An American Life
By Dan Morain
The daughter of a Jamaica-born father and India-born mother who met in the turbulent world of ’60s Bay Area political activism, Kamala Harris has a social justice lineage that runs deep. In her 2020 Democratic National Convention acceptance speech as Joe Biden’s running mate, she proudly recalled having “a stroller’s eye view of people getting into what the great John Lewis called ‘good trouble.’” Her maternal grandfather served as a prominent senior government official in the tumultuous politics of postcolonial India.
Dan Morain, for decades a reporter for The Los Angeles Times, recounts stories like these in “Kamala’s Way,” and his insider’s view provides a revealing portrait of the people and events surrounding Harris’s rise to political stardom. Morain paints Bay Area Democratic politics as a swampy world where schmoozing with potential billionaire funders and sitting on the right boards were essential to climbing the rungs. He details Harris’s liaison with the self-described “Ayatollah of the Assembly” and former San Francisco mayor, Willie Brown. Harris dated Brown in 1994 and 1995, splitting with him after his election as mayor. He was 30 years her senior. But the numerous stories about Brown feel misplaced, distracting from what should have been a tighter focus on Harris herself.
Harris’s career took off during the 1990s in an era of bipartisan calls for tough-on-crime measures. As the Alameda County deputy district attorney, Harris spent years as a courtroom prosecutor before she was recruited to a supervisory position with the San Francisco district attorney’s office and then the city attorney’s office. She was elected San Francisco district attorney in 2003, and attorney general of California in 2010, a position she held until she was elected senator in 2016.
Harris’s long tenure as a prosecutor in California, a harsh, punitive state, has drawn criticism. In her run for San Francisco district attorney in 2003, Harris called for improving conviction rates and prosecuting serious drug cases to clean up the streets. (The San Francisco Chronicle endorsed her candidacy under the headline “Harris, for Law and Order.”) But once elected, she took positions that cost her police support and came out strongly in favor of criminal justice reform. Her 2009 book, “Smart on Crime,” called for education, drug treatment and rehabilitation. As attorney general, she instituted first-in-the-nation programs to bolster police accountability. Undoubtedly, the most consistent through-line in her career is her unfailing championship of victims of sexual abuse, child trafficking and domestic violence.
These actions, and Morain’s admiration for Harris’s “skill and charisma, her intelligence and grit, and her willingness to fight hard,” are tempered by Morain’s view that Harris’s ambition and national sights led her to “be both innovative and cautious,” sometimes acting as a trailblazer and other times holding her fire: “She took strong stands or she stood mute on the important criminal justice issues of her day.” Though balancing both sides, he seems to agree with the critics he cites who viewed her as “overly cautious.”
Morain paints Harris as a pragmatic, ambitious politician who “took positions when she needed to and when those stands might help her politically,” but who was also “adept at not taking stands when doing so was not politically necessary.” Despite his inclusion of stories that show Harris’s warmth outside the limelight, his biography is not fawning. Nor is it very personal. Morain was not able to interview Harris or her family, but says he relied on “dozens of sources” with “firsthand knowledge.”
This book is unlikely to satisfy readers enamored of the nation’s barrier-breaking vice president, who may find Morain’s judgments at times unduly critical, and his use of phrases like “brusque and antagonistic style” and “brash confidence” as distinctly gendered. At the same time, “Kamala’s Way” could appeal to aficionados of California politics who want a better understanding of the high-powered political world where Harris’s national star rose.