Skip to content
Join our Newsletter

For Harris, memories of mother guide bid for vice-president

NEW YORK — Speaking from the Senate floor for the first time, Kamala Harris expressed gratitude for a woman on whose shoulders she said she stood.

NEW YORK — 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 more than a decade has passed since Shyamala Gopalan died, she remains a force in her daughter’s life as she takes a historic spot on the Democratic ticket besides former Vice-President Joe Biden. Those who know the California senator expect her campaign for the vice presidency to bring repeated mentions of the woman she calls her single greatest influence.

“She’s always told the same story,” says friend Mimi Silbert. “Kamala had one important role model, and it was her mother.”

Taking the stage Wednesday in her first appearance beside Biden as his running mate, Harris invoked her mother's memory, saying she always responded to gripes with a challenge.

“She’d tell us, ‘Don’t sit around and complain about things. Do something.’ So I did something,” Harris said Wednesday in her first appearance with Biden as his running mate.

Making clear the feeling off loss despite the buoyancy of the biggest moment of her professional life, Harris tweeted Thursday: “I dearly wish she were here with us this week.”

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 said. “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 said. “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 said.

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 said they have “off and on” contact.

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 last year. “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 honour 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 protected] and

Matt Sedensky, The Associated Press