One of the most important forces in Kamala Harris’ political career is absent from her campaign for vice president: her mother. Speaking to the plenary session of the United States Senate for the first time, Kamala Harris expressed her gratitude to a woman on whose shoulders she once stood. In her autobiography, Harris mixed well-known details from her background with an extensive ode to whom she called “the reason for everything.” Taking to the stage to announce her Democratic presidential bid, she presented it as centered on the compassion and values of the person she gives credit to for her fighting spirit.
Although it has been more than a decade since Shyamala Gopalan passed away, she remains a force in her daughter’s life as she assumes a historic position in the Democratic race alongside presidential candidate Joe Biden. Those who know the senator from California hope her campaign for vice president will include repeated mentions of the woman she calls her greatest influence.
“She has always told the same story,” said her friend Mimi Silbert. “Kamala had an important role model and it was her mother.”
On Wednesday, in her first appearance as Biden’s running mate, Harris invoked the memory of her mother, saying she always responded to complaints with a challenge. “She used to tell us: ‘don’t sit down to complain about things. Do something ‘So I did something, ”Harris said.
Making clear the sense of loss despite the optimism of the greatest moment of her career, Harris tweeted Thursday: “I really want her to be with us this week.”
Harris’s parents met as doctoral students at the University of California at Berkeley in the 1960s. His father, a Jamaican named Donald Harris, was studying economics. His mother – Shyamala Gopalan – studied nutrition and endocrinology.
The two free-minded and activist young men were on campus when protests broke out over civil rights, the Vietnam War and voting rights. Their paths crossed in those movements, they fell in love and got married.
Gopalan Harris defied a tradition of generations by not returning to India after receiving his doctorate, setting aside the expectations of an arranged marriage. He then gave birth to Kamala and two years later to Maya. Even with two young daughters, their parents continued their activism.
In her autobiography “The Truths We Hold,” Kamala Harris talks about how her parents’ house was doused with police hoses, how they were confronted by the Hell Angels gang, and, once, with the future senator in a stroller, forced to run when the violence broke out.
A few years after they were married, Harris’s parents divorced. The mother’s influence on the girls increased, and Harris’s friends say they see it reflected throughout their lives.
Andrea Dew Steele recalls that it was clear from the moment they sat down to prepare the first flyer of Harris’s first campaign for public office.
“She was always talking about her mother,” Dew Steele said. “When she was alive she was a force and since she passed away she has continued to be a force.”
Joe Gray, who was Gopalan Harris’s boss at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, where she was a cancer researcher, goes on to describe how a woman just 1.55 meters (5.1 feet) tall managed to fill a room with your presence. It amazes her how much Harris reminds her of her mother.
“I only see her on television, but much of Shyamala’s outspokenness and sense of social justice are evident,” he said. “I feel the same spirit.”
Lateefah Simon felt it too. Harris hired her for the district attorney’s office in San Francisco. At events, Simon would come to Gopalan Harris, always sitting in the front row, always proud. She saw how the mother and daughter were meticulous with the smallest details, how they worked hard, but maintained a sense of joy, how their laughter resonated.
Once, Simon says, Gopalan Harris told him to leave a fundraising event because she was wearing tennis shoes, gently reminding him, “We must always show ourselves with excellence.” Years later, she heard echoes of the same message when Harris offered words of advice for her friend: “Dude, clean your glasses.”
“That’s her saying, ‘I believe in you and I want people to see what I see in you,'” Simon said.
Harris’s mother’s influence was far greater than that of his father. He and his mother separated when she was 5 years old, and although the senator described her father as a superhero in her children’s book, there are signs of coldness in their relationships. The senator says they have sporadic contacts.
The uniqueness of his mother’s role in his life made her death even harsher for Harris. The senator says she still feels it constantly.
“I still have a lump in my throat,” he said in an interview last year. “The years that have passed do not matter.”
Harris imagines her mother’s pride when she was sworn in as a district attorney in San Francisco. She remembers her concern about keeping her composure when she said her mother’s name in her inauguration speech as California attorney general. Think of your father asking a nurse at the hospice if his daughters would be okay while she succumbed to cancer.
“There is no title or honor on earth that I treasure more than to say that I am the daughter of Shyamala Gopalan Harris,” she wrote. “That is the truth that I value the most.”