Seven Questions with Morgan Harper

Brittany Moseley
Morgan Harper

In every profile on Morgan Harper—and there have been many since she announced her candidacy for Ohio’s 3rd Congressional District—her time as a Columbus Academy student is always mentioned. Born in 1983 (she announced her candidacy on her 36th birthday in July), Harper spent the first nine months of her life in foster care. She was adopted by a Columbus City Schools teacher and raised on the East Side. Then, as Harper writes in her website bio, she got lucky. 

That luck was a scholarship to attend the elite private school in Gahanna. That then led her to earn a bachelor’s degree at Tufts University, a graduate degree from Princeton University and, finally, a law degree from Stanford. Before announcing her campaign, Harper spent three years in D.C. at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and two years in New York City at Local Initiatives Support Corp., a nonprofit focused on community development. But it was her time at Columbus Academy that introduced her to the inequalities in the city and would later inspire her to run for office.

Harper is running against Rep. Joyce Beatty, who has won every election in the heavily Democratic 3rd District since it was redrawn in 2011. Like freshmen Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar (both members of “The Squad”), Harper is running a grassroots campaign that’s focused on progressive issues. It’s an agenda she believes resonates with voters in the 3rd District. As Ben Deeter of The Columbus Dispatch pointed out, because of the gerrymandered state of the district, “the winner of the 3rd District’s primary election will almost certainly win in the general election.”

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Columbus Monthly spoke with Harper from her campaign office about her platform, economic inequalities in Columbus and her decision not to accept donations from PACs. (This interview has been edited and condensed.)

There are parts of your platform—the Green New Deal, Medicare for all, tuition-free public college—that even establishment Democrats have shied away from. In a state where a majority of people voted for Donald Trump in 2016, how do you convince voters that these are important issues?

How I do that is running a grassroots campaign. That is work that has to be done face-to-face, directly persuading, and in some ways educating folks about what's possible, because we've had a generation of politicians that have been telling us the limits on what we can do while they take money from corporations that have an interest in protecting the status quo. I'm not taking any corporate PAC money. I am free then to fight for what is actually right and to get people beyond the buzzwords to agree on what are our values as a community. Do you believe everyone in this community deserves a home? Do you believe everyone should have health care? Do you believe everyone deserves to have one job that pays enough to live? More or less I'm finding yes, people do agree on that. So here are some ideas to get us there. Everyone agrees that the status quo is not getting us there. So now we need the government to get back in the business of actually working to protect us and making sure that we do have stability.

What does a grassroots campaign look like day-to-day for you?

I spend a lot more time out and about going to events, knocking on doors. What that means is the only way I get [elected] is by the almost 90 percent of people who don't vote for this congressional seat, some of them believing in me, connecting with them, making them believe in a political process. Then in addition, the 10 percent that have in the past voted for this congressional seat, also understanding the time for change is now. What that also guarantees is once I'm in office, the only way I stay is if the people are with me. I win through talking to people. I stay through talking to people.

When did you decide not to take money from corporate PACs?

Though I haven't done anything political before this, I have been an observer of politics as someone who was interested in policy. Once you start connecting the dots, you see that certain people who take money from industries then have votes or legislation that align with the interests of that industry. That's a way to ensure that you're completely bought. You are not free to actually fight for what you believe in, and that's how we've gotten to this place that nobody believes in Congress actually getting anything done. We have to put some line in the sand about what it means to really be representative of the people, and one of those is not taking money from corporations.

In an interview you did withColumbus Alive, you said you noticed inequalities in Columbus’ education system as a child because your mom taught at different schools. Have those inequalities gotten better or worse?

I think it has gotten worse. People are complaining about the same things they've been complaining about for 30 years. That's disheartening. People are also waking up to the fact that they don't have to take this. I met a couple of young women who are at a high school in Columbus City Schools that said, “We're organizing because we are aware of the fact that we're going to take the ACT soon. If we don't do well on that, the narrative is going to be we failed. But we haven't gotten any test prep to excel on that exam, and then we're going to get blamed for not doing well. We're not going to stand for that. We're organizing to demand test prep to ensure that we can do well on this exam.” That is what gives me hope for the future, for our campaign. Even though a 14-, 15-, 16-year-old can't vote right now, they're coming. This is a generation that is aware of the narratives that have been imposed on them to ensure their failure and make sure that they blame themselves for their failure, and they're waking up to that, and they're not going to stand for it.

Did your work at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau influence your campaign agenda?

Yeah, it definitely does. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau was an example of what's possible at the federal government. We are fed this narrative that the federal government is this [bureaucratic] waste that doesn't get anything done in Washington. And for a lot of components of the federal government, I do think that's true. But CFPB, we were 100 percent delivering output—$12 billion back to 28 million consumers across the country. The other takeaway for me from the CFPB is, people ultimately don't have enough money. People aren't making enough money. That's not complicated, but that requires systemic changes to our economy. We can go after companies, which we should do, who are preying on people's problems, but ultimately, that is not going to solve the issue of people just working and working and working and not earning enough money to live. That needs to be bigger-picture, bolder legislation that's actually going to change the way the economy functions to make sure that everybody has a chance at a stable life, not just a select few.

What are the biggest issues affecting the 3rd District?

The thing that I hear most commonly is police violence. We added that to the platform after launch, calling it public safety. We need to get policing reoriented to public safety and away from the violent actions that are killing young people. There's a role the federal government could be playing and doing [such as] requiring data collection for incidents of police violence. I felt strongly about adding that because I was hearing from the community this is a big issue. We're not seeing it addressed by local government. People are connected to the Fraternal Order of Police, and so therefore, they are not as free to speak out on what's going on. We need independent leadership that is actually able to fight for us. A common thing that I hear on the trail is people are surprised to learn there is something the federal government could be doing on something like policing and housing. We think of these as local issues, but the federal government can do policy like we did at the CFPB that then applies to the entire country. The burden isn't so much on individual citizens in each municipality to advocate to their local governments to get this stuff done.

In aNew York Times article, Joyce Beatty described your platform as an off-the-shelf template developed by national groups, one built by "trust-fund babies and million-dollar folk that work on the East Coast." What's your response?

I challenge those people to correct anything I'm saying that's not accurate. What's inaccurate? And in fact, why are we not focused on the needs of our community? I say that to anyone who asks me, "Why are you doing this? Where do these policies come from?" Walk around. Walk around every single day. You don't have to spend a lot of time traveling around the 3rd District to understand that people are struggling and need help. We went to a barber shop on the North Side in Linden, and we had a [homeless] older white couple hanging out in a black barbershop because if they stayed outside, they were going to get sent to jail. So they're hanging out in a black barbershop all day long until they go to their tent at the end of the day. And how did they get into this position? Because he had one medical emergency that he couldn't navigate financially, and it stressed out his partner so much that then she lost her job, and they can't go into the shelter system, because if they do, they'll have to separate because they're not married. We're at rock bottom. So anyone who thinks that this is some pipe dream East Coast trust-fund baby agenda, I don't think truly is committed to helping the people of the 3rd District, and they need to go.