Into a High-Stakes VP Debate
Susan Page: Good evening. From the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, welcome to the first and only vice presidential debate of 2020.
Trymaine Lee: If the presidential debate was a train wreck, Wednesday's vice presidential debate between Vice President Mike Pence and Senator Kamala Harris felt a little more familiar to the American public. Both candidates appeared prepared, sticking to their familiar roles. Pence was the calm, staunch defender of the president.
Mike Pence: Joe Biden says democracy's on the ballot. Make no mistake about it, Susan. And the American economy, the American comeback is on the ballot, with four more years of growth--
Page: Thank you sir-- thank you, Mr. Vice President--
Pence: --and opportunity, four more years of President Donald Trump, 2021's gonna be--
Page: Thank you, Vice President.
Pence: --the biggest economic year in the history of this country.
Page: Thank you, Vice President Pence.
Lee: And Harris came in as the prosecutor making the case for a Joe Biden presidency.
Kamala Harris: The one thing we all know about Joe, he puts it all out there. He-- he is honest, he is forthright. But Donald Trump on the other hand has--
Harris: --been about covering up everything.
Page: Thanks, thank you, Senator Harris. I want to give you a chance to respond--
Lee: Although the real star of the debate may have been the fly that landed on Mike Pence's head and stayed there for two full minutes.
Archival Recording: He was so still that he didn't get rid of the fly. The fly left him when it got bored--
Archival Recording #2: Fly left him.
Lee: And, of course, you know Twitter did its thing with that one. But all joking aside, this first and only vice presidential debate of the 2020 election comes at a moment when the stakes for what it means to be next in line have never been higher.
Pence: We've got an election before the American people in the midst of this challenging year.
Harris: Vote. Please vote.
Lee: I'm Trymaine Lee, and this is Into America. Today, why the vice presidential debate, which didn't used to mean much to the outcome of a presidential election has taken on new significance. I spoke with Sonja Nichols, a voter and local candidate for office, who cares more about these VP candidates than who's at the top of each ticket. Last night, she was watching closely.
Sonja is an outlier in a lot of ways. She's a Republican business owner running for state senate in Charlotte, North Carolina. She's Black, and she's proud of Senator Harris as a Black woman, but she voted for President Trump in 2016. And Sonja says, at the time, she was paying more attention to Mike Pence than she was to Donald Trump.
Sonja Nichols: I would have to say, I think Mike Pence might have been an even bigger deciding factor than Trump. And I think it was because Mike was an actual politician, and when I say that, you know, he's had a role as a governor. He has been in politics, and so what I felt is that he would bring some balance to an individual who has actually, you know, Trump is a developer.
Trump is a TV personality, but he did not have what I felt was the complete experience for governing a country. And so I felt that Mike Pence would bring that particular skill set to the ticket. So he did play a part in my choosing to vote for Trump in 2016.
Lee: So in terms of Pence, the politician, Pence has been around the block a number of times. He understands how this system works, and he understands the game. And he spent the last four years defending President Trump and the administration and his policies. How do you think he did last night in continuing to defend, after three-and-a-half years?
Nichols: I think Pence did what he was supposed to do, which was defend the job of his boss. And so, he is on the ticket. He serves at the pleasure of the president. His job is to defend those policies that we have watched for the last three-and-a-half years, and he did his job. I think he didn't harm the ticket in any way. Whether I'd say it convinced people one way or the other, I couldn't say.
Lee: One thing that was markedly different last night than in the presidential debate was, it wasn't as chaotic and bombastic, and quite frankly, ridiculous as what we saw. Because it was an embarrassment.
Lee: I feel perfectly fine saying that it was an embarrassment. Last night was different, but with Pence, we get that straight face. We get the straight guy who delivers it in a calm, cool, collected manner. But there was some criticism that he was also misleading. At times, he was interrupting Kamala Harris and also Susan Page, the moderator.
Harris: I'm so glad we went through a little history lesson. Let's do that a little more. In 1864--
Pence: Well, I'd like her to answer the question.
Harris: Mr. Vice President, I'm speaking. I'm speaking, okay?
Nichols: I think when you're in a debate, there is that tension between you allowing the other individual to speak. You're trying to get your point across. I never look at these debates as, this is where we're gonna get all the truth-telling. These are where we're gonna get all the facts.
This is a platform where my job is to try to persuade you in my direction. Whether I'm telling you the truth or not, this is just to persuade you with whatever it is that I need to get across. As I think of Kamala, I thought that she did a good job in being able to capture any of the moments he may have delivered to her.
The whole idea, well, he spoke over her or interrupted her, that didn't bother me. What I wanted my sorority sister to do was, if I'm going to be on this world stage, and when I watched her, what I'm looking for her to be is the person who's also auditioning for the job of president of the United States, president of the free world. She's gonna have to be able to handle men doing that. I don't think Pence will be the first or the last person to try to overtalk her, try to deliver any one-liners or punches that she can't handle. I felt like she handled it.
Lee: But with that, so there is this dance and this, you know, the gamesmanship in terms of these debates and politics in general. But the stakes are really high. Susan Page asked Mike Pence about now the infamous Rose Garden event. Let's take a listen.
Page: Vice President Pence, you were in the front row in a Rose Garden event 11 days ago, at what seems to have been a superspreader event for senior administration and congressional officials. No social distancing, few masks, and now a cluster of coronavirus cases among those who were there. How can you expect Americans to follow the administration's safety guidelines to protect themselves from COVID when you at the White House have not been doing so?
Pence: Well, the American people have demonstrated over the last eight months that when given the facts, they're willing to put the health of their families and their neighbors and people they don't even know first. President Trump and I have great confidence in the American people and their ability to take that information and put it into practice.
Lee: So Mike Pence is the head of the White House's Coronavirus Taskforce. And meanwhile, more than 210,000 Americans have died from coronavirus. What do you make of that? The American people, they know what to do. Don't do as I do, do as I say, that's what it sounds like to me. What do you think?
Nichols: So here's kind of where I agree with him on that respect. We have got to stop being victims of what other people do. We know what the CDC guidelines are in terms of wearing masks, social distancing, wash your hands. All of us have been given those guidelines.
All of us have got to make the decision, "What am I going to do that is best for me?" For those that showed up to the Rose Garden, I feel like you made a decision. You were willing to go and you were willing to take the risk. And sometimes there are consequences for your decisions. In this case, what I want us as Americans to do is, I want us to begin to be responsible for ourselves.
It drives me crazy that we argue back and forth about what our leaders do, while at the same time we make comments that our leaders are misleading, our leaders are not good leaders. We're saying this, and yet, we're looking at them and saying, "Well, we're following them." If the leaders are not doing right by you and your family, what are you going to do?
Lee: Let me ask you this, Sonja. But what if folks think by following the lead of the president, they are doing the right thing? And that if he questions some of the science and he questions some of the leaders in the medical field, in science, maybe we should follow his lead.
Nichols: I think it's unfortunate if people feel that I can only do what that person does. I'm hoping everybody else has watched this and said, "You know, I need to protect myself and protect my family."
Lee: We heard a lot about the Supreme Court last night, certainly around the Rose Garden event, but even more so about Amy Coney Barrett's political and religious leanings. And there was a discussion on abortion, in particular. And here's Mike Pence. Let's take a listen.
Pence: I couldn't be more proud to serve as vice president to a president who stands without apology for the sanctity of human life. I'm pro life. I don't apologize for it.
Lee: How important is this issue to you, Sonja?
Nichols: So the interesting thing is, I am pro life. So it is huge to me, but I'm gonna be honest. I don't think that that particular decision is going to be overturned.
Lee: But do you think they should? Do you think that they should overturn Roe v. Wade?
Nichols: I reserve judgment on that one. My mother came up pregnant with me when she was 14. And I remembered just as she shared with me and my grandparents shared with me the physical fight that my mother had with my grandparents, because she wanted to keep me.
And because she wanted to keep me, here I am. And God has allowed me to do all kinds of fantastic, magnificent things. And so my pro life stance is hard, it's fast. I'm very supportive. Whether or not Roe v. Wade is overturned I think is speculation. I just don't think it's gonna happen. I don't. I don't think that the women in America will let it happen, they just won't. I just don't see it.
Lee: You know, speaking of life and death, the president of the United States has coronavirus. He's an older man. He seems to be coming through it better than a lot of people, but it's brought into kind of stark relief this idea that the VP really is a heartbeat away from the presidency, right. He's a sickness away from the presidency, he or she, right? From what you've seen of Mike Pence, do you think he's ready? If something, God forbid, were to happen to President Trump, do you think he's ready to step into that seat?
Nichols: Yes, I do. I feel that he would be ready to do the job. I'm sure he would do things a little different, I'm positive. I wish the president well. I want him to completely recover. He says he has, but that being said, if necessary, I do feel that Mike Pence could do the job. Same case with Kamala. If they win, and she needs to step up to be the president, I think she could easily handle the job.
Lee: You know, speaking of that, you sound different than a lot of Republicans I've talked to or you see on TV, the punditry class, that you're actually giving props to Kamala Harris, right. She obviously has had a stellar career as a prosecutor and now a Senator, and now the first Black woman and first South Asian woman to be on the ticket as VP, which is historic in itself. And she's your sorority sister. How did you feel seeing her? I mean, obviously, she's not on your team, per se, but in some ways she is. How did you feel seeing her?
Nichols: I'm so proud of her, I don't know what to do. I would say, in this case as it relates to Kamala, this is the one time I can say, I'm not looking at the politics. What I'm looking at is, she would be the first female president of the free world, of the United States.
She's it's even more because she's a soror. It's even more because she went to an HBCU. This is historic, this is unprecedented. I'm so proud of her. And so yeah, I will have to tell you, politics, we're gonna be on the complete opposite sides of the field.
I'm clear her views on things are totally different than mine, but that being said, I look at Kamala like she's family. And this is family. This is like being at the family reunion. You know, you got the cousins on one side of the picnic table.
You got the other cousins on the other side, everybody talkin' trash, somebody drunk, everybody fightin'. But at the end of the day, we come together because we love one another. Yeah, I'll admit, yeah, I'm still a Republican. I'm still on the right side of the aisle, yes I am. I'm clear. You're not gonna be able to pull me to the left. You can get me close to the center, but I'm gonna be walkin' on the right side of that center aisle. However, I can see past the politics. I'm just proud of her and God presenting her with this opportunity.
Lee: Could you imagine Harris leading a ticket? And could you imagine voting for Kamala Harris for president?
Nichols: It depends on who she's running against. I have to admit, she would have gotten my attention from a presidential standpoint. She coulda gotten my attention. Would I consider her? I'm gonna be honest, it depends on, okay, wait a minute. I guess that means she was running against Trump. Huh.
Okay, so here's the difficulty. I'm excited for a sister, but those policies, they're too far left for me. I'm a pretty staunch conservative, and I think people are shock and awed. There are a lot of us. Most of us just don't come out and say anything. I'm the only fool woman to jump out here and say, hey, but I don't think most of the average Americans want to be pulled as far to the left as we feel the progressive movement would pull us. So that would be real difficult for me.
Lee: Well, let me ask you this. With all that being said, what were you looking for, you know, from Kamala Harris before the debate? And did you get it?
Nichols: So what I wanted to see from Kamala was, is this a sister that could be on the world stage? Could she take a punch to the chest, and could she deliver a punch to the chest? I know it sounds real violent, right, but that's what I was looking for. I needed to know that she could stand her ground, that she would not be a shrinking violet. And that she ain't ever scared. That's what I needed to see. Do I feel she did that? Yeah, I feel like she did no harm.
Harris: Let's talk about respecting the American people. You respect the American people when you tell them the truth. You respect the American people when you have the courage--
Pence: Which we've always done.
Harris: --to be a leader speaking of those things that you may not want people to hear, but they need to hear so they can protect themselves.
Nichols: If given the opportunity, God gives her the opportunity to be the president of the free world, I think she could do the job.
Lee: Well, I think more importantly, you know, at the barbecue, could she be your spades partner?
Nichols: Oh, that's my girl. That one right there, oh my goodness. That sister right there? Now, I ain't gonna lie, I'm laughing 'cause she's got the Converses, and I'm so clear I'm gonna be in the Jimmy Choo tennis shoes. I will not be in the Converses.
Nichols: I'm not staying (UNINTEL).
Lee: Listen. There was a moment that stood out to me last night, when Senator Harris brought up the last debate, the presidential debate and President Trump's refusal to disavow white supremacy. I played this moment for Sonja and asked her, as a Black woman, how she viewed it.
Harris: And the reality of this is that, we are talking about an election in 27 days where last week, the president of the United States took a debate stage in front of 70 million Americans and refused to condemn white supremacists.
Pence: Not true.
Harris: And it wasn't like he didn't have a chance. He didn't do it, and then he doubled down. And then he said when pressed, "Stand back, stand by."
Nichols: So I think, for me, I felt like Trump's words were taken outta context. I don't think that it was his intention to double down and say he supports white supremacists. I've watched everyone just spin that in every kind of which way direction. Could he have done a better job? Absolutely.
Should he have said something directly? Absolutely. I think that sometimes he was so busy I guess wanting to be combative with Biden, your mouth will overrun whatever your thoughts are. On the other hand, I do feel that Kamala was right to bring it back up. Because I think what is going to happen in our country is, we continue to talk about as our community, the systemic racism that we're going to see continue.
I do feel that there are those who will just wait for it to just die down and go quiet and just go back to life as normal. I really do think a lotta people are just sitting around just waiting for us to give up the fight, to give up the constant, we're gonna keep poking at you till you address this. I'm thinking that a lot of America's, like, "Okay, we'll getting a little tired of this now."
Lee: They're already there. I think they're already there.
Nichols: Yeah, you see it already, right? And so for me, I was happy she brought it up. What I'm looking for again, is not your words. Y'all could talk all day long. I look at your actions.
Lee: You know, I would say, no political party in America has a strict stranglehold on racism, right. But one party does talk a good game and sometimes walks a good game. But when you're dealing with your Republican friends and colleagues and peers and folks that you're dealing with politically and you're having these conversations, are they tuned in? Because I hear the rhetoric from the right, and it doesn't sound like they even see systemic racism as an issue. And I'm assuming, from the way you're talking that you recognize racism as a systemic issue.
Nichols: Trymaine, what I would tell you is, so I've been a Republican most of my life, as far back as I can remember. I have a family of Republicans. And I would say, my grandparents and my aunt, they raised me. Now my parents, no. In fact, they're so mad at me being Republican, they don't know what to do.
And I think if my daddy could fight me in the streets, he would every day. But he loves me though. But so when I'm talking to Republicans, so here's what's interesting. Most of the people I'm talking to are the old guard, and I think they have been more reluctant to step forward.
I have brought up to them on a regular basis, why are you not in our communities trying to address us, trying to develop relationships with us? Because they have been told, "Don't go in the Black community, they don't want anything to do with you."
What I have found, now that I have stepped forward and have been willing to at least have the conversations, many of them have started calling me personally. "Sonja, let's have lunch, let's have dinner." And I want it to be a safe space. I want you to be able to ask me questions.
And several of us have got to step forward so that we can have these conversations. We've got to educate them. And it's not gonna happen if we don't step forward. So Trymaine, you can count on it. I'm out here. I'm catchin' the bullets and the arrows that come with admitting in public I'm a Black Republican.
Lee: After the break, I go deeper with Sonja into her politics and what it's like being a Republican as a Black woman.
Lee: We're back with Sonja Nichols. Now I do want to ask you this. You talk about identifying as Republican for as long as you can remember, and your grandparents. There was a break with your parents, and then here you are in that tradition again. And I wonder, have you always voted Republican, or did you divert from time to time?
Nichols: I will tell you, more likely than not, the Republican will get my vote. But I will say, on a national level, I have to admit, when Barack ran for president, are you kidding me? That was the first Black president. I have to admit, that was the one time I crossed that aisle, 'cause I was so excited that there was a Black man.
And I know, I've heard people say, "Oh Sonja, how ignorant are you, that you just voted for him because he was a Black man?" Well, guess what, I voted for him 'cause he was the Black man. I was so excited. I would say, yes, I normally vote Republican. Again, values are conservative. I am socially conservative, I'm fiscally conservative.
But I do look at each candidate when we prepare to go vote every single primary and general election, because I think there's something to be said about the relationships that you have with individuals. And there are people that we see what they do in our community, and there are some, whether they are Democrat or Republican. If you're a good person, I believe you have our best interests at heart, you have our community's interests at heart, you will get my vote. But please know, I will have investigated you first.
Lee: And so obviously, President Barack Obama was a Black man with a Black wife and a Black family. And he seemed like a decent man. I mean, I guess people can argue politically. I don't know if there's any debate whether he's a source of decency, right, or something about him. And I wonder, you voted for Obama, and then we have 2016, and you voted for Trump/Pence, right?
Nichols: I did.
Lee: And contrasting the two men, even beyond the politics, we know that Trump emerged on the birtherism conspiracy. And many have argued that Black man and the audacity to run and win really fueled where we are at this moment. How did you go from this decent man to President Trump? And I'm not passing a judgment on his decency or not.
Nichols: I think what motivated me more to vote for Trump than what I thought his policies would be or what kind of man he would be, in all honesty, Trymaine, I was not gonna vote for Hillary Clinton.
Lee: What is it about her? I mean, there are many reasons for many people, but I'm always kinda interested and surprised sometimes. What is it about Hillary Clinton that turned you off so much?
Nichols: For some reason, it never left my brain when she called us superpredators. I don't know why that stuck in my head for life. And I mean, when I'm telling you, that's hardwired in my brain. And I remembered when she said that, that never left. She made it easy for me to make the decision to pick a Donald Trump.
I think that I felt that she took the Black community for granted. I remember a line when she ran against Barack Obama. I remember Bill saying that "Barack Obama winning was a fairytale, how could they dare think that?" I remember her making the comment, "Black people owe me," and so when she ran against Barack Obama. It was those kinda things that never left my brain. It was easy. No, I'm not voting for her. Trump, I think there was the idea that we could do something different. We could do something bold and dramatic and different.
Lee: But it's different, but you know what? It's much of the same when you think about the superpredators comment. And you think about, he was trying to reinstate the death penalty to execute five wrongly convicted, young Black men in New York. And so as different as he may be, as different a perspective he brought in terms of comin' off the Obamas and Clintons, it actually sounds pretty much like they always have been.
Nichols: I'm sitting here. I think while I would agree with you that that was an issue, then I'll still look at, so a lot of my family's in California. And I just remembered my family being very angry with Kamala, for an example. And they felt that she did a lot of work to prosecute a lot of Black people in California.
And so, you know, I just sit, and I'm, like, she was doing her job. As I look at Trump doing what he did, not that that was his job, I think he thought he was doing something right. I'm gonna be honest. I can't judge him on that. I'm glad that there were some other people that were in place to watch out for those five Black men.
I'm glad that justice in that process is being done. And Trymaine, I think what I'm learning in this whole process, a lotta times we all make decisions. Some of 'em are good, and some of 'em are bad. I am looking at patterns, in terms of how you do things. I think at that point when I voted for Trump, I wasn't looking necessarily at that pattern. I just knew I was gonna vote against Hillary.
Lee: Three-and-a-half years later, I would say that some patterns may have emerged.
Nichols: Yes, there are some patterns.
Lee: When you think back over this long, long three-and-a-half years, and I'm not saying good or bad, it's not for me to say. When you think about everything that we've seen, from starting the campaign with "Mexicans are drug dealers and rapists," to the children at the border situation, to the Charlottesville, to on and on and handling COVID, we forgot the president was impeached, the flirting and dalliances with foreign actors possibly. What do you like, and what has turned you off, if anything of what you've seen from the Trump/Pence administration?
Nichols: So there are things that the Trump administration has done that I do like. I like the opportunity zones. Not givin' those back. I like prison reform. I'm not givin' that back. I like the funding for the HBCUs. I'm not giving that back. Do I wish he would operate differently? Absolutely.
I think, if I had to say I had a big concern, my biggest concern is, I do want our country pulled together. Is the administration helping to do that? I cannot say yes. Do I think that voting on the other side of the ticket is going to do that? Nope, I don't. I would have to say, in spite of how chaotic people may see that right-hand side of the aisle, what I feel is motivating more, that scares me more, is the absolute hatred for Trump. The hatred for him frightens me more.
Lee: And you are a bit of a unicorn. I mean, if we just take the context of the 2016 race where, you know, 3% of Black women I think it was voted for Trump, and you had 13% of Black men. And that makes me think of this survey released by the Pew Research Center that showed of Black Democratic voters, and I want to make sure I get this right, "More than 50% of them identified as moderate or conservative, yet they still voted for Democrats." And as we know, as a people, we are conservative folks, right? Comin' from church, whether it's--
Nichols: We are. You can read Black Twitter, we're conservative.
Lee: We really are, but and some would say, but for the racism, maybe the Republicans could get more Black folks involved. Why do you think there is still an allegiance to the Democratic Party, even among those folks who are generally conservative? I think it's because of racism on the other side, but you tell me what you think.
Nichols: I think that the Republican Party hasn't done the best job of reaching back out to us. They have been told, "Don't come mess with us," so they don't. I am dealing with on a daily basis wonderful Republican leaders in this community. And to make sure I'm clear, I'm not saying there's no racism.
What I'm saying is, I've developed relationships with many of the Republicans here, and, Trymaine, they really do want to work with us. But they really are scared, because they say every time they reach out to us, they get punched in the face. Well, I'm a Black Republican, I can tell you. Soon as I came out and said I was a Black Republican, and I thought everybody knew, but once I declared it, I got punched in the face, punched in the gut, kicked in the back.
So again, I am the unicorn. I felt that it was important as God would allow me, I needed to step forward, so that I could demonstrate at least to the rest of the Republican Party, there are so many of us who would be willing to engage you. But you gotta meet us halfway.
Lee: Are you running for the state senate to maybe try to bring some of those conservative Black folks into the fold?
Nichols: I'm running because I want to show a diversity that actually exists in the Republican Party. Again, most people are scared to come out because of how you are portrayed in the media, as a little coon, a buffoon, just ratchet. And I'm none of those things.
I wanted to demonstrate to a lot of people, no, there is a really cool, very classy bunch of us who are on this right-hand side of the aisle. I'm not asking for Black people to switch from being Democrats. Your mama was a Democrat, your grandmama was a Democrat, that's what you do.
We have a lot of energy on that side, we have a lot of work being done on that side. We have a lot of individuals doing everything they're supposed to do to fight for us on the left-hand side of the aisle. So who's taking care of us on the right-hand side of the aisle? Who's working on policies that affect us on the right-hand side of the aisle?
Who's talking to the powers that be on the right-hand side of the aisle, to make sure that our interests are represented? What I want to be able to do is, I want to give Black people an option. And everybody's been told that the Black people can only be Democrats, and that's it. And that's the only party y'all better stay in, and that's your box. You better not come out that box, 'cause if you don't vote Democrat, you ain't Black.
What I want to be able to do is provide us someone on the right-hand side aisle that has always had our community's best interests at heart. I don't think any Republicans are gonna just flip and turn and then just be automatic, kumbaya singin' hand in hand with us.
We have to put allies on the right-hand side of the aisle. If you don't do anything else, white people are on both sides of the aisle. So they can't get done what they want on the left-hand side of the aisle, they get it done on the right-hand side of the aisle. I want to do the same thing for us.
Lee: Sonja Nichols is a Republican running for state senate in North Carolina's 37th district. Into America is produced by Isabel Angel, Allison Bailey, Aaron Dalton, Max Jacobs, Barbara Raab, Claire Tighe, Aisha Turner, and Preeti Varathan. Original music by Hannis Brown. Our executive producer is Ellen Frankman. Steve Lickteig is executive producer of audio. I'm Trymaine Lee. We'll be back on Monday.