In the heat of the first Presidential primary season debate in June 2019, Senator Kamala Harris cited her experiences as a child in California to scold former Vice President Joe Biden for his past position on busing to achieve racial integration. It seemed there was a serious breach in their relationship.
“It’s difficult to overstate the bad blood that flowed between the Harris and Biden campaigns immediately after that June 2019 debate,” Politico reported in July 2020.
Just a year later, however, Biden tapped Harris to be his running mate and today she stands at his side as the 49th Vice President of the United States.
What happened in the intervening months that convinced Biden to make her his surprise choice is at the heart of veteran California political journalist Dan Morain’s timely biography Kamala’s Way: An American Life, which chronicles her story with an informed point of view and a sense of balance.
His is the first serious book-length look post-election analysis by an independent journalist showing how she rose to become the only woman, African American, and person of Asian heritage to hold America’s number two job. He puts her background, rapid rise, electoral successes, and election as VP into fresh context.
Morain had covered Harris over his 27 years with the Los Angeles Times and as columnist and opinion page editor for the Sacramento Bee. They spoke by phone on occasion and he met her face to face briefly several times, including during the 2016 Iowa presidential primary.
However, last summer, when Morain sought an interview, she declined. That didn’t surprise Morain, who had only about two months to research and write the story of her life and career.
“It took a while for the Biden Harris people to get in touch with me, but, ultimately, then-Senator Harris’s press person called and politely said no,” Morain recalls. “I understood. She was running for Vice President. They were busy in September and October.”
Despite that Harris’s declination to participate, the book is full of interesting details that inform our understanding of a political powerhouse on the rise.
The Obama Connection
To understand Kamala Harris’s relationship with President Joe Biden, you really have to start with President Barack Obama. Harris had just been elected San Francisco District Attorney in 2003, when she met Obama at a San Francisco fundraiser during his campaign for the U.S Senate from Illinois. A year later in September 2004, she hosted another Bay Area fundraiser for Obama as he moved toward election to the Senate.
When Obama announced his then long-shot run for president against Hillary Clinton, Harris traveled to Springfield, Illinois on a frigid February day in 2007 for the launch of his campaign for the White House, and later trod through the snow of Iowa to boost his primary run. She was there again in Chicago on a winter night in 2008 to cheer his victory.
Although Mrs. Clinton had a big lead, especially in California, Harris endorsed her opponent, which was politically risky at the time. Obama held his first California campaign rally in March 2008, drawing about 12,000 outside Oakland City Hall, the same place Senator Harris announced her own run for president in 2019.
After he became president, Obama returned the favor helping Harris, appearing in San Francisco to raise money to retire the campaign debt from her run for DA, appearing again when she ran for California Attorney General in 2010, and then for the U.S. Senate in 2016.
“Obama came out and did a fundraiser for her in the, wealthy town of Atherton, on San Francisco peninsula,” during her close race for Attorney General, “writes Morain. “And then he made an appearance down in L.A. on her behalf, and it elevated her candidacy, brought more attention to it.”
“I believe she was the only state official who he forthrightly endorsed in that way,” Morain adds.
Harris and Biden Bonded Over Beau
Then-Vice President Joe Biden made an early and important impact on the career of Kamala Harris at a time when she was fighting for the Democratic party endorsement in her 2016 run for the U.S. Senate. She was running against Loretta Sanchez, another Democrat (under the California system the top two have a runoff).
Biden came to her defense during “an appearance before key California Democrats (at the state party convention in San Jose) unsure whether to support her,” recalled Morain. “Biden gave a speech on her behalf that helped secure her endorsement by the [Democrats]. He spoke warmly of Kamala Harris.”
Biden had bonded with Harris thanks to her shared relationship with his son Beau, who had tragically died only a year earlier from cancer. As AG, Harris had worked closely with Beau Biden, then Delaware AG, on litigation to force banks to pay millions for their role in the 2008 mortgage crisis, winning a large increase in the payout. They had become friends.
“With Biden giving his blessing to Harris, the California Democratic Party endorsed her. President Obama also endorsed Harris. Sanchez blundered by seeking to diminish Obamas endorsement, suggesting in an interview with Spanish language television outlet that he endorsed Harris because they are both Black. No Democratic politician was or is more popular in California than Obama. But her comment was in keeping with her gaffe-prone campaign, to Harris’s good fortune.
When Biden Picked Harris to Be His VP
Besides her dig at Biden during the first debate over bussing, Harris also faced off with him in South Carolina, when it was a make-or-break primary for both.
When Biden began considering VP candidates, Harris became more and more attractive despite their baggage. “Joe Biden’s been around,” Morain says. “He knows things are said in campaigns that you shouldn’t take personally. It’s only business. He understood what was going on. She was running to win.”
“Biden had said he was going to pick a woman for vice president, so that counts her in,” says Morain. “Then George Floyd dies under the cop’s knee and it becomes more imperative that he pick a woman of color. Well, there just aren’t that many women of color who have run for president.”
On August 11, 2020, Biden announced that Harris would be the third woman to run for VP.
Kamala and Trump Once Crossed Paths—and Then Diverged
By the time she joined with Joe Biden in 2020, Harris wan an outspoken opponent of almost all Donald Trump stood for, but over the years they did cross paths. They first “almost met” in 1994 when Harris was still an Alameda County Assistant District Attorney and, more notably, the girlfriend of Willie Brown, then a powerful figure in California politics.
Brown took Harris along on a trip to the East Coast, including a speaking engagement in Boston.
“While they’re on this East coast trip, Donald Trump reaches out to Willie Brown,” Morain writes. “Donald Trump wanted ownership interest in the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, famous for being the location of Robert Kennedy’s assassination. He wanted to develop it as a Trump property. So, he calls Willie Brown on this trip and, and Willie Brown said, ‘Well, you know I’m in Boston, And so Trump set it up. He sent his jet up to Boston and flew down to New York. Kamala Harris was part of that entourage that flew on Donald Trump’s plane in 1994.”
The Time Kamala Harris Didn’t Go After Donald Trump
Trump showed up on Harris’s radar again in 2011, when he donated $5,000 to her Attorney General campaign fund. His daughter Ivanka gave her $2,000 in 2013. Harris later donated money from Trump to charities. But that did not stop some Republicans from insinuating that Trump’s donations played a role when Harris decided not to have California join with New York in a lawsuit against Trump University for defrauding students.
“Trump University’s troubles might explain the Donald’s donation to Kamala Harris,” a Mercury News headline declared in a 2016 news commentary.
The story compared Harris to Pam Bondi, the Florida AG whose campaign affiliate got a $25,000 donation from Trump in 2013. Her office later declined to join with New York in suing Trump.
In a fall 2016 runoff with Harris for the U.S. Senate seat, Loretta Sanchez jumped on that accusation. She charged there was plenty of evidence for Harris to join the New York suit. “Again, we see that Attorney General Kamala Harris fails to protect the people of California,” Sanchez said in a statement.
“Harris has never publicly discussed the case,” Morain writes. “But the allegation that Harris decided against filing a suit in exchange for $6,000 in campaign donations strained credulity. Between 2002, when she started running for office, and 2016, she raised $32 million for her campaigns. An ambitious politician–a prosecutor no less–who aspired to higher office, would not have taken a dive on such a case.”
That didn’t stop a commentary from appearing in the San Diego Union Tribune when she ran for president in January 2019 predicting her Trump U decision would be one of the places “Harris is most vulnerable to political attacks” (the other being her record on criminal reform).
“It would have been politically expedient for her to [sue Trump U in 2016], but she didn’t, she declined,” Morain says. “The reason, as it was explained to me, is that there weren’t very many victims in California, the victims weren’t seriously hurt, or made destitute, because of their, payments to [Trump]. It was limited resources. The state AG’s office was going after Corinthian colleges, in Orange County, that tens of thousands of people attended. So, it was a question of resources.” (A successful class-action suit later benefited cheated California students.)
Brown: The Influence She Works to Forget
Harris’s 2019 autobiography, The Truths We Hold: An American Journey, offered up career highlights, her feelings about race and politics and her personal philosophy, but made no mention of Willie Brown, once her mentors but later “an albatross” to her.
When they met in the mid-1990s Harris was still an Assistant District Attorney, while Brown had served for more than a dozen years in the California legislature, where he was the powerful Speaker of the Assembly. He called himself the “Ayatollah of the Assembly.”
In March 1994, the Brown-Harris relationship became public when San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen called her “the Speaker’s new steady.”
At the time Harris was 29 and Brown was 60. “The relationship was unbalanced,” writes Morain. “He was 30 years her senior. But they shared the common traits of drive and intelligence, and they both rose from little to attain a great deal.”
Brown was married and had three mostly grown children, but had long before separated from his wife.
“Over the course of the relationship,” Morain reports, “Brown gave Harris a BMW, and she travel with him to Paris, attended the Academy Awards with him.”
More importantly, Brown was accused of using his clout to place Harris on state boards where she was well compensated. First was the Unemployment Insurance Appeals Board (salary $97,088 a year), and at the end of 1994. Harris would lose that job, so shortly before he was replaced as Speaker, Brown appointed Harris to the California Medical Assistance Commission ($72,000 a year).
Harris took a leave from her job as an Assistant D.A. to serve on the boards, but Morain believes she never liked the publicity that came from her association with Brown. “For Harris, who is intensely private,” he writes, “the idea that her personal life placed played out in Caen’s column must have pained her.”
When the end came, even that was an exclusive in Caen’s column. A day after Christmas 1995, he reported “It’s all over…Brown let word get around over the weekend that his long affair with Kamala Harris…has ended.”
It might be over but the stigma remained attached to Harris long after. When she ran for San Francisco District Attorney in 2003, both of her opponents recalled the affair. “Harris, a candidate who promised reforms and a unit that would focus on public corruption, made a point of distancing herself from Brown, telling SF Weekly hat her relationship with him, now eight years in the past, was her “albatross.”
Harris also told the SF Weekly that she would “refuse to design my campaign around criticizing Willie Brown for the sake of appearing to be independent when I have no doubt that I am independent of him—and that he would probably right now express some fright about the fact that he cannot control me. His career is over; I will be alive and kicking for the next 40 years. I do not owe him a thing.”
Just before her selection, Brown wrote an opinion piece in the San Francisco Chronicle urging Harris to decline the VP job, calling it a “dead end” and “not the job she should go for.” (He urged her to go for Attorney General instead.)
Then when Harris was elected VP, Brown surfaced with a 136-word op-ed in the San Francisco Chronicle that confirmed their past (“Yes, we dated. It was more than 20 years ago.”), but positioned her as just one of many people he’s mentored: “I have also helped the careers of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Gov. Gavin Newsom, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, and a host of other politicians.”
For the Love of Maya
Her husband, Second Gentleman Douglas C. Emhoff, has become an important influence on Harris, but if there is a constant through her life, it has been her connection to her sister Maya, a lawyer and policy expert who is two years younger. Maya remains an important personal and political adviser to Harris, not to mention a best friend. “Aides to Harris know never to get between her sister and her,” Morain writes. “If Kamala Harris has to choose, she ‘ll always choose Maya.”
“During campaigns,” Morain adds, “Kamala and Maya would talk several times a day. Often, a call with Maya was the first of the day and the last at night. Their sense of humor is similar and the sound of their laugh is all but identical. They’re brilliant, detail oriented, tough, and competitive, sometimes with each other in the ways big and little sisters can be.”
Maya became executive director of the ACLU of Northern California and helped organized campaigns opposing California’s Prop 8, which would have banned gay marriage. The right of everyone to marry whom they choose has also been a passionate position for Harris, who even officiated at some of the first same sex marriages. Later, Maya oversaw millions in philanthropy by the Ford Foundation, and was an advisor to Hillary Clinton in her 2016 presidential race, which in an upset, Trump won.
The tight-knit Harris family are “exceptionally high achievers,” Morain writes. That includes Maya’s daughter Meena, author of a popular children’s book Kamala and Maya’s Big Idea and founder of the Phenomenal Woman Action Campaign, which brings awareness to social causes.
Family legend has it that Meena led Maya to her husband, Tony West, whom she married in 1998. Like Maya, West was a law student, and also president of the Stanford Law Review.
West worked on Presidential campaigns dating back to 1976, when he supported Jimmy Carter’s successful run. He ran for the California Senate in 2000 with Maya has his campaign treasurer, but lost.
West was a reason for Harris’s early support for Barack Obama for president at a time when Hillary Clinton was a much more popular choice among Democrats. “In 2004,” Morain writes, “[West] was enthralled by Barack Obama’s speech at the Democratic National Convention and, along with his sister-in-law [Kamala], worked on Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign. West went on to head the civil division the Obama administration’s Justice Department and rose to become associate Attorney General, the third highest ranking Justice Department official.”
More recently, West worked for ride-share company Uber, which put him at odds politically with Harris. “He has been General Counsel for Uber,” Morain writes. “In that role, he has battled organized labor’s efforts to force Uber and similar gig economy companies to hire workers as full employees, rather than independent contractors. Kamala Harris took the side of labor, not Uber.”
The Second Gentleman Is First in Kamala’s Life
When they met on a blind date fix-up in 2013, Emhoff had a busy international entertainment law practice in Los Angeles handling mostly corporate and entertainment clients.
“As a lawyer,” Morain writes, “Emhoff defended clients fending off allegations of breaches of consumer privacy, an ad firm in a suit by Taco Bell over the Use of chihuahua in an ad campaign, movie studio in pay dispute with workers, and Merck in class action lawsuits over a drug that allegedly made users’ thighs brittle.”
The couple were brought together by Hollywood producer Reginald Hudlin (House Party, Django Unchained, Boomerang) and his wife Chrisette. The two attorneys met and began dating but kept it quiet. “The relationship blossomed under the radar,” Morain writes. “Even some of Emhoff’s good friends were taken by surprise.”
One friend learned they were engaged when he saw Emhoff wearing a ring while waiting in line to grab a Chinese lunch in Century City. “Emhoff showed off the engagement ring he had been given by his fiancée,” Morain writes. “He had proposed to her, but the couple decided to both wear rings. But the engagement was big news and it came out of nowhere.”
Emhoff walked away from a big paycheck to support his wife. “He was managing partner of the L.A. office of DLA Piper, which is a huge international law firm,” Morain writes. “And Piper has a lobby arm in DC, so that clearly would have created some conflict, the last thing the Biden administration needed. So, he resigned from the firm. That no doubt cost the family a lot of money, because he was making a lot of money. Instead now he is going to teach and I’m sure his students will be better for it.”
Emhoff’s two children by his first wife, Cole and Ella (named after jazz greats John Coltrane and Ella Fitzgerald), quickly bonded with Harris, who never had her own children. They call her “Momala.”
Kamala and Kimberly Guilfoyle Have Long-Simmering Bad Blood
She is known for appearances on Fox News and tubthumping for Trump’s 2020 campaign, but Kimberly Guilfoyle is better known these days as Donald Trump Jr.’s girlfriend.
Her active, vocal, partisan role on behalf of Trump in the 2020 race was certainly heartfelt when it came to Harris. According to Morain, Guilfoyle and Harris have a long history of animosity and dislike for each other, dating back to when both were Assistant District Attorneys in San Francisco.
The bad feelings between them went public in 2011, when Gilfoyle was the wife of then-mayoral candidate Gavin Newsom, and on a leave from the DA’s office for the campaign. Harris was in a tight race for District Attorney of San Francisco. Guilfoyle took a shot at Harris in an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle “[claiming] that Harris had tried to block her return to the (DA’s) office in 2000,” Morain writes.
“Her ploy was to suggest Harris had tried to impede the progress of a successful law and order prosecutor,” Morain writes. “Harris succeeded in brushing off Guilfoyle’s claim. To the contrary, Harris said, she wanted to help Guilfoyle. In the end, Guilfoyle couldn’t touch her, and Harris found a smart way across the finish line.”
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