.On Her Way Sen. Kamala Harris: The Oakland in me

Kamala Harris’ selection as Joe Biden’s running mate for the 2020 presidential election made history as the first Black woman on a major ticket. It’s historic for the East Bay as well. Only one person born in California, Richard Nixon, ever served as president or vice president—and he was a Southern Californian.

Her roots here run deep—as does the symbolism of Oakland as the most racially diverse city of its size or larger in the United States. The first sentence of her bestselling book, The Truths We Hold, mentions both Alameda County and Oakland. And her presidential campaign kicked off January 27, 2019 at Frank Ogawa Plaza. 

In her autobiography, she describes preparing for a contentious 2012 phone call with JPMorgan Chase chairman and CEO Jamie Dimon. “I took off my earrings (the Oakland in me) and picked up the receiver.”

Kamala Devi Harris is the child of a Jamaican father, now-retired Stanford economics professor Donald Harris, and an Indian mother, Shyamala Gopalan, a cancer researcher at the Lawrence Berkeley Lab. They met in Berkeley while graduate students at the University of California.

She was born at Oakland’s Kaiser Foundation Hospital on Oct. 20, 1964, less than three weeks after Jack Weinberg was arrested for political activism at a Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) table on the Berkeley campus. That event sparked the Free Speech Movement, an early flash point in the decade of national activism that followed. 

Harris’ parents named her Kamala, Sanskrit for “lotus” and another name for the Hindu goddess of female empowerment, Lakshmi. Harris was the eldest of two. Her younger sister, Maya is a former law school dean and public policy advocate who figures heavily in Kamala’s campaign. Maya is married to Tony West, who headed the Justice Department’s civil division in the Obama administration and is presently Uber’s chief legal officer.

Until recently, Harris was perhaps best known for being California’s first female and first Black attorney general. In 2016, she was elected as California’s junior senator and is the first Indian American and second African American woman in the U.S. Senate. She is now the third female vice presidential candidate from a major party (Geraldine Ferraro and Sarah Palin are the other two).

Harris’ love for advocacy and politics comes from her parents, who were active in the Civil Rights Movement and brought her to protests as a baby. Her parents divorced when she was seven, and she and her sister were raised by their mother on the top floor of a duplex on Berkeley’s Bancroft Way. Her neighborhood was predominantly Black and lower-middle class. 

“It was a close-knit neighborhood of working families who were focused on doing a good job, paying the bills, and being there for one another.” Harris wrote in her autobiography.

Harris also speaks frequently about attending Berkeley’s Thousand Oaks Elementary School during its second year of integration. She was bussed daily to the mostly white, affluent district. 

Despite their parents’ separation at a young age, their mother supported her childrens’ multicultural identity. She took them both to a Black Baptist church and a Hindu temple.

When Harris visited India as a child she was impressed with her grandparents’ political heritage. Her grandfather had been involved in India’s struggle for independence “My grandfather felt very strongly about the importance of defending civil rights and fighting for equality and integrity,” Harris told the Los Angeles Times. “I just remember them always talking about the people who were corrupt versus the people who were real servants.”

Harris was politically aware at a young age and at age 12 she and her sister staged a protest against a Montreal apartment complex rule prohibiting children from playing on the lawn. The Harrises moved back to the East Bay after Harris graduated high school in Canada. “Maya and I had just gotten home from school when [their mother] pulled out the pictures to show us—a one-level dark-gray house on a cul-de-sac with a shingled roof, a beautiful lawn in front, an outdoor space on the side for a barbecue.”

“‘This is our house!’ I would tell my friends, proudly showing off the picture. It was going to be our piece of the world,” Harris wrote.

After high school, Harris attended Howard University, where she studied political science and economics. At this historically Black college Harris rushed in a sorority, and after graduation she earned her law degree from UC’s Hastings Law School. While attending Hastings in San Francisco, Harris lived with her sister and her toddler niece. Law school proved competitive, though Harris excelled.

After school, Harris worked as deputy district attorney in Oakland. In 1998, she was hired as a prosecutor in the San Francisco district attorney’s office, where she was appointed to head the Career Criminal Division. She ran for district attorney in 2004, defeating incumbent San Francisco district attorney Terence Hallinan. She was elected attorney general of California in 2010.

In 2014, Harris married attorney Douglas Emhoff and soon after prepared for her run for Senate, which she won in 2016. While running for Senate, Harris called for immigration and criminal-justice reforms as well as increasing the minimum wage and protecting women’s reproductive rights. While in the Senate, she garnered attention for using her prosecutorial interrogation skills on Attorney General Jeff Sessions when he testified on Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.

After a heated primary race for the Democratic presidential nomination—one in which Harris and Biden often locked horns—she was not an obvious shoo-in for the vice president slot. However, she did have some factors in her favor, including the support of the Obamas. The former president praised her selection, saying, “I’ve known Senator Harris for a long time. She is more than prepared for the job. She’s spent her career defending our Constitution and fighting for folks who need a fair shake.” She was also friends with Biden’s late son Beau Biden, an attorney general for the state of Delaware whose death from cancer is cited as a reason Biden ceded a 2016 Democratic presidential run to Hilary Clinton. 

The 77-year-old Biden, if elected, may of course not seek a second term in office if he wins in November. In that scenario, Harris would be well positioned to seek the 2024 nomination Democratic presidential nomination. 

She could make history yet again.

Dan Pulcrano contributed to this article.

Jenny Shields
A recent journalism grad, Jenny Shields has written for the San Francisco State University newspaper and Hoodline.com. She interned at Society19 and freelances for the North Bay Bohemian among other publications.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here