Kamala D. Harris’s most trusted adviser: Her sister Maya

Maya Harris, right, is not just the younger sister of Vice President elect-Kamala D. Harris (Calif.), left. She also served as her campaign chairwoman. (Scott Morgan/Reuters)

This story has been updated from an earlier published version.

Finding people to trust in politics — a field full of mercenaries with their own interests at heart — can be a tough thing to do. It is no wonder so many people turn to family members: John F. Kennedy had Bobby, Joe Biden’s sister, Valerie, once ran his campaigns and Ivanka Trump has been one of the 45th president’s most visible advisers.

Kamala D. Harris has her younger sister, Maya Harris. The two are not only extremely close; during Kamala’s year-long presidential run, Maya served as her campaign chairwoman.

It is a job she for which she was uniquely qualified: She had been a senior adviser for Hillary Clinton in 2016, knows her sister better than anyone else and, professionally, is something of a yin to Kamala’s yang.

The partnership, however, did not yield the desired results, and Harris dropped out of the primary months before any votes were cast. Now, Maya Harris is stepping back from her sister’s career — at least officially, at least for now.

She has been far less visible in her sister’s public life since the elder Harris was named to the Democratic ticket in mid-August. Aides to the Vice President-elect have gone out of their way to emphasize that Maya will have no official role in the Biden-Harris administration, and Maya hopes to remove herself from the spotlight — in part to avoid even the tiniest semblance of the nepotism that defined the Trump era.

Maya Harris prepares to speak in Las Vegas in March. She is no stranger to campaigns after serving as a senior adviser to Hillary Clinton in 2016. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

But many who have known the Harris sisters for years chuckle politely at the notion that Maya would ever be out of the loop. She has been a constant companion along Kamala Harris’s journey into history, the most trusted confidante of a political climber known to be slow to trust and hard to impress.

For that reason, Maya’s position at the top of Kamala’s presidential campaign became, at times, a complicating factor. Multiple campaign aides said later that, because of the close family connection, few ventured to speak up when they disagreed, which they did — particularly on the question of how the longtime prosecutor should handle critiques of her criminal justice record.

While Kamala came up through politics as a law enforcement official — district attorney and then California’s attorney general — Maya, 53, had been at the forefront of criminal justice reform: as a leader at the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, as a vice president at the Ford Foundation, helping edit her friend Michelle Alexander’s seminal book about mass incarceration, “The New Jim Crow.”

In Maya’s line of work, prosecutors were often seen as the opposition. They were gatekeepers of an unjust system that locked up people of color in disproportionate numbers, lawyers who often cared more about their conviction rate than actual justice.

Kamala D. Harris, right, is inaugurated as attorney general as her sister, Maya Harris, center, and Chief Justice of California Tani Cantil-Sakauye, left, applaud at the California Museum in Sacramento on Jan. 3, 2011. (Anne Chadwick Williams/AP)

When it came time to address Kamala’s prosecutorial record in her presidential campaign, Maya favored acknowledging things her sister would do differently now. Harris’s longtime California-based political advisers, meanwhile, believed the former attorney general’s record was a key part of her presidential pitch. They did not want her to undermine it.

Ultimately, Harris tried both strategies as her campaign struggled to forge a clear identity throughout the primary. Donors started showing concern about her ability to distinguish herself from the field and looked elsewhere. Soon, money grew short and a campaign that began with one of the biggest crowds of the 2020 presidential cycle ended two months before the Iowa caucuses.

A close childhood

The Harris sisters do not look all that much alike. Kamala resembles their father: taller and angular; where Maya has the softer features of their late mother, who clocked in at 5-foot-1. But the sisters share a contagious, body-shaking laugh so similar that strangers often guess they are related.

Their father, Donald, was a Stanford economics professor from Jamaica, and their mother, Shyamala, was a scientist from India. They split when the sisters were young, after which it was mostly just “Shyamala and the girls,” and sometimes, when Shyamala had to travel for work, it was just the girls. (Shyamala died in 2009.)

The Harris girls pose for a Christmas photo in 1968. (Courtesy of Kamala Harris)

When feasible, Kamala and Maya would tag along to their mother’s conferences, getting the run of the place in hotels around the world. Other times, Shyamala would travel without them, leaving the girls under the care of neighbors they considered family.

When the girls were 12 and 9, Shyamala accepted a job at McGill University, moved the family to Montreal and enrolled Kamala and Maya in a neighborhood school where everyone spoke French except for them. They remember the Mayflower truck coming to move their belongings across the continent; they remember arriving at their apartment and hiding from the cold in the closet; and they remember how their relationship further solidified in a place where no one else spoke their language.

“We leaned on each other,” Kamala said in an interview last year. “We forged a bond that is unbreakable. When I think about it, all of the joyous moments in our lives, all of the challenging moments, all of the moments of transition, we have always been together.”

Almost always, anyway.

Kamala graduated from high school and went to Howard University in Washington. She immersed herself in the campus political scene, running for student government and protesting apartheid outside of the South African Embassy with fellow students. Big things were happening in the world, and Kamala wanted to be a part of it.

With Kamala at Howard, Maya moved back to the Bay Area. Her mother technically moved back, too, but still had work in Montreal, which meant at times Maya lived alone among their community of honorary aunts, uncles and cousins.

“If the alarm went off at the house, she’d call me,” said Peter Monroe, who lived nearby. “Her mother instructed me to keep the boys from chasing after Maya.”

Kamala, pictured with classmate Gwen Whitfield, was immersed in the campus political scene at Howard in the '80s. (Courtesy of Kamala Harris)

Maya’s transition was easy enough. She was pretty (best-looking, according to her graduating yearbook), got stellar grades and was popular. So no one seemed to notice anything was up as she made her way through senior year wearing bigger and chunkier sweatshirts (it was, after all, the ’80s).

“Nobody knew she was pregnant until she was about eight or nine months,” recalled Judy Robinson, a close friend whose mother used to take care of the Harris sisters when Shyamala was away. Maya graduated from high school with honors at 17, in her second trimester, while keeping a secret that even her closest friends did not know about.

“I remember Shyamala saying she cried for about four days,” Robinson said. “She cried for the fact that she was not there, that Maya went through this on her own without her.”

Maya does not talk about this part of her life. Not the pregnancy. Not who the father was (other than to say he was never really in the picture). Not whom she kept the secret from nor for how long.

She will talk about what came next: the birth of her daughter, Meena, now 36 (also a lawyer and civil rights activist); her mother helping babysit while she finished college on time; the handsome law school friend and future husband, Tony West (now Uber’s chief legal officer), who would help look after Meena at Stanford; the fact that her daughter and sister always had a “special relationship.”

When asked to talk about what it was like to be pregnant at 17, she politely dodges the question: “For me,” she says, “it’s always about pushing forward, never really looking back.”

When asked about how Kamala found out and what her reaction was, both sisters declined to comment.

Kamala Harris meets two second graders with Maya, center, during a town hall-style event in Las Vegas in March. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

Together, differently

Maya has been with Kamala every step along her professional and political road. She worked on her first campaign, to be San Francisco’s district attorney, and spoke at her inauguration in 2004. “Given all my lefty friends,” she said then, “it still amazes me that this ACLU lawyer ended up with a sister — and a husband — who both became prosecutors.” She joked about the possibility of awkward Thanksgiving dinners with “the ACLU lawyer on one end of the table and the district attorney at the other.”

Fifteen years later, Maya quit her job as an MSNBC analyst to volunteer for her sister’s presidential run. (“She’s invaluable,” Kamala said back then. “There’s no amount of money I can pay her, so I pay her no amount of money.”)

But Kamala’s most invaluable adviser will serve a far different role as her sister steps into the vice presidency. Maya Harris has been stationed in New York, quarantining through the pandemic and offering support for the Biden-Harris ticket from afar. In April, Maya published an article in the Atlantic about her experience with lupus, an autoimmune disease she has been battling since her early 20s.

She hosted a few remote events for the Biden-Harris campaign during the run-up to the general election. She was present the night Biden and Harris declared victory in Wilmington, Del.

Otherwise, she has slid out of the spotlight. But she remains one of her sister’s most outspoken advocates on Twitter. Her daughter, Meena, has become a go-to social media follow for devotees of the second-family-in-waiting — a close-knit cohort of which Maya has always been in the center. After all, when Kamala married Doug Emhoff in 2014 at the Santa Barbara courthouse, Maya officiated the ceremony.

She even helped write the vows.

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