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In the three weeks since she launched her presidential campaign, Kamala Harris has quoted one figure more than any other: her mom.
“My mother used to say, don’t sit around and complain about things, do something,” Harris told 20,000 supporters at her kick-off rally in Oakland. She would also tell a young Harris that “you may be the first to do many things, but make sure you’re not the last,” the California senator said at events in Iowa and South Carolina.
The story of Harris’ parents — immigrant academics from very different parts of the world chasing their American Dream to the Bay Area — has become a key part of her message as she introduces herself to the country.
Harris regularly describes her mother, Shyamala Gopalan, as the most important influence on her life. A breast cancer researcher from India who had a powerful presence despite her five-foot stature, she died of colon cancer in 2009. Donald Harris, Kamala’s father, is a retired leftist Stanford economics professor from Jamaica who studied issues such as income inequality but was less of an impact on her life after the couple divorced when she was a child.
Like presidential hopefuls before her — Barack Obama’s stories of his single mom waking him up at 5 a.m. to study, or Bill Clinton’s tales of his mother supporting the family after his father died in a car crash — Harris is using her parents as the embodiment of the values she’s fighting for. To her supporters, her family’s immigrant story comes as almost an implicit rebuke of President Trump’s policies limiting immigration to the U.S. — even as she’s already had to deal with false “birther” conspiracies among some on the far right.
For a candidate who admits that she feels more comfortable talking about politics and policy than her personal life, sharing her family’s experience also represents an easier way to connect with voters.
“She has been telling her family’s story her entire political career,” said Jim Stearns, who ran Harris’ first campaign for San Francisco district attorney. “Everybody has to find their own foundation story, and she’s been consistent — she places a lot of value on her roots, and her mom is a huge impact.”
Love in a time of protest
Both of Harris’ parents came to UC Berkeley for graduate school and unexpectedly found themselves staying because of each other.
Gopalan was the precocious daughter of an Indian diplomat and a women’s rights activist in the southeastern state of Tamil Nadu. After graduating from the University of Delhi at age 19, she moved to Berkeley to pursue a doctorate in nutrition and endocrinology, having never set foot in the U.S. before. Donald Harris also excelled at a young age, graduating from the University College of the West Indies in Jamaica before coming to Berkeley.
The two didn’t meet in the classroom but amid the protests that convulsed campus in the 60’s. On Sundays, they gathered with a group of like-minded students to discuss the black writers overlooked by the university curriculum and debate about politics, decolonization and activism.
“I was in awe of them,” said Aubrey LaBrie, 81, an undergraduate in the group who Harris refers to as “Uncle Aubrey” in her recent book. “They were serious students and so articulate, but also really cared” about their activism.
The young couple married while still in school, with Gopalan rejecting her family’s tradition of arranged marriage. At age 25, she earned her Ph.D. from Berkeley and gave birth to Kamala in Oakland, working up until the moment her water broke, according to the senator’s memoir.
Harris and Gopalan threw themselves into the civil rights movement, bringing a young Kamala to protests in a stroller. Gopalan met Martin Luther King Jr. when he spoke at Berkeley in 1967. Kamala also visited far-flung family in India and Jamaica as she grew up, getting her first taste of the broader world.
Her parents separated after Donald Harris took a professorship at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Gopalan filed for divorce in December 1971, when Kamala was 7, according to court records, and won custody of her daughters in June 1973. “They didn’t fight about money,” Kamala wrote. “The only thing they fought about was who got the books.”
As ‘tall as anybody in the room’
Kamala and her younger sister Maya — now her presidential campaign chair — still visited their father during summers and holidays. But their mother became the central figure in Kamala’s life.
The family lived in an upstairs duplex on Bancroft Way in the Southwest Berkeley flatlands. Kamala took the bus to a wealthier, whiter neighborhood to attend Thousand Oaks Elementary School as part of only the second class desegregated through busing.
Gopalan often took her daughters to her lab, where they helped clean test tubes. When she traveled for work, she sent them to a daycare two doors down from their house, where the walls were covered with posters of African-American leaders and a young Kamala learned about George Washington Carver before President George Washington.
“She knew that her adopted homeland would see Maya and me as black girls, and she was determined to make sure we would grow into confident, proud black women,” Kamala wrote.
Gopalan “was a fun person to be around, but she was very intense too,” remembered Sharon McGaffie, a family friend whose mother ran the daycare. “When I see (Kamala) now, it reminds me so much of her mother — that strength that she’s fighting for something, that she’s never intimidated.”
Even as she excelled in school and her research, she faced discrimination as a woman and an immigrant. At one point in the 70’s, her Berkeley colleague Mina Bissell remembered, Gopalan was rejected for a professorship at the university in favor of a less qualified man, in what Bissell described as a blatantly sexist move. And Kamala wrote about painful memories of her mother being “treated as though she were dumb because of her accent.”
When Kamala was in middle school, her mother moved the family to Montreal to teach and do research at McGill University and studied elsewhere around the U.S. before returning to Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory.
Her research focused on how different forms of breast cancer respond to hormones. Experimenting on mice and human tissue, she helped advance understanding of how some cancers can be controlled by limiting patients’ estrogen.
In her labs over the years, Gopalan also focused on mentoring students of color and wasn’t afraid to call out co-workers to their face if they made insensitive or biased comments — even her boss at the time, Joe Gray, who’s now a professor at Oregon Health and Science University.
“She was about five feet, but she punched way above that,” Gray said with a laugh. “Shyamala was tall as anybody in the room.”
As Kamala got more involved in politics, Gopalan became one of her most devoted volunteers, licking envelopes, knocking on doors and becoming a constant presence at campaign headquarters during her race for San Francisco district attorney.
An economist who questioned conventional wisdom
Kamala wasn’t as close with her father over the years, although she and Maya visited him during summer vacations after he moved to Stanford in 1972. He was the first and only black professor in the economics department at the time, according to contemporaries, and one of just a handful of black professors at the university.
Harris, who went by Don, was popular among students for his skepticism of prevailing economic views. When Harris was scheduled to leave Stanford after his two-year visiting professorship in 1974, students objected that the university wasn’t doing enough to hire and retain “radical” and “Marxist” professors with a diversity of economic ideas, according to an article in the Stanford Daily newspaper. One op-ed described Harris as being considered “too charismatic, a pied piper leading students astray from neo-classical economics.”
Administrators decided to keep him on as a full professor in 1975, and Harris helped develop a program of “alternative approaches to economic analysis,” where students explored theories, including Marxism, that went against the dominant views of the time. He wrote about uneven economic development, explaining how difficult it was for poor countries to catch up with rich countries and the impact of income inequality for black Americans — ideas that seem to have echoes in his daughter’s policy agenda today.
Several of his former students said it wasn’t accurate to describe him as Marxist, although “he might have been a lot more sympathetic to Marx than a lot of other economists were at the time,” said Tracy Mott, who’s now a professor at the University of Denver. Duncan Foley, a colleague of Harris’, said his views questioning the global economic model were ahead of their time and have gained ground since the 2008 financial crisis.
Harris’ lectures — delivered in a light Jamaican lilt — were engaging but theoretical. “We didn’t talk in his classes about whether we should have a higher or lower corporate tax rate or anything like that,” said Steven Fazzari, one of his students, who’s now an economics professor at Washington University in St. Louis. “It was the deeper understanding of what makes economies change and grow over time.”
Sometimes, he’d bring students to blues concerts, seeing BB King or Bobby “Blue” Bland when they came to the Bay Area. Colleagues remember him as friendly but reserved about his personal life. One of Kamala’s memories of Palo Alto, she told the Los Angeles Times in 2015, was her father’s white neighbors not letting their kids play with her or her sister because they were black.
Harris retired early from Stanford in 1998 and more recently has done research and economic consulting projects for the government of his native Jamaica.
Mott said that watching Senator Harris grill Trump appointees on TV always made him think of the way her father asked his students tough questions in his classroom.
“She always is very analytical and really can figure out what’s the insightful thing to ask,” he said. “Just like him.”