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Kamala Harris: Does her relationship with her father reflect her values?

Written By | Aug 19, 2020
Kamala Harris

Official headshot of United States Senator Kamala Harris (D-CA). Photo via US Congress, in the public domain.

LOS ANGELES — Check out all the fanfare over Joe Biden’s choice of California Senator Kamala Harris for his Vice-Presidential running mate. Someone is missing in action. Namely, Donald J. Harris, Stanford economics professor emeritus and Sen. Harris’s father.

In all the articles and campaign missives in the week since we heard the announcement, we read very little about him. In fact, this writer cannot unearth any statements from Professor Harris on his daughter being chosen for this key government role.

Professor Donald J. Harris: MIA

Perhaps Professor Harris simply likes his privacy. But the way the rest of Sen. Harris’s family crafted their Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram pages to reflect their tight-knit kinship and family values, makes the Professor’s absence even more stark. Why do we find him missing in this Negro spiritual?

Professor Harris is accomplished in his own right, with many published scholarly works to his credit. He served as a consultant to the United Nations and the government of Jamaica. But currently, the most laudatory writing about him is a blog post by Bradley Rosser. He’s a former student, and, according to Rosser, a friend.

Where’s dad?

Every beaming article about Kamala Harris leads with the narrative of Harris’s personal history. Each often focuses on how her “single mother” shaped her life. In these articles, it seems as if Donald Harris exists merely as a sperm donor. An example of this surfaced in a San Francisco Chronicle piece, “Kamala Harris was shaped by Berkeley and a ‘do something’ mother”:

“When Kamala Harris wants to make a particularly strong point, there’s one person she almost always quotes: her mother.

“The California senator cited her late mother, Shyamala Gopalan Harris, in her first public appearance last week as Joe Biden’s vice-presidential nominee-to-be. Gopalan shows up on more than 30 pages of Harris’ 2019 autobiography, “The Truths We Hold.” Her mother’s words of advice and wisdom were an integral part of Harris’ stump speeches when she was running her own presidential campaign last year.”

It’s a reflection of what Harris and those who know her best will readily say: Much of who she is today traces back to her childhood in Berkeley in the 1960s and early ’70s, and the example Gopalan set as a trailblazing scientist and single mother.”

This paragraph is particularly telling:

While not entirely estranged from her father [emphasis mine], Harris was much closer to her mother, and it was her influence that shaped the future senator. Harris wrote in her book that she would see her father on weekends and in the summers, but lived with her mother and built the strongest ties with Gopalan’s close friends here and her family in India.”

It doesn’t take an armchair psychologist to see why a 29-year-old Kamala Harris would latch onto 60-year old kingmaker,  California Assembly Speaker, and San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown.

A selective heritage?

In September 2018, Professor Harris wrote a glowing epistle in Jamaica Global Online that expressed the heart of his feelings toward the family that shaped his life and future. Professor Harris appears obviously proud of his daughters, his family and his lineage. It almost reads like a love letter to the women who raised him, and an entreaty to his daughters to honor the strong women and connections they have on the paternal side of their family as much as they seem to on the maternal side.

Ahead of Kamala Harris’s presidential run, and since the VP announcement, this post was updated to add: “Kamala Harris’ Jamaican Heritage.” The update states that it intends to dispel “[a]ny notion that California Senator Kamala Harris does not know much about, or underplays her Jamaican heritage.” It also touts how proud the Jamaican people are to claim Harris as one of their own, along with the inevitable verbiage about the recent Vice-Presidential announcement.

With all due respect to Sen. Harris and her personal magnetism, this writer regards these updates as reducing Professor Harris’s love letter to a footnote to the Senator’s story, rather than the other way around.

Perhaps this is intentional.

A fling with a California king

In the 1990s, Alameda County assistant district attorney Kamala Harris had an open affair with California Assembly Speaker Willie Brown. Brown eventually appointed her to certain commissions within the state government. According to both the UK Daily Mail and the San Francisco Weekly, Brown was separated from his wife at the time. Both pieces outline how many in the political world viewed this affair. They tended to see it as the launch of Harris’s political career.

In the 2003 San Francisco Weekly piece, written when Sen. Harris made her first run for San Francisco District Attorney, Harris describes Brown as an “albatross hanging around my neck.” She made it clear she wanted, at least publicly, to characterize the affair as something that she wanted people to forget.

Given the lack of published interviews that mention it, Harris still refuses to discuss the affair. The UK Daily Mail piece says there is no mention of Willie Brown in Sen. Harris’s memoir, The Truths We Hold.

Also Read: Kamala deserves to get the full Kavanaugh treatment

Willie Brown tells tells it like it is

The flamboyant and illustrious Brown seems to have no problem discussing Kamela Harris. In two op-eds in the San Francisco Chronicle (January 2019/August 8, 2020), he seems to consider himself a kingmaker doling out advice to a former liege for whom he has great affection.

From the January 2019 piece:

“Yes, we dated. It was more than 20 years ago. Yes, I may have influenced her career by appointing her to two state commissions when I was Assembly speaker.

“And I certainly helped with her first race for district attorney in San Francisco. I have also helped the careers of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Gov. Gavin Newsom, Sen. Dianne Feinstein and a host of other politicians.

“The difference is that Harris is the only one who, after I helped her, sent word that I would be indicted if I ‘so much as jaywalked’ while she was D.A. That’s politics for ya.’”

Both Sen. Harris and the Biden campaign declined to comment on either op-ed. It appears that Harris and the Biden campaign similarly desire to diminish the role of Professor Donald Harris in shaping his daughter’s trajectory and values. Perhaps this is attributable in part to that bit of estrangement referenced in the San Francisco Chronicle article quoted above.

Reefer Madness, Professor Harris, et. al.

Hints of this family disconnect bubbled to the surface in February. In an interview with radio personality Charlemagne tha God, then-presidential candidate Kamala Harris joked  about smoking pot in her younger years. According to a February 20 Politico piece, Harris joked, “Half my family’s from Jamaica. Are you kidding me?”

Politico then covered Professor Harris’s response to that remark. Suffice it to say, he was none too pleased.

“The elder Harris sent an unsolicited statement to Kingston-based Jamaica Global Online, for which the emeritus professor of economics at Stanford University wrote a recent essay on his family’s history.

“’My dear departed grandmothers (whose extraordinary legacy I described in a recent essay on this website), as well as my deceased parents, must be turning in their grave right now to see their family’s name, reputation and proud Jamaican identity being connected, in any way, jokingly or not with the fraudulent stereotype of a pot-smoking joy seeker and in the pursuit of identity politics,’ he wrote.

“‘Speaking for myself and my immediate Jamaican family, we wish to categorically dissociate ourselves from this travesty,’ he added.

“Kamala Harris’ campaign had no comment.”

No comment, please

“No comment,” seems to be the standard response regarding two of the more pivotal male relationships in the life of Sen. Kamala Harris. At the seminal juncture of your life, how do you disregard the person who helped give you life and who set the course of your career? As a Vice-presidential candidate, Kamala Harris talks about her values and how they will shape her policies. So why does she avoid discussing how her family relationships helped shape or redirect her values as a woman, an American, and a political presence?

Perhaps her Democrat Convention acceptance speech can change all that.

— Headline image: Official headshot of United States Senator Kamala Harris (D-CA).
Photo via US Congress, in the public domain.


Jennifer Oliver OConnell

Jennifer Oliver OConnell offers witty, insightful, and direct opinion, analysis and musings on local and national politics and popular culture, with occasional detours into reinvention, food, and Yoga. Jennifer also teaches Yoga, and coaches clients on careers and reinvention. You can keep up with what's in Jennifer's orbit through her As the Girl Turns website.