The election season was full of jaw-dropping moments that eclipsed this confrontation. But Morain returns to it and offers a telling snapshot of Harris. He portrays her as a confident, seasoned public figure, whose success rests upon the intimate loyalties of others and whose candidacy could not avoid being symbolic. Witnessing those harrowing seconds, some flashed back to the 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., while others saw the ubiquitous threat of 21st-century gun violence. Americans had no precedent for a scene in which harm might come to a woman of color — the daughter of Jamaican and Indian immigrants — while she campaigned for the highest office in the land.
For readers eager to understand how Harris became someone who could hold her own on a national stage, Morain charts her route. His premise is that there was nothing predictable about the journey of a daughter of immigrants, a Howard University alum and a Hastings College of Law graduate from local prosecutor to vice president-elect. He stresses that it does no justice to Harris’s story to label her a “female Obama.” Morain gives readers the public Harris on her own terms: a leader who rose to power in the crowded terrain of California politics. Though Berkeley was her girlhood home, Harris was not a politician who came up from the grass roots. Instead, beginning with her career as a prosecutor in Alameda County, home to Oakland, Harris committed herself to public service, working in the trenches of the justice system for those she termed the “voiceless and vulnerable.” It is a perspective that continues to frame her work to this day.
But principles alone did not take Harris beyond the seedy courthouses of the East Bay. Her rise from local prosecutor to district attorney of San Francisco, attorney general of California, U.S. senator and finally vice president took three decades. Building relationships, Morain explains, was key. Early on, Harris was an intimate of her state’s unrivaled Black power broker, lawmaker Willie Brown, who showed her California’s political underbelly and its ropes. Along the way he boosted Harris’s statewide visibility. Harris’s sister, Maya, who headed the ACLU of Northern California, and her husband, Tony West, associate attorney general under President Barack Obama, have served as her steadfast confidants and strategists.
In 2007, Harris was a surrogate for Obama during his presidential run, and her star was rising. She jockeyed with Gavin Newsom as the two ascended in California politics; Newsom won the governorship, and Harris moved from attorney general to the Senate. She parlayed her roots in the Democratic stronghold of the Bay Area into alliances with East Coast figures such as Sen. Cory Booker (N.J.) and the late Delaware attorney general Beau Biden.
While some observers, including those on San Francisco’s society pages, have focused on Harris’s style, Morain, a former longtime reporter and editor for the Los Angeles Times and the Sacramento Bee, keeps the spotlight on her achievements. After becoming California’s attorney general in 2011, Harris earned a voice on issues that had national resonance: the death penalty, marriage equality, gun control, the mortgage crisis, for-profit colleges, reproductive rights and human trafficking.
Here, Morain is admiring of Harris and forgives her for the policy compromises that still attract criticism. In 2008, as San Francisco’s district attorney, Harris aimed to curb truancy with a stick: prosecuting parents whose children failed to attend school. Though she had built her public career as a death penalty opponent, in 2014 Attorney General Harris fended off a constitutional challenge to California’s death penalty. Morain explains that Kamala’s way meant she balanced her principles against her political ambitions. She assessed matters through the lens of the larger public issue. In the case of prosecuting parents for their children’s truancy, she sought to enforce a child’s right to an education. On the death penalty, she sided with the need for a balance of powers that ensures that courts settle constitutional questions. But her approach still riles detractors who brand Harris a public official too steeped in a law-and-order model of justice.
Morain relies on insights he gathered in his time covering California politics, bolstered by interviews with Harris’s colleagues through the years, giving the book the feel of an insider’s tale. But without access to the vice president-elect or her family, Morain cannot get to the inner Kamala Harris. Curiously, “Kamala’s Way” provides little on how racism and sexism shaped Harris’s path. In his effort to explain her character, Morain comes very close to trading in old, pernicious stereotypes about Black women, though perhaps unwittingly so. In his telling, Harris sometimes comes across as a Jezebel who callously exploited intimacies, even one with a married public figure; a Mammy who, though she had no children, readily mothered others; an angry Black woman wielding a sharp tongue and sharper wit; or an ambitiously talented professional who knew that to get ahead she had “to be twice as good as them to get half of what they have,” as Olivia Pope’s father told her in the television show “Scandal.”
While chronicling Harris’s climb, “Kamala’s Way” also has one eye trained on the present. It is, after all, a book that seeks to explain how Harris and America both got to this historic moment: the election of the first woman, first African American and first Asian American as vice president. It is likely that Harris’s most intimate revelations will remain with her, at least until she pens her own memoir after leaving office. In the meantime, this story about how she ran the gantlet of American politics will leave readers admiring Harris for how she has not only survived but thrived.
An American Life
By Dan Morain
Simon & Schuster.
257 pp. $28