Harris assembles staff as she builds her vice presidential portfolio
Posted December 3, 2020 8:06 a.m. EST
CNN — Vice President-elect Kamala Harris is constructing the key team of senior staffers who will accompany her to the White House, announcing Thursday the hiring of three top roles including chief of staff.
The staffers, all of whom are women and two of whom are people of color -- highlight the incoming administration's commitment to diversity.
Harris tapped Hartina Flournoy, a Black woman, as her incoming chief of staff. She currently serves as chief of staff to former President Bill Clinton.
"Tina brings a strong commitment to serving the American people, and her leadership will be critical as we work to overcome the unprecedented challenges facing our nation," Harris said in a statement.
News of Flournoy's hiring was first reported by journalist Yashar Ali late Monday night, and confirmed by CNN shortly after.
Rohini Kosoglu, a longtime Harris aide who currently serves as senior adviser to Harris on the transition team and held chief of staff titles in both the incoming vice president's Senate office and past presidential campaign, will be her domestic policy adviser. And Ambassador Nancy McEldowney will be Harris' national security adviser. McEldowney has an extensive career in foreign service including serving as the US ambassador to Bulgaria during the George W. Bush administration.
"Together with the rest of my team, today's appointees will work to get this virus under control, open our economy responsibly and make sure it lifts up all Americans, and restore and advance our country's leadership around the world," Harris said.
The all-women, majority of color trio will join at least two other women of color holding senior roles in Harris' office, in the latest high-profile appointments for an administration that has pledged to have its ranks reflect the diversity in America. That includes Symone Sanders, an incoming senior adviser and chief spokesperson for the vice president-elect, and Ashley Etienne, who will serve as communications director for Harris.
The official announcement, first shared with CNN, is an early look at who Harris is surrounding herself with at the start of her new role, as she begins to build out her portfolio.
Building out her team
Harris has known Flournoy for a number of months, but it is a relatively new relationship, a source close to Harris told CNN. The vice president-elect spoke to Flournoy soon after she was selected by President-elect Joe Biden in August, during a series of phone calls to various leaders and Democratic operatives.
At the time, Harris, 56, leaned on her for advice, telling Flournoy, "I hope that you will help me find good staff people, including yourself," according to the source.
Harris interviewed numerous leaders virtually, both men and women, in what those familiar called a "rigorous process." She both identified individuals who she wanted to interview for the job and interviewed some provided to her by the transition team.
"She did not start out saying, 'I want a Black woman.' She started out saying, 'I want the best person qualified for this job. And that person just happens to be Black," Minyon Moore, a veteran political operative and current transition adviser tapped to help build out the vice president-elect's staff, told CNN in an interview.
And in the end, Harris chose Flournoy, a well-respected Black woman and Democratic operative with decades of experience in Washington, DC, and an aligning vision that reflected the priorities of the administration and values Harris is looking to bring to her office.
Flournoy is part of the "Colored Girls," a crew that stormed presidential politics in the late 1980's, that includes Donna Brazile, Moore, Leah Daughtry and Yolanda Caraway.
"When they start speaking, everybody shuts the hell up," said a source close to the campaign told CNN earlier this year.
Before her current role with Clinton, Flournoy, a graduate of Georgetown Law, served in several roles in the Democratic Party, including senior adviser to then-Democratic National Convention Chairman Howard Dean in 2005. She was the traveling chief of staff to 2000 Democratic vice presidential nominee Sen. Joseph Lieberman, finance director for then-Vice President Al Gore's 2000 presidential campaign and deputy campaign manager in the 1992 Clinton and Gore Presidential Transition Office and served in the White House Office of Presidential Personnel, according to her Georgetown University biography.
Kosoglu, who will be Harris' domestic policy adviser, has played a crucial part in her national political career, serving as a senior adviser since 2017 and sowing deep connections with her boss. A Sri Lankan-American, she became the first South Asian American woman to serve as chief of staff in the US Senate -- working for Harris, the first South Asian-American senator. Kosolglu was a spring 2020 Harvard University Institute of Politics fellow and before joining Harris' campaign, held senior leadership positions with Sens. Michael Bennet of Colorado and Debbie Stabenow of Michigan.
As the primary campaign's chief of staff, Kosoglu was instrumental in filling the team so it intentionally included a diverse group and shaped policy, a source familiar with campaign matters told CNN. During the general election, Kosoglu often traveled with the then-vice presidential nominee.
In her statement, Harris nodded to Kosoglu's vital role calling her, "an expert on some of the most important issues facing the American people, but also one of my closest and most trusted aides from the Senate and presidential campaign."
The third member of the team that Harris announced Thursday, McEldowney has served more than 30 years as a career foreign service servant and was also the chargé d'affaires and deputy chief of mission in Turkey and Azerbaijan as well as the State Department's director of the Foreign Service Institute, where she led the foreign affairs training facility for the US government, according to her Georgetown biography.
Building her portfolio
While no official policy designations have been set, sources say Harris wants to be a part of the administration's rebuilding of small and medium businesses stripped by the pandemic, in part because they disproportionately affect women and people of color.
The vice president-elect is also eyeing a role in the administration's education platform -- as many children without proper access to broadband during the pandemic have fallen behind.
Harris has long focused on the welfare of children throughout her prosecutorial career, in the Senate and during her own presidential campaign. Her first major policy proposal last year during the campaign pledged to boost teacher pay.
Over time, she'll look to solidify her foreign policy and national security accolades, leaning on her four years of experience as a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, a source adds.
That is in addition to Harris' possible role in any criminal justice and climate justice reform, drawing on her years as California's attorney general and San Francisco district attorney.
The arsenal of key staff that Harris is surrounding herself with will be essential in securing the work that rounds out her record.
For her part, Flournoy has prior relationships with many top Biden advisers, having worked with them in her different capacities in Washington.
"The White House is built up on many things, but relationships are paramount," a source said.
McEldowney, a veteran in the foreign policy arena, has deep ties to the community as well. Kosgoulu, who spent many years on Capitol Hill, could serve as an emissary for Harris who, once inaugurated, will become the president of the Senate.
But the most important relationship of them all, is the one Harris builds with the President-elect.
"The first obligation is to do what is asked by the President of the United States," Moore, who served as director of White House political affairs to Bill Clinton and watched his relationship to Gore flourish, said.
Harris has often called Biden a "model" for how she would shape her own vice presidency, calling his leadership on significant issues to support then-President Barack Obama an inspiration for how she will do her job.
Moore said from what she's witnessed, the pair have been open and trusting.
"Her voice is heard. She has a complete seat at the table, not a half seat. A complete seat. Shirley Chisholm said if you don't have a seat, bring a folding chair. Well, she has a hard chair," Moore said.