In her new memoir, The Truths We Hold: An American Journey, Senator Kamala D. Harris, Democrat of California, positions herself as an underdog, a savvy “top cop” and, most of all, Shyamala Gopalan’s daughter. Harris’s mother serves as a north star and a shoulder to cry on, a wellspring of defiance and the oratorical bedrock of a likely presidential campaign.
A civil-rights activist and breast-cancer researcher in Northern California during the 1960s, Gopalan was Harris’s most ardent cheerleader. An April 22, 2004, article in The San Jose Mercury News noted that Harris, then district attorney of San Francisco, had on her desk a “large vase of fragrant white roses with a message card that reads ‘Courage!’ They were sent by her mother.” At the time, public officials like Senator Dianne Feinstein were criticizing Harris for not seeking the death penalty against a man accused of killing a police officer.
Like the author of any mid-career political memoir, Kamala Harris is angling for a promotion.
The Truths We Hold does not include the death-penalty episode, which the Bay Area press covered extensively. But many anecdotes in the memoir follow a similar formula: Harris goes against the grain and causes a stir. Or she defies the odds—usually by winning a race people said she couldn’t—leaving her adversaries in the dust. In times of great stress, her mother, a strong-willed Indian immigrant, buoys her. “Don’t do anything half-assed,” she used to tell Harris.
Like the author of any mid-career political memoir, Harris is angling for a promotion. She takes the liberty to airbrush facets of her record that may be unpalatable to progressive Democratic primary voters. Discussing her crackdown on truancy as attorney general of California, she writes, “We wanted schools to reach out to parents with information…about resources they might not have been aware of—support the city and school district offered to make it easier to get their kids to school.” On Jan. 11, at a book event in New York, she also made reference to her record on truancy. The initiative, geared toward dismantling the school-to-prison pipeline, levied steep fines against noncompliant parents (who tend to be poor) and even brought criminal charges against them.
Harris also denounces the war on drugs, presenting a criminal-justice platform that rests in part on marijuana legalization, a position she did not publicly support as late as 2014, when she sought another term as attorney general.
As district attorney of San Francisco, Harris drew criticism from Jeff Adachi, the city’s public defender, for neglecting to disclose the identities of “more than 80 officers [with] convictions, arrests or disciplinary records that, by law, should have been revealed to defense attorneys” when they testified at trial. And in 2015, with the #BlackLivesMatter movement in full swing, Harris said she did not support implementing statewide standards for body-worn cameras. Asked in New York on Jan. 11 about criminal justice reform, she said she does not believe in “false choices”—that is, a choice between supporting law enforcement and holding police accountable.
Kamala Harris: “The truth is that the economy stopped rewarding and valuing most hard work a long time ago. And we’ve got to acknowledge that if we’re going to change it.”
Though criminal justice is the cornerstone of the book, Harris also offers policy prescriptions related to income inequality. “The truth is that the economy stopped rewarding and valuing most hard work a long time ago,” Harris writes. “And we’ve got to acknowledge that if we’re going to change it.” In October 2018, Harris proposed a middle-class tax credit—a stipend of up to $500 per month for households with annual incomes less than $100,000.
She devotes a 30-page chapter called “Underwater” to the foreclosure crisis of the early 2010s. In 2011, Harris walked away from a $2 billion settlement deal offered by the banks—she called it “crumbs on the table.” At her direction, the state of California launched its own investigation into mortgage fraud. “Look, we’re a guest at someone else’s party and we don’t have our own car,” Harris recalls in the book. “We need our own ride so that when we’re ready to leave, we can leave.” Preparing to speak on the phone with Jamie Dimon, the chief executive of JPMorgan Chase, she “took off my earrings (the Oakland in me) and picked up the receiver.” Eventually she secured a $20 billion deal.
The child of a Jamaican father and Indian mother, Harris was the first woman, first Asian-American and first African-American in U.S. history to serve as a state attorney general. She is also California’s first non-white senator. Buffing her underdog credentials, she said at the event in New York that she has always been told, “It’s not your turn, it’s not your time, no one like you has ever done this before.”
When Gopalan was in the hospital, dying of colon cancer, she asked Harris how the race for attorney general was going. “Mommy,” said Harris, “these guys are saying they’re gonna kick my ass.” Gopalan rolled over and smiled.