PHILADELPHIA — During a visit to Philadelphia on Saturday, Vice President Kamala Harris cast the outcome of Pennsylvania’s November elections as a crucial inflection point that could determine whether the nation’s government heads down a path of restricting or expanding civil rights.
“What you guys are doing here in Pennsylvania is going to affect the whole country,” she told a training session for Democratic organizers during a surprise stop with Democratic gubernatorial candidate Josh Shapiro at a Laborers’ District Council training facility on North Broad Street.
She linked the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade to recent efforts in Harrisburg to restrict abortion and voting access, describing it all as part of an ideological campaign by Republicans to “gain power instead of uplift(ing) the people of America based on their basic needs and desires.”
“When we look at what’s happening here in Pennsylvania, on issues like (reproductive) choice (and) voting, there’s so much at stake in terms of basic democratic principles that are about an expansion of freedoms, not a restriction — that are about concepts that were (founded) right here in this city about freedom and liberty,” she said.
Harris’ trip came as part of the Biden administration’s efforts to expand the Democrats’ slim majority in Congress in the upcoming midterm vote — something she described Saturday as crucial to the president’s ability to enact his agenda on issues ranging from abortion access, voting rights, and protections for the LGBTQ community.
But Republicans were quick to shoot back, saying she demonstrated in the city that she and President Joe Biden are out of touch with the concerns of most Americans on issues like inflation and rising gas prices.
“Harris may turn a blind eye to the soaring prices across the Keystone State, but voters won’t,” said Rachel Lee, a spokesperson for the Republican National Committee. “And this November, Democrats will be the ones paying the price.”
The trip itself was something of a whirlwind.
Air Force Two touched down at Philadelphia International Airport just after 10:30 a.m., where Harris was greeted on the tarmac by Mayor Jim Kenney.
She made two brief stops — a meeting with roughly 40 Democratic state lawmakers and members of Congress at the Spring Garden offices of Local 158 of the Eastern Atlantic States Regional Council of Carpenters and the appearance with Shapiro to greet Democratic organizers in North Philadelphia.
By 2 p.m. she was back on the plane to Washington.
But at each location, she was greeted warmly by cheering supporters. Neighbors gripping their cell phone cameras lined the residential streets outside the Carpenters Union hall hoping to snag a photo of the vice president and her motorcade.
And her surprise visit to campaign organizers at the Laborers’ District Council training facility earned her a standing ovation from those in the room. Harris is slated to return to the region on Monday to deliver the keynote speech at the NAACP’s national convention in Atlantic City.
During her earlier meeting with Democratic state lawmakers, state House Minority Leader Joanna McClinton, who represents parts of Delaware and Philadelphia Counties, described Harris as someone who “spoke directly to my soul about what being a woman of color and a prosecutor means.” McClinton worked seven years as an assistant public defender in Philadelphia.
But Harris stressed to the legislators gathered in the room that the ability of the Biden administration to enact its agenda could directly hinge on their ability to help push Democratic nominee John Fetterman to victory.
Fetterman, the state’s current lieutenant governor, is running against celebrity TV doctor and GOP nominee Mehmet Oz for a seat currently held by retiring Sen. Pat Toomey, a Republican. The race could provide Democrats with one of their best opportunities to expand their control of the Senate.
The stakes of that race were underscored just a day earlier as U.S. House Democrats passed a pair of bills Friday aimed at codifying many of the reproductive rights and guarantees to abortion access that were eliminated by the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade.
Both measures are expected to fail in the Senate, where the Democrats don’t currently have the votes. U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., has voted with Republicans on similar bills in the past.
Still, Harris told the gathered lawmakers Saturday that she and the president were just as concerned about the outcome of local races — like in the Pennsylvania governor’s race — that could significantly impact abortion access in the state.
Currently, abortion is legal up to 24 weeks of pregnancy and if the health of the parent is at risk.
Shapiro, the state’s attorney general who has vowed to protect the status quo, is running against State Sen. Doug Mastriano, the GOP nominee. He has vowed to push for a ban on all abortions beyond six weeks of pregnancy with no exception in cases of rape or incest or if the parent’s health is at risk during pregnancy.
Many of the state lawmakers who met with Harris on Saturday also pointed to the move last week by the state’s Republican-controlled legislature to advance a proposed constitutional amendment that would explicitly say the state’s founding document guarantees no rights related to abortion.
GOP backers of the bill maintain that it does nothing to change the current law and only ensures that abortion regulation in the state remains in the control of the legislature. It came in response to a suit currently before the state Supreme Court that, in part, asks the justices to recognize a right to abortion based on language in the state constitution surrounding equal rights for women and equal protection under the law.
For it to pass, the proposed amendment would need to be approved in a second vote in the next session of the General Assembly and then by Pennsylvania voters.
“It’s important for Pennsylvanians to have conversations on topics like abortion as the people should decide what is best for them, not the courts,” said Erica Clayton Wright, a spokesperson for the Senate Republican Caucus, in a statement Saturday in response to the vice president’s visit.
Still, State Rep. Mary Jo Daley, a Democrat, balked at that justification.
“Republican leaders are saying this is not a ban,” she told Harris. “But it sure does open the door for a ban. We cannot be complacent.”