The author of a new biography on Kamala Harris spoke to KCM about our new Vice President
In Kamala’s Way, Dan Morain charts the Vice President’s ascent through the ranks of California politics to her arrival on the national stage.
Morain drills down on how California and its changing political landscape shaped Harris, from her parents’ early activism in the Bay Area to her fierce campaign to become California’s top cop.
“Really, it’s a California story,” Morain told KCM. “I don’t think Kamala Harris could have risen in any other state other than California.”
In many ways, Morain was the perfect person to write this book. He’s spent nearly 30 years covering politics for the Los Angeles Times and the Sacramento Bee, giving him a front row seat to Harris’ political rise.
He was there at the beginning, when as a young deputy district attorney in Alameda County she made headlines for her relationship with the then-Speaker of the Assembly Willie Brown. He watched her as she stumped for President Barack Obama in Des Moines and up and down her home state. He interviewed her in 2010 during her campaign for attorney general as the editor of the Bee’s editorial board. (The board opted to endorse her Republican opponent.) And he was on the sidelines when in 2015 she pivoted, setting her sights on a Senate seat.
But even with his long political knowledge, Morain told KCM he learned plenty about the nation’s first female, first Black American and first Asian-American to become vice president.
“She becomes more fascinating the more you know about her,” he said.
KCM spoke to Morain about Harris’ early political career, her record as a “progressive prosecutor” and what he expects from Harris as VP.
KCM: Can you talk about some of your early encounters with Kamala Harris?
Dan Morain: The first time I wrote about her was 1994, when Willie Brown, who was speaker of the California assembly, appointed her to a state position. She had been a deputy district attorney in Alameda County.
I didn’t really meet her though until 2007 during Barack Obama’s presidential campaign. She was one of his main surrogates in Northern California, which is where I had been based for most of my career. So I met her then, I saw her in Des Moines tramping through the snow in December and January in the Iowa caucuses. And then I really started paying attention to her in 2010 when she ran for California attorney general.
Did you see in her, early on, as someone who’d rise to the national stage?
Clearly Kamala Harris was a politician on the ascent. She was very much part of the new Democratic party in California, fresh-faced and a rising star. But separate from what political reporters could see, the Republican party saw her as a rising star. They were quite concerned that she was going to win the attorney general’s race in California.
The initials for attorney general are A.G., which the joke is, stands for aspiring governor. So the Republican party nationally put a bunch of money toward trying to defeat her and elect the Republican. It didn’t work, but at the time they told me, the top Republican leaders, that they wanted to stop her before she rose.
Can you tell me a bit about how this book all came together?
I retired in March of 2020, but was freelancing. I did a piece for the Washington Post about Kamala Harris which was timed to post with the announcement that she would be running as vice president. Anyway, the editor there, Michael Duffy, suggested that I do a book. I wasn’t particularly interested, but then when he said it again a few weeks later he reached out to a friend he has at Simon & Schuster on my behalf.
It was really quite sudden, and I was honored to be asked to work on it.
What were some of the things you learned about Kamala Harris in your reporting that surprised you?
You see a politician and their public persona. Kamala Harris would come into the editorial board of the Sacramento Bee and was someone who could be very tough in her answering of questions. The public certainly saw that during the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation hearings or her questioning of President Trump’s Attorney General Jeff Sessions. She could also be incredibly charming if you ever saw her on Oprah or The View.
What I was unaware of was really her empathetic side. I suppose it’s not surprising when you think about it, but there were numerous instances where she went out of her way to perform small acts of kindness. The one that was most striking was when she was district attorney of San Francisco. One of her law school classmates called her and told her that one of her supporters — a huge figure in San Francisco politics and an active supporter — was near death. He suggested to Kamala Harris that it’d be nice if she wrote this woman a note. And rather than do that, she walked into the woman’s room and just sat there for 20 minutes holding her hand. That was something that was done without cameras.
She does these sorts of things that are random but really quite thoughtful and shows an empathetic side, and it’s perhaps something she shares with President Biden.
Can you talk about what it was like to write this without being able to interview Kamala Harris?
As soon as Simon & Schuster agreed to hire me to work on this project, I reached out to the campaign and asked for some time. This was September, October. She was busy running for the second highest office in the world, so she had other things to do. Her family didn’t help. I reached out to talk to her sister, who is her closest friend without a doubt. And I certainly wanted to talk to her husband, but none of them had the time or maybe not even the inclination. That’s unfortunate, but it’s not the first time somebody has plunged into doing a biography and done it without the help of the subject.
That said, I know her and certainly know people around her who were very helpful. A reporter is only as good as her or his sources, and having worked in California I do know a few people in the world of politics who were helpful.
Was the intention always to focus so much of the book on Kamala’s time in the world of California politics?
Really, it’s a California story. I don’t think Kamala Harris could have risen in any other state other than California. Think about her parents, especially her mother who was 19 years old in India. She had graduated from a four-year college there but her passion was to become a scientist, so she decided in a very gutsy way to apply to UC Berkeley. She was accepted, and so this 19-year-old came halfway across the world knowing nobody, got her Ph.D. and became a breast cancer researcher of some acclaim.
And then her father comes from Jamaica similarly in pursuit of higher education. He became the first Black tenured professor in the economics department at Stanford. So these are really high achieving parents, but they did it in California. I can’t imagine where else they could have done that.
Kamala grew up in the Bay Area in the late 1960s, early 1970s. It was an incredible time in California — the anti-war movement, the Civil rights movement — it all had its genesis in that part of the country and that’s where she was.
And then her rise in politics. I don’t know, maybe she could have risen in Texas — I don’t think so. This is a California story, so California really becomes a character in the book.
Which moments in her political career in California do you think have shaped her the most?
When I sort of try to boil down this book into one word, it’s “transition.” That’s the word I keep thinking about. When she was running for San Francisco district attorney, she had to knock off an incumbent whose name everybody in San Francisco knew. She had to get past another well-known prosecutor who had run before. And nobody knew who Kamala Harris was, she had virtually no name recognition.
She went to the San Francisco Public Library and got photos of each of the prior district attorneys and put them on a brochure with her on it too. And as you can well imagine, each of the district attorneys before her were white men and she obviously is not. The same when she ran for California attorney general. Everyone before her had been a white man, she’s not. So it’s an extraordinary time of transition, and that’s one way that I think about her.
Looking ahead, what kind of role do you think she’ll play as vice president, and what issues do you think she’ll take on?
She’s gonna do what Joe Biden asks her to do. I think we can assume that she’s going to want to run for president when the time comes, and her success depends on his success.
That said, immigration is a huge issue in California. When she was elected to the United States Senate in 2016, she made clear that immigration was top of her mind. I think she’ll do whatever she can do to help policy as it relates to creating a more fair immigration system. This has got to be right at the top of their to-do list.
Nobody would pick Kamala Harris to sit in the corner like some potted plant. This is a bold woman. So she’s going to be engaged. I will just be shocked if we see daylight between President Biden and Vice President Harris on any significant political or policy issue.
You write that a New York Times op-ed questioning her record as a “progressive prosecutor” really hurt her during her presidential campaign. How do you view her record on policing?
The author of that op-ed Lara Bazelon is a great writer and a great thinker. She is to the left of Kamala Harris on the criminal justice system. And so her view, one held by many others on the left in the criminal justice field, was that Kamala Harris could have done a lot more as district attorney and California AG to make the system fairer to defendants — many of whom are people of color. And she didn’t.
So it’s true she could have done more. She could have taken a stand against the death penalty and she didn’t. She could have taken a stand against the three-strikes sentencing law. She did not do that. She could have taken a stand related to police officers who were involved in shootings. She didn’t.
That said, she spent a lot of time as a prosecutor. She sent people who committed bad acts to prison, for a long time. People on the right described her as some radical socialist leftie. That’s crazy — she’s not. People on the left describe her as “COPala” which is silly too. She has a vision, she wants the system to be fairer, I’m sure. She’s not going to go as far as some people on the left want her to.
Do you know if she’s read the book yet?
I do not know. If she has, I hope she views it as a fair account. I didn’t want to write a puff piece and obviously I didn’t want to write a hatchet job. I wanted to be as fair and as accurate as I possibly could be given the constraints. There certainly were things I would have liked to have asked her.
What kinds of things would you have asked her?
There are historical questions I would have asked her. I wonder what she thought as a young deputy district attorney in 1991 during the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings. I would have loved to know what she thought about those. Obviously Joe Biden was chair of the judiciary committee at the time, and took no small amount of criticism for his handling of the Thomas confirmation hearings. I would have loved to have asked her about that. I am curious to know more about her relationship with her father. She doesn’t talk about him in the way she talks about her mom.
There are other personal details that I want to know. What her favorite books are, that sort of thing. I’m sure somebody is going to ask one day. This is the first biography of Kamala Harris, it will not be the last. Great historians will be looking at her record for decades to come.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Written and reported by Rachel Uda.