“I say we fight”: Kamala Harris on her journey to the White House

In this extract from her memoir The Truths We Hold, America's Vice President-Elect and TIME Person of the Year relives the bittersweet moment in 2016 when she was elected senator for California, only to watch Donald Trump win the presidency.

Kamala Harris
Image: Kamala Harris
Harris at a news conference (left) and with with her newborn baby sister, Maya, in March 1967. Maya acted as chair of her presidential campaign. Image: Kamala Harris

Most mornings, my husband, Doug, wakes up before me and reads the news in bed. If I hear him making noises—a sigh, a groan, a gasp—I know what kind of day it’s going to be.

November 8, 2016, had started well—the last day of my campaign for the U.S. Senate. I spent the day meeting as many more voters as I could, and of course cast a vote myself at a neighborhood school up the street from our house. We were feeling pretty good. We had rented a huge place for my Election Night party, with a balloon drop waiting to go. But first I was going out for dinner with family and close friends—a tradition dating back to my first campaign. People had flown in from all across the country, even overseas, to be with us—my aunts and cousins, my in-laws, my sister’s in-laws, and more, all gathered for what we hoped would be a very special night.

I was staring out the car window, reflecting on how far we’d come, when I heard one of Doug’s signature groans.

“You gotta look at this,” he said, handing me his phone. Early results for the presidential election were coming in. Something was happening—something bad. By the time we arrived at the restaurant, the gap between the two candidates had shrunk considerably, and I was inwardly groaning as well. The New York Times’ probability meter was suggesting it was going to be a long, dark night.

We settled in for a meal in a small room off the main restaurant. Emotions and adrenaline were running high, but not for the reasons we had anticipated. On the one hand, while polls hadn’t yet closed in California, we were optimistic that I was going to win. Yet even as we prepared for that hard-earned celebration, all eyes were on our screens as state after state came back with numbers that told a troubling story.

At a certain point, my nine-year-old godson, Alexander, came up to me with big tears welling in his eyes. I assumed one of the other kids in our group had been teasing him about something.

“Come here, little man. What’s wrong?”

Image: Kamala Harris
Here I am at campaign headquarters, standing before the word “justice,” after becoming the first female district attorney of San Francisco in 2003. Behind my left shoulder is my mother. Behind her are Chris Cunnie and City Attorney Dennis Herrera. Chris would later become chief of my bureau of investigations. Image: Kamala Harris
Image: Kamala Harris
My favorite pleather jacket at age seven. (December 1971). Image: Kamala Harris

Alexander looked up and locked eyes with mine. His voice was trembling. “Auntie Kamala, that man can’t win. He’s not going to win, is he?” Alexander’s worry broke my heart. I didn’t want anyone making a child feel that way. Eight years earlier, many of us had cried tears of joy when Barack Obama was elected president. And now, to see Alexander’s fear . . .

His father, Reggie, and I took him outside to try to console him.

“Alexander, you know how sometimes superheroes are facing a big challenge because a villain is coming for them? What do they do when that happens?”

“They fight back,” he whimpered.

“That’s right. And they fight back with emotion, because all the best superheroes have big emotions just like you. But they always fight back, right? So that’s what we’re going to do.”

Shortly after, the Associated Press called my race. We were still at the restaurant.

Image: Kamala Harris
Sporting my ’fro with Maya. (Summer of 1970). Image: Kamala Harris
Image: Kamala Harris
Hanging out with my family in Jamaica. Maya is off to the right. Image: Kamala Harris

“I can’t thank you all enough for being with me every step of the way all the time, all the time,” I told my incredibly loving and supportive family and friends. “It means so much to me.” I was over- whelmed with gratitude, both for the people in that room and the people I had lost along the way, especially my mother. I tried to savor the moment, and I did, if briefly. But, like everyone else, I soon turned my eyes back to the television.

“Alexander, you know how sometimes superheroes are facing a big challenge because a villain is coming for them? What do they do when that happens?”

After dinner, we headed to our Election Night venue, where more than a thousand people had gathered for the party. I was no longer a candidate for office. I was a U.S. senator-elect—the first black woman from my state, and the second in the nation’s history, to earn that job. I had been elected to represent more than thirty-nine million people—roughly one out of every eight Americans from all back- grounds and walks of life. It was—and is—a humbling and extraordinary honor.

My team clapped and cheered as I joined them in the greenroom behind the stage. It all still felt more than a little surreal. None of us had fully processed what was happening. They formed a circle around me as I thanked them for everything they’d done. We were a family, too, and we had been through an incredible journey together. Some of the folks in the room had been with me since my first campaign for district attorney. But now, almost two years after the start of our campaign, we had a new mountain to take.

Image: Kamala Harris
Visiting my paternal grandmother, Beryl, in Jamaica. Image: Kamala Harris
Image: Kamala Harris
Graduating from University of California Hastings College of the Law in May 1989. My mom was pretty proud. Image: Kamala Harris

I had written a speech based on the assumption that Hillary Clinton would become our first woman president. As I went onstage to greet my supporters, I left that draft behind. I looked out at the room. It was packed with people, from the floor to the balcony. Many were in a state of shock as they watched the national returns.

"I looked out at the room. It was packed with people, from the floor to the balcony. Many were in a state of shock as they watched the national returns."

I told the crowd we had a task in front of us. I said the stakes were high. We had to be committed to bringing our country together, to doing what was required to protect our fundamental values and ideals. I thought of Alexander and all the children when I posed a question:

“Do we retreat or do we fight? I say we fight. And I intend to fight!”

I went home that night with my extended family, many of whom were staying with us. We all went into our respective rooms, changed into sweats, and then joined one another in the living room. Some of us were sitting on couches. Others on the floor. We all planted ourselves in front of the television.

No one really knew what to say or do. Each of us was trying to cope in our own way. I sat down on the couch with Doug and ate an entire family-size bag of classic Doritos. Didn’t share a single chip.

But I did know this: one campaign was over, but another was about to begin. A campaign that called on us all to enlist. This time, a battle for the soul of our nation.

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