to bring in and burn through and then have (them) pretend they're retiring for positive reasons," he told The Post.
The Washington Post spoke with 18 people connected to Harris for this story, including former and current staffers, West Wing officials and other supporters and critics. Some spoke on the condition of anonymity to be more candid about a sensitive topic. The vice president's office declined to address questions about Harris's leadership style.
Her defenders say the criticism against her is often steeped in the same racism and sexism that have followed a woman who has been a first in every job she's done over the past two decades. Her selection as President Joe Biden's vice president, they say, makes her a bigger target because many see her as the heir apparent to the oldest president in the nation's history. They also say Harris faces the brunt of a double standard for women who are ambitious, powerful or simply unafraid to appear strong in public.
Sean Clegg, a partner at Bearstar Strategies, the political consultancy that has advised many prominent California politicians, including an ascendant Harris, conceded that she can be a tough boss, but that she is not an abusive one.
"She has put me personally in the position of feeling like Jeff Sessions," he said, referring to Harris's sharp questioning of the former attorney general under president Donald Trump about Russian interference in the 2016 election. Sessions said her question made him feel rushed, which, he said, "makes me nervous."
But Clegg, who started working for Harris in 2008, said there is a difference between a tough boss and one who excoriates staff.
"People personalize these things," he continued. "I've never had an experience in my long history with Kamala, where I felt like she was unfair. Has she called bulls---? Yes. And does that make people uncomfortable sometimes? Yes. But if she were a man with her management style, she would have a TV show called 'The Apprentice.' "
Staffers who worked for Harris before she was vice president said one consistent problem was that Harris would refuse to wade into briefing materials prepared by staff members, then berate employees when she appeared unprepared.
"It's clear that you're not working with somebody who is willing to do the prep and the work," one former staffer said. "With Kamala you have to put up with a constant amount of soul-destroying criticism and also her own lack of confidence. So you're constantly sort of propping up a bully and it's not really clear why."
For both critics and supporters, the question is not simply where Harris falls on the line between demanding and demeaning. Many worry that her inability to keep and retain staff will hobble her future ambitions.
The vice president entered the White House with few longtime staffers. Among the senior staff in her vice-presidential office, only two had worked for her before last year: Rohini Kosoglu, Harris's top domestic policy adviser and her former Senate chief of staff, and Josh Hsu, counsel to the vice president and former Senate deputy chief of staff.
By contrast, President Biden remains surrounded by staff who have been allied with him for large swaths of his five-decade career. The three men who served as chief of staff when he was vice president - Ron Klain, Bruce Reed and Steve Ricchetti - all work in the West Wing in senior roles. Even much of Biden's communications team when he served as vice president now serve as the core of the White House communications office.
Several of Harris's former top aides are in senior roles in the administration - they just don't work for her. Julie Chávez Rodríguez, who worked in Harris's Senate office before becoming her traveling chief of staff on her presidential campaign, is the director of the White House Office of Intergovernmental Affairs, and Emmy Ruiz, a senior adviser on the campaign, is the White House director of political strategy and outreach.
White House officials argue it's not unusual that staff would depart at the one-year mark and note there will probably be exits from the West Wing as well.
"In my experience, and if you look at past precedent, it's natural for staffers who have thrown their heart and soul into a job to be ready to move on to a new challenge after a few years," White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki said at Thursday's press briefing. "And that is applicable to many of these individuals. It's also an opportunity, as it is in any White House, to bring in new faces, new voices and new perspectives."
Still, the quartet of announced departures were all for jobs that helped shape the vice president's image to the American people - important roles for one of the nation's most closely watched politicians, one whose first year missteps have been picked apart in the public eye.
As Harris looks for a new communications director and press secretary, several of her former communications aides are working in top roles at government agencies: Lily Adams, her former campaign and Senate communications director, works at the Treasury Department; Rebecca Chalif, her deputy communications director on the campaign, now works as the director of press at the U.S. Agency for International Development; Ian Sams, national press secretary for Harris's campaign, and Kirsten Allen, deputy national press secretary, are at the Department of Health and Human Services.
But the loss of Sanders is the biggest blow. During a 2020 presidential campaign during which the country struggled to address racial inequality and unrest, she was a frequent defender of Biden's dubious statements and previous missteps on race. She often took the lead on persuading crucial demographics outraged at systemic racism that Biden's administration would usher in something better. She was an early go-between connecting Biden's campaign to George Floyd's family. And as Harris's chief spokeswoman, she called out racism and sexism in defense of the first woman of color to hold a nationally elected office.
On cable news and in late-night conversations with reporters, Sanders deflected criticism that Harris hasn't done enough to address the issues in her portfolio.
While Harris's reputation is connected to those issues, both her supporters and critics acknowledge that her ability to solve problems is limited by the political capital Biden is willing to expend. Biden, for example, has been reluctant to support wholesale changes to the Senate filibuster, something that would be required to make meaningful progress on immigration reform or voting rights in the current Senate makeup.
In March, Biden asked Harris to address the root causes of migration from the "Northern Triangle" countries of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, but critics have tried to brand Harris as Biden's border czar and tie her to chaos at the United States' southern border.
Her first international trip - to Guatemala and Mexico as part of an effort to address the root causes of migration - was marked by an exchange with NBC News's Lester Holt in which she awkwardly said she would go to the U.S. border with Mexico - something Republicans and other critics had been calling for her to do for some time.
And activists have expressed frustration that Harris asked to be put in charge of the issue of voting rights, then made little meaningful change in one year of the Biden presidency.
Sanders has been by Harris's side through almost all of those controversies, briefing her before important interviews, smoothing things over after missteps.
In an interview, Sanders said her departure wasn't related to displeasure with the office. She wanted a new challenge but would not detail what, if any future career plans she has.
"I've been with the president since before he announced his run for president. I staffed him on the road. I traveled with him for nearly two years and during that time, there were days when on Monday I would get on a plane with Joe Biden. And then the plane would land in Delaware I would drive from Delaware to Washington, D.C. And Tuesday morning, I would be on a plane with Kamala Harris," she said.
"I'm getting married next year. I would like to plan my wedding. You know, I have earned a break. So me deciding that I'm leaving has absolutely nothing to do with my unhappiness. I feel honored every single day to work for the vice president who gave me an opportunity to be her spokesperson at the highest levels."
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The Washington Post's Jeremy Barr, Matt Viser and Sean Sullivan contributed to this report.