The backlash was swift.
“Chris Dodd” was soon trending on Twitter Monday morning. A chorus of voices asked whether Biden had wrongly empowered an old friend from his time in the overwhelmingly male Senate to steer his potentially historic pick. They accused Dodd of singling out Harris for the kind of behavior that’s rarely criticized when a man does it — aggressively going after an opponent in a debate.
“Hey @SenChrisDodd,” Democratic strategist Hilary Rosen wrote on Twitter. “This is the kind of crappy behavior this process doesnt need. Shut up.” Biden himself arrived at a news conference prepared with talking points about Harris, expecting questions.
And on ABC’s “The View” Tuesday, Sunny Hostin raised the issue again.
“I was thinking, how many times are woman told to stay in their place?” Hostin said, “to do something that is different than what men always do?”
Sources close to Dodd and those with knowledge of the selection process said his role is no larger than that of the other three search committee members.
But dozens of Democrats — including former aides of VP short-listers, party leaders, former and current elected officials and donors — said their primary contact with the selection team has been Dodd.
Biden and Dodd were cast in the same mold. Like Biden, Dodd tried to cap a lengthy Senate career with a bid for the White House — they both ran unsuccessfully in 2008. Biden supporters and associates said the two are very close; some even described them as being like brothers.
And so when it came time to narrow his VP choice, Biden turned to his loyal friend whose political instincts he trusts.
“He didn’t want to do what [the late Sen.] John McCain did — put some political operative in charge. He wanted a friend. Someone he’s known for 30 years,” said a longtime confidant of Biden’s. “He wants to make sure he doesn’t end up with someone who’s just feeling for his pulse everyday.”
Throughout the vetting, Dodd has been the voice on the other end of the phone, probing local party leaders, current and former elected officials and top donors. He’s also the one who people with specific concerns about a contender have gone to with criticism or opposition research.
“He could not have picked a better person to help him ferret it out,” former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said in an interview. “Chris is really good, I’ve talked to him quite often.”
Connecticut Rep. Rosa DeLauro, who served as Dodd’s chief of staff in the 1980s, said the trust factor clearly led Biden to him for the VP assignment.
“This is a crazy town. You have many acquaintances, but you have few friends — the people you can count on one hand who you can trust in the good times and the bad,” she said. “The two of them struck up a friendship so early on — 30 years ago. They were good friends, got to know one another and got to know each other’s families very well.”
But Dodd’s critics have swarmed since Monday, saying he’s ill-suited to play such an important role in selecting a female vice president.
“In a moment where the country is in its biggest crisis that anyone has ever seen— from the pandemic to racial inequality to a very tumultuous Democratic primary, we need to make sure that the leaders reflect the vision of the candidate,” said Camille Rivera, a Democratic strategist with a progressive firm in New York. “Chris, as the head of the committee, has to take into consideration how the general public is going to react to those comments — in particular to a woman of color. He has the responsibility to be mindful of the time we’re in.”
Others say Harris brought on these questions herself. Biden, as the Democratic frontrunner, was a punching bag for opponents throughout the primary. But his campaign at the time viewed Harris’ attack as different, a cheap shot because it implied he was racist. (Harris started off her attack with “I do not believe you are a racist.”)
Through a spokesperson, Harris declined to comment on Dodd.
Rose Kapolczynski, a veteran Democratic strategist who advised former Sen. Barbara Boxer of California, said she wasn’t too concerned with Dodd’s role in the vetting process.
“People might not like Chris Dodd for whatever reason, but I think it’s wrong to say that because of his race and gender that he can’t make a bold and transformative recommendation,” she said.
The hubbub prompted Dodd loyalists to jump to his defense. They included Minyon Moore, whom Dodd, as the former Democratic National Committee chairman, had appointed as the first African American political director of a major political party.
“He saw my skills and he thought I deserved a job and there were several people competing for that job. He was definitely a boss and friend through and through,” said Moore, who later served as a close adviser to Hillary Clinton.
“In terms of opportunity, Chris Dodd opened the door for me and for women,” DeLauro said.
A source close to Dodd said Wednesday that he considers Harris a friend and had been an early supporter of her Senate campaign. The person said Dodd has talked to Harris several times during the vetting process, but would not characterize those calls.
“He’s talked to all of the candidates — and others. He’s had hundreds of conversations,” the source said, adding that Dodd is not in charge of the vetting: “There is no leader, they’re all talking to people and providing input to the vice president. It is the vice president’s decision and his alone.”
The other members of the committee are White House and Senate counsel Cynthia Hogan, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester (D-Del.). Others involved in vetting the candidates include campaign general counsel Dana Remus, former Obama White House counsel Bob Bauer and former National Security Adviser Lisa Monaco.
Eleni Kounalakis, the lieutenant governor of California and a Harris supporter, said Dodd has said “very supportive things” about Harris in recent days. “The fact is that strong, outspoken, ambitious women are role models in our country,” Kounalakis, a former ambassador and the first woman to hold the state’s No. 2 post, told POLITICO. “A woman can be all these things, and still be a loyal vice president who is great to work with.”
On Wednesday, Rosen faulted Dodd for allowing details of the search to seep out.
“I trust Joe Biden to make a good VP pick because he knows the role better than anyone,” Rosen said. “I gather several advisers have been talking to candidates, but they are discreet.” Dodd, she added, “was showing off and that was a mistake.”
The Biden campaign and Dodd have taken steps to contain the backlash to Monday’s report, but it took them awhile.
When POLITICO went to him with its reporting on Sunday, Dodd declined to respond. Nearly two days after the story ran, his office released a statement to Washington Post columnist Jennifer Rubin noting that Dodd has had “hundreds of conversations related to the Vice-Presidential search.”
Though he did not want to “feed into speculation” by commenting on the matter, the statement added, “the anonymous comments reported in POLITICO yesterday do not represent my view on Senator Harris nor what I have shared with Vice President Biden, and need to be addressed.”
Biden himself arrived at a Tuesday news conference prepared to address the Harris matter. A list of bullet points he held in his hand was captured by an Associated Press photographer.
“Do not hold grudges.” “Campaigned with me & Jill.” “Talented.” “Great help to campaign.” “Great respect for her,” the notes read.
But the reporters he called on for questions didn’t ask about Harris.
The damage control extended into Wednesday night, when Biden campaign manager Jen O’Malley Dillon seemed to address criticism that Dodd’s comments were a sign that Biden would somehow snub Harris because she showed ambition.
“Ambitious women make history, change the world, and win. Our campaign is full of ambitious women going all out for Joe Biden,” she tweeted. “He will make this decision, and this is clear: whoever he chooses from the very qualified options to help him win & unite the country, she’ll be one too.”