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

Mom guides Harris VP bid

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.

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.”

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.”

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