The room fell silent, and the half-dozen staffers turned to the Democratic up-and-comer to see how she would react. Harris was already being discussed for bigger roles on the national stage.
"I would never want to be president," Harris said, according to a person in the room, who recalled that she dismissed the highest office in the land as "a terrible job."
And then, with impeccable timing, Harris delivered the punchline.
"Now," she said, pausing briefly. "Vice president? That doesn't sound so bad."
After Harris' primary bid last year — a grueling and mostly joyless exercise carried out by the self-described joyful warrior — campaigning to be the No. 2 has suited Harris just fine. On Wednesday night, she'll square off against Vice President Mike Pence in perhaps the biggest moment of the campaign for her.
Joe Biden's selection of Harris has excited Democrats. She's helped him raise money at a record clip. She is Biden's highest-profile surrogate to swing-state cities like Milwaukee, Detroit and Philadelphia, with a particular focus on courting voters of color, including African Americans and Latinos.
Harris appears solo and alongside Biden in TV ads, a rarity for a VP contender, and stars in digital videos pumped out by the campaign. She's become the 77-year-old nominee's emissary to pop culture, making appearances with musical icons, sitting for podcasts geared toward non-political audiences and drawing millions of views for brief videos of her stepping off the plane in Converse Chuck Taylor sneakers.
The verdict: Harris, with a few exceptions, has hit her marks.
But circumstances so far — namely, Biden's avoid-the spotlight campaign strategy coupled with the coronavirus — have conspired to make Harris the least visible vice-presidential contender in recent memory. That has frustrated some fans and allies who want to see more of her and believe it would help the ticket.
In another year, in another campaign, Harris would be headlining rallies covered by a horde of news reporters. Instead, she is often beamed in to supporters and donors from a makeshift TV studio the campaign built at her alma mater, Howard University in Washington.
When she does venture out on the road, hitting restaurants, florists and barber shops, the events are limited to local reporters and the traveling pool of journalists who must fly commercial to catch up with the vice-presidential nominee.
Some of her diminished profile is inherent in the role of No. 2. And to be certain, she isn't alone on the ticket in laying low. Biden himself has kept a limited public schedule, in part because of the coronavirus, but also because he wants ...