Kamala’s Way, An American Life by Dan Morain
In December 2019, running out of funds and sliding in the polls, Senator Kamala Harris made the wrenching decision to end her campaign for president of the United States. After breaking racial and gender barriers in her rise from state to national politics, defeat was a new experience. It was also short-lived: Soon, Harris broke new barriers as America’s first female vice president, its first Black vice president and its first of Indian descent. In this political biography, Sacramento Bee journalist Dan Morain relates Harris’s meteoric rise and major accomplishments.
- Kamala Harris began her career as a prosecutor for Alameda County, California.
- Harris first held elective office as district attorney for San Francisco.
- She became California’s attorney general in 2011.
- Harris touted a range of achievements in her bid for re-election as attorney general in 2014.
- Soon after her re-election, Harris declared her candidacy for the US Senate.
- In 2018, Harris decided to run for president. She ended her campaign in December 2019.
- In 2020, Joe Biden chose Harris to be his running mate.
Kamala’s Way Book Summary
Kamala Harris began her career as a prosecutor for Alameda County, California.
Kamala Devi Harris was born in 1964 in Oakland, California, to immigrant parents. Dr. Shyamala Gopalan was a cancer researcher from India,and Donald Jasper Harris was a Jamaican economist.
Harris attended historically Black Howard University, earning a degree in political science and economics in 1986.A year later, she entered the UC Hastings College of the Law. In 1990, after passing California’s arduous state bar exam on her second attempt, Harris took a position as a rookie prosecutor in the Alameda County district attorney’s office. She has said that she became a prosecutor to advocate for the most vulnerable and voiceless members of society.
“Harris was energetic, willing to take tough cases, laser-focused, driven to be successful.”
Harris entered California politics in 1994. She had become romantically involved with state assembly speaker Willie Lewis Brown Jr., a powerful figure in California politics. Brown offered her an appointment to the state board that dealt with jobless benefits. She subsequently joined the part-time board that supervised California’s Medi-Cal contracts.Harris’s relationship with Brown ended shortly after his successful 1995 campaign for mayor of San Francisco. She returned to the Alameda County district attorney’s office.
In 1998, Harris became a supervisor in the office of San Francisco district attorney Terence Hallinan. She soon moved up to the role of chief assistant in charge of the career criminal division. She left the district attorney’s office after missing out on a promotion to become Hallinan’s second-in-command. She briefly ran the Family and Children’s Services section of the city attorney’s office.
Harris first held elective office as district attorney for San Francisco.
In 2002, Harris decided to run against Hallinan for district attorney. Hallinan was vulnerable: His relationship with the city’s police force had soured, he was publicly squabbling with Mayor Brown and the press had turned hostile.
“San Franciscans play a hard brand of brawling politics. Politicians who make it in San Francisco know how to win.”
Running under the slogan “Today’s Voice for Justice,” Harris promised to bolster the prosecution of drug cases, improve conviction rates, repair the district attorney’s relationship with the police, and intensify the office’s focus on domestic violence and the human trafficking of children. She won the race by a 56% to 44% margin, and took office in 2004.
During her campaign, Harris had promised to end California’s use of the death penalty. A few months into her tenure, this stance sparked a crisis with the police force. On the evening of April 10, 2004, a suspected gang member opened fire on officer Isaac Espinoza with an AK-47, killing him. In California, murdering a cop is a capital offense, but Harris refused to seek the death penalty, further straining her office’s relations with the police. Bay Area officers were furious – they turned their backs on Harris when she walked through the Hall of Justice. The city’s police chief denounced the decision, and politicians from both parties attacked her. In 2007, a jury found the assailant guilty of murder, and the court sentenced him to life in prison without parole.
During her time as district attorney, one of Harris’s signature initiatives was a crime prevention program at the Sunnydale housing project, where street gangs held sway. She established a policy of dismissing charges against first-time nonviolent offenders if they joined a job-training program.
Harris’s proactive approach included a focus on truancy in elementary schools. When she later ran for California attorney general, she promoted a program that threatened sanctions – including fines and jail time – against parents whose children regularly missed school.
She became California’s attorney general in 2011.
Only 11 months into her second term as San Francisco district attorney, Harris announced her candidacy for state attorney general. Such rapid upward movement became one of her favorite campaign strategies: She would make an early, splashy announcement in an effort to thin the field of likely primary opponents.
Harris faced formidable obstacles. The police unions, which historically endorsed Democrats, refused to back her. But the reformist police chief of Los Angeles, William Bratton, endorsed her.During the primary, she dealt with the death of her mother, who had been undergoing chemotherapy.
In the general election, Harris faced Republican Steve Cooley. She ran on a platform that included support for criminal-justice reform and marriage equality, while Cooley pledged to be tough on crime,to uphold the death penaltyand to defend traditional marriage. Most of the state’s newspapers endorsed Cooley.
“Kamala Harris misses little and forgets even less. ”
On November 2, 2010, Harris outperformed Cooley in the Bay Area and Los Angeles County, and was elected Attorney General, becoming for the first time, but not the last, the first woman, Black person, and person of Indian descent to assume a crucial public office.
As Attorney General, Harris took bold stands against for-profit colleges, child human trafficking and the predatory lending practices that led to California’s foreclosure crisis. However, she did not take a stand on 2012’s Proposition 36 ballot initiative, which aimed to temper California’s harsh “three strikes” law. This law had resulted in instances in which shoplifting offenses led to 25-years-to-life sentences. California was struggling with a prison system so overcrowded that the US Supreme Court said it violated constitutional provisions against cruel and unusual punishment.
Harris argued that having her deputies take a stand on ballot initiatives could complicate their duties since they wrote the initiative summaries that appeared on ballots and might have to defend such measures during trials. She may have been making a political calculation: If someone got out of prison because of the new law and committed a brutal crime, a future opponent could have used that to attack her during a campaign.
Harris touted a range of achievements in her bid for re-election as attorney general in 2014.
During her first term, Harris played a role in negotiating a $20 billion settlement with major lenders for California homeowners who were suffering during the mortgage and foreclosure crisis. She sued polluting businesses, enforced privacy laws that affected the state’s thriving technology industry, expanded access to police records about the deaths of people in custody, and established a solicitor general’s unit to argue cases before state and federal supreme courts.
“Harris took positions when she needed to and when those stands might help her politically.”
Between 2004 and 2013, California became the stage for the fight for marriage equality. Harris had little involvement in the early part of the struggle, but as attorney general she refused to defend the Proposition 8 ballot initiative, which arose after the state supreme court ruled in May of 2008 that marriage equality is a basic human right. In response, religious conservatives launched Prop 8 to overturn the court’s decision. It passed in November. Harris advocated for having it struck down, which the court did in June 2013.
In August 2014, Harris married entertainment lawyer Douglas C. Emhoff.
Soon after her re-election, Harris declared her candidacy for the US Senate.
Harris began her second term as attorney general in January 2015. Less than two weeks later, she announced that she was running for the seat of retiring US Senator Barbara Boxer.
Harris won the Senate race easily, but her victory coincided with Donald Trump’s shocking presidential win over Hillary Clinton. When she addressed her victory party that night, Harris vowed to fight the Trump agenda, promising to champion immigrant rights, women’s health care and reproductive rights, civil rights, the Black Lives Matter movement and efforts to combat climate change.
In Washington, DC, she gained assignments to four prominent Senate committees: the Select Committee on Intelligence; the Environment and Public Works Committee, which afforded her the opportunity to deal with issues important to California, such as water use and forest management; the Budget Committee, where she could have an impact on the Affordable Care Act; and the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, which would heighten her national profile.
When Harris’s committee interviewed Gen. John F. Kelly, Trump’s nominee for Homeland Security secretary, she grilled him on Trump’s intention to deport the Dreamers – illegal immigrants who had been brought to the United States by their parents when they were children – whom Barack Obama had protected with the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. She also got the Republican congressman from Kansas, Mike Pompeo, nominee for CIA director, to agree that he would accept scientific conclusions when overseeing the CIA’s study of how climate change affects global conflicts. Under her questioning, he also agreed to equal protection for LGBTQ and Muslim-American employees of the agency.
“Her ability to come up with pithy sound bites, viral videos and eye-catching headlines elevated her…to becoming a star.”
In the ensuing months, Harris confronted various Trump administration officials. She flustered Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh.
In 2018, Harris decided to run for president. She ended her campaign in December 2019.
Even before she announced her candidacy for the presidency, it was clear to many that she was considering that step. Harris campaigned on behalf of Senate and House candidates running in the midterm elections, making stops in important primary states, including Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada. She spoke out in support of the Affordable Care Act and a reduction in middle-class taxes.
In July 2018, Harris met with her staff, advisers and family members to decide if she was going to run. The team believed her history as a prosecutor, her positions supporting immigrants and her connections to fundraising in the Bay Area would give her an advantage. Her game plan was to perform well in Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada, win South Carolina and pick up the highest number of delegates in her home state.
“Her star was ascending, and she was setting out to win the biggest race of all.”
The field included other strong female candidates, including senators Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar. Warren and fellow senator Bernie Sanders dominated the left flank, and South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg, a millennial, appealed to those seeking new, younger faces. Harris’s jump in the polls faded as Biden voters remained loyal to him.
On the eve of the Iowa caucuses, running low on cash, Harris pulled out of the race.
In 2020, Joe Biden chose Harris to be his running mate.
Joe Biden announced during a March 15, 2020, debate that he would pick a woman as his running mate. Influential friends of Harris lobbied for her, scheduling a July 31 Zoom call with the Biden campaign. On the call, California lieutenant governor Eleni Kounalakis and the mayors of San Francisco, Oakland, Long Beach and Stockton each spent two minutes presenting a case for Harris as vice presidential nominee.Other events during those months, including the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor at the hands of police, influenced Biden’s choice.
“She would…bring excitement and maybe even some dance moves to a ticket led by a man who would be the oldest person ever elected president.”
Another major influence was her friendship with Biden’s late son Beau, who had held her in high regard before his death in 2015 due to brain cancer. He’d become friends with Harris when he was attorney general of Delaware and had worked with her on the mortgage crisis legislation in 2011.
On August 11, via Zoom, Joe Biden invited Kamala Harris to join his presidential team with the words “Are you ready to go to work?”
About the Author
Journalist Dan Morain covered California politics for the Los Angeles Times and The Sacramento Bee.