For Harris, memories of a warrior mother guide her campaign
NEW YORK (AP) — Speaking from the Senate floor for the first time, Kamala Harris expressed gratitude for a woman on whose shoulders she said she stood. Penning her autobiography, she interspersed the well-worn details of her resume with an extended ode to the one she calls “the reason for everything.” And taking the stage to announce her presidential candidacy, she framed it as a race grounded in the compassion and values of the person she credits for her fighting spirit.
Though a decade has passed since Harris’ mother died, she remains a force in her daughter’s life and her White House bid. Repeatedly on the campaign trail, those who gather are hearing mention of the diminutive Indian immigrant the candidate calls her single greatest influence, who grounded her in the civil rights movement and injected in her a duty not to complain but to act.
“She’s always told the same story,” says friend Mimi Silbert. “Kamala had one important role model, and it was her mother.”
Appearing in New York recently, Harris said there were two reasons she was running for president. The first, she said, was a sense of duty to restore truth in justice in the country at an inflection point in history. The second: a mother who responded to gripes with a challenge.
“She’d say, ‘Well, what are you going to do about it?’” Harris told the crowd. “So I decided to run for president of the United States.”
Harris’ parents met as doctoral students at the University of California, Berkeley at the dawn of the 1960s. Her father, a Jamaican named Donald Harris, studied economics. Her mother — Shyamala Gopalan — studied nutrition and endocrinology.
For two freethinking young people drawn to activism, they landed on campus as protests exploded around civil rights, the Vietnam War and voting rights. Their paths crossed in those movements, and they fell in love and married.
Gopalan Harris defied generations of tradition by not returning to India after getting her doctorate, tossing aside expectations of an arranged marriage. She gave birth to Kamala and then Maya two years later. And even with young children, Harris’ parents continued their advocacy.
In her autobiography, “The Truths We Hold,” she writes of her parents being sprayed with police hoses, confronted by Hells Angels and once, with the future senator in a stroller, forced to run to safety when violence broke out.
A few years into the marriage, Harris’ parents divorced. The mother’s influence on her girls grew even greater, and friends of Harris say they see it reflected throughout her life.
Andrea Dew Steele remembers it being apparent from the moment they sat down to craft the very first flyer for Harris’ first campaign for public office.
“She always talked about her mother,” Dew Steele says. “When she was alive she was a force, and since she’s passed away she’s still a force.”
Joe Gray, who was Gopalan Harris’ boss at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, where she was a cancer researcher, struggles to describe how a woman who was just 5-foot-1 managed to fill a room with her commanding presence. He’s struck by how much Harris reminds him of her.
“I just get the TV persona, but a lot of Shyamala’s directness and sense of social justice, those seem to come through,” he says. “I sense the same spirit.”
Lateefah Simon sensed it, too. Harris hired her to join the San Francisco DA’s office. At events, Simon would watch Gopalan Harris, always in the front row, always beaming with pride. She saw how both mother and daughter were meticulous about tiny details, how they were hard workers but maintained a sense of joy, how their laughs would echo.
One time, Simon says Gopalan Harris sent her away from a fundraiser because she was wearing tennis shoes, gently reminding her, “We always show up excellent.” Years later, she heard echoes of the same message when Harris offered some words of advice for her friend: “Girl, clean your glasses.”
“It’s her saying, ‘I believe in you and I want people to see what I see in you,’” Simon says.
The influence of Harris’ mother far outweighed that of her father. He and her mother separated when she was 5 and, though the senator trumpeted her father as a superhero in her children’s book, there are signs of iciness in their relationship. The senator says they have “off and on” contact and that she doesn’t know if he’ll have a role in her campaign.
The singularity of her mother’s role in her life made her death even harder for Harris. The senator says she still thinks of her constantly.
“It can still get me choked up,” she said in an interview. “It doesn’t matter how many years have passed.”
Harris pictures the pride her mother wore as she stood beside her when she was sworn in as district attorney in San Francisco. She remembers worrying about staying composed as she uttered her mother’s name in her inaugural address as California attorney general. She thinks of her mother asking a hospice nurse if her daughters would be OK as cancer drew her final day closer.
“There is no title or honor on earth I’ll treasure more than to say I am Shyamala Gopalan Harris’ daughter,” she wrote. “That is the truth I hold dearest of all.”
Sedensky can be reached at email@example.com and https://twitter.com/sedensky