On July 1, Morgan Harper GS ’10 launched her campaign to represent Ohio’s Third Congressional District in the United States Congress, challenging a fellow Democrat, incumbent Congresswoman Joyce Beatty.
In her campaign for Ohio’s primary elections in March, Harper will rely on grassroots techniques to communicate her progressive platform to the people of the Third District. Her platform includes proposals for a federal minimum wage increase, Medicare for All, tuition-free public college, federally funded affordable housing, reparations, and a Green New Deal. This morning, Harper’s campaign was endorsed by the Justice Democrats, a group that helped elect New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in 2018.
According to Harper, the central issue of her campaign is financial stability. In focusing on this cause, Harper hopes to make stories like her own less improbable.
After spending the first nine months of her life in a foster home in Central Ohio and the bulk of her childhood facing what her campaign website refers to as “constant financial stress,” Harper said she “got lucky.” Her mother, a public-school teacher, helped her qualify for financial aid to attend Columbus Academy, a private college preparatory school in Gahanna, Ohio. Using her high-quality high school education and gaining financial assistance from the Ron Brown Scholar Program, Harper went on to Tufts University, where she double-majored in Community Health and Spanish. She then attended the University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public Policy, where she earned a Masters in Public Affairs, and Stanford University, where she received a law degree.
“That experience just showed me that with the right resources and the right instruction, the world sort of opens up for you,” Harper said. “And I thought it was fundamentally wrong, at a pretty early age, that the ability to access those resources might be dependent on what school district you’re born into, who your parents happen to be, or their ability to pay for those type of experiences.”
If elected, Harper said she “will push for bold policies to improve people’s financial situations,” including universal child care and early learning, a jobs guarantee, tuition-free public college, universal income, a federal minimum living wage, and Medicare for All. She said, “we need to make sure we’re equipping people with the tools they need to be okay.”
When asked why she believes the Third District needs a change in leadership, Harper pointed to Columbus’ poverty statistics, noting that over 20 percent of the city’s residents, including over 30 percent of the city’s black population, live in poverty, including many children. In Columbus, the poverty rate among children and adolescents is over 30 percent.
“We have wage growth that has been very slow compared to the price of housing and other expenses,” she added.
Housing is an issue vital to Harper’s campaign. She said Columbus’ recent speedy growth has driven rent prices upwards, making life difficult for working-class families. Harper has professional experience in housing policy, as she formally worked at the Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC), a non-profit that invests in affordable housing through programs like the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC). She claimed these programs are very effective to an extent, but that some housing-related issues are difficult to address on a local level.
“Even the affordable housing that is being built takes a long time … Right now there’s a 54,000-unit gap for affordable housing in Central Ohio,” she said. Harper also pointed to a problem she noticed at LISC where “affordable” housing still costs up to $900 per month while many district residents only have between $400 and $500 available monthly to spend on housing.
“I don’t think that’s a gap we can entirely solve at the local level,” she said. “We have to consider ways that the federal government needs to invest in providing housing for people who might not be able to afford it.”
Her platform specifically calls for “national rent stabilization policies” and “increased affordable housing supply” to help resolve these issues.
Additionally, in part because of these housing issues, Harper said a 15-dollar minimum wage, the value denoted in the Raise the Wage Act and commonly cited among Democratic presidential hopefuls, may not be enough. In Central Ohio, she claims, you need to be making at least 17 dollars per hour to afford a two-bedroom house.
“If you have a child, that’s probably the minimum amount of space that you would need to be able to live comfortably,” she said. “Of course, I am encouraging of the steps that are increasing the minimum wage. Particularly when we have a state minimum wage here of 8-something [$8.55] an hour, a federal minimum wage that’s getting to 15 is a step in the right direction, but it’s still not enough to cover the basic needs of people.”
Harper’s platform also calls for “systemic reparations,” which she feels are necessary to address “a history of systemic denial of wealth accumulation for black families.” She said that while a cash payout represents one of the most widely recognized ideas, she would also explore alternative solutions, such as baby bonds, seed capital, supporting residents of formerly redlined neighborhoods presently undergoing gentrification, and considering ways for these residents to benefit financially from the increasing value of their property.
“We are seeing that people are finding it increasingly difficult to get by,” she added. “We need to have representation and a new generation of leadership that’s willing to be bold and fight for these policies that we know will have an impact.”
Harper’s platform also proposes a “jobs guarantee,” where “if you’re looking for work, you’re able to access a living wage job.” She believes this could be accomplished through government infrastructure projects addressing climate change, and supports a “Green New Deal,” a term coined by Ocasio-Cortez, seeing it as both a job-creating endeavor and a way to address a climate, which is “fundamentally changing and is having a detrimental impact on all of us.”
According to Harper, the impact of pollution is especially potent in Franklin County, a county that received an “F” in ozone pollution from the American Lung Association’s annual “State of the Air” report. The county’s largest city, Columbus, ranks as one of the top metropolitan areas in which children miss school due to asthma attacks.
Harper said that while many potential voters may be deterred by the highly partisan implications of the phrase “Green New Deal,” she has found that explaining the direct impact that climate change is having on people’s day-to-day lives and emphasizing the job-creation opportunities that would come with a large-scale federal effort to mitigate climate change makes people more open to the idea.
“There’s actually an opportunity in trying to fight to mitigate climate change to also create high-quality jobs that would be very well-paying, in the industries of the future that continue to keep people employed,” Harper said, “But as long as we live in this world of just the labels or what we’re calling things, I don’t think we get anywhere. I think really you have to break it down into the practicalities and then people are more receptive.”
Whether it be the Green New Deal, free college tuition, Medicare for All, or systematic reparations, many of Harper’s plans would require federal funding. On how she’s going to pay for it all, a question Harper said she receives often, Harper said, “we could consider how we’re taxing people at different income levels,” in reference to President Donald Trump’s 2017 tax plan that lowered the corporate tax rate from 35 percent to 21 percent and lowered the tax rate on the highest tax bracket by 2.6 percent.
“There are mechanisms for increasing revenue to support these [plans], but I also think, just fundamentally in some of these areas, we’re spending a lot of money already because we don’t address [these problems] in a more preemptive way,” she said. “That would free up resources if we just provide for people’s needs up front.”
She also pointed to the Green New Deal as a specific example where action now could save money down the road, saying that the federal government already spends large sums of money on cleaning up after natural disasters, something that will only get worse if climate change goes unaddressed.
“We can do things preventively, preemptively that will save us money down the line,” she said. “But we have to think big now and push for those things.”
Following in the footsteps of more than 170 federal candidates in 2018, Harper has pledged not to take any money from corporate political action committees (PACs). She has also pledged not to accept donations from registered lobbyists, saying that she doesn’t want to be beholden to anybody beyond the people of the Third District. Instead, she plans to rely on “small-dollar donors” and to run a heavily digital-based grassroots campaign.
“Money has a disproportionate level of influence in our politics right now,” Harper explained.
Harper has also pledged not to accept money from “individuals who are employed by a payday lender or firearm manufacturer,” two industries she said “have had disproportionately negative impacts on our daily lives ... through predatory lending and gun availability.”
The “payday lender” piece stems from Harper’s past work at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB). There, she said, she dealt with complaints from people who thought they were taking out small, short-term loans but wound up still paying them back years later because they “just didn’t realize what they were getting into” from the outset. Though she said the CFPB’s fraud protection hotline is able to help some people, she noted that the payday lending industry’s lobbyists, lawyers, and influence in D.C. have kept regulations of the industry lax.
“You really see first-hand how many resources are used to stop the regulation of that industry, one that takes advantage of working people and sends them into financial ruin and debt traps,” she said. “It’s really important to me that we have policy-makers in place that are going to be free to fight back against people who take advantage of working families.”
Harper received an endorsement from the Justice Democrats, a progressive political action committee that supports, among other candidates and congresspeople, representatives Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, and Ocasio-Cortez, a group commonly referred to as “the Squad,” earlier today. The Justice Democrats have endorsed eight 2020 candidates thus far including Harper, who they wrote on Twitter “is part of a new wave of progressive Democrats pledging to reject corporate PAC donations and fight unapologetically for working people.”
“Morgan is building a grassroots campaign to fight for solutions as big as the problems we face,“ the Justice Democrats’ tweet concludes.
So far, Harper said fundraising has been going well; a representative from her campaign noted that they are “seeing a strong response through Morgan’s educational and professional networks.” Still, it may be hard to compete financially with Beatty, who has raised $372,700 from PACs this election cycle alone and has over $1.3M “on hand,” according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics.
Beatty’s top contributor this election cycle is Anheuser-Busch, and her “top industries” are insurance, securities and investment, and commercial banks. Beatty has raised over $1 million in each of the past two election cycles.
“I look forward to running in 2020 and serving the people of Ohio’s Third Congressional District," Beatty said in a statement forwarded to The Daily Princetonian. "Throughout my entire life, both personally and professionally, I have fought for better jobs, better wages, and a brighter future for the people — and I promise to continue to do so each and every day here in Central Ohio and in Congress.”
In spite of their differences, Harper and Beatty share positions on several key issues, and Beatty has supported various pieces of progressive legislation. On July 18 2019, Beatty signed onto the Raise the Wage Act, a proposal to raise the minimum wage to $15 by 2025, and she recently became a member of the “Medicare for All” Caucus.
“Her impact on the city of Columbus is notable, and she represents what many African American families believe in,“ wrote Camille Reeves ’23 in an email to the Daily Princetonian.
Reeves is from Columbus and lives just outside of the Third District due to what she referred to as a “ridiculous amount of gerrymandering” (a Federal Court ruled Ohio’s congressional map unconstitutional in May). However, she attended the same high school as Harper and has met Beatty on several occasions. If Reeves were a Third District voter, she wrote, she would likely lean towards Harper, who she believes has faced unique challenges and has a good perspective on certain societal problems.
“It’s a very difficult choice because while I know Congresswoman Beatty has the interests of African American families like mine in mind, Morgan Harper understands what it’s like to be young in this nation,“ she added. “I’m looking forward to having younger faces in our government.”
Harper’s progressive agenda, as well as her age, led some to compare her to members of the “Squad” well before she was endorsed by the Justice Democrats. While Harper said she is supportive of anyone who is fighting for policies that will impact the lives of working people and thinks the Squad is a representation of that, she dismissed the idea that she was somehow “put up to” running by the political action committee.
“It seems like people are somewhat in disbelief about this, but I just kind of came up with this idea on my own and nobody put me up to it. I wasn’t recruited to do it,” she explained.
Some Justice Democrats, especially Ocasio-Cortez, reportedly thrived off of national media attention during the 2018 midterm elections, something Harper will likely receive more of after her endorsement. However, right now, Harper said she is less interested in claiming the national spotlight and more interested in getting her message across to the people of Ohio’s 3rd District, who she thinks are ready to embrace her platform.
“It’s a diverse place full of people who are open-minded and I think looking for something new and fresh, and we have the ideas that will appeal to them,” she said.
Recently, after a racist tweet from Trump telling the Squad’s members to “go back” to their supposed countries of origin (all four of the Squad’s members are U.S. citizens, and three of four were born in the United States), some Republicans in office have defended the President’s comments by further vilifying the Squad, labeling the Congresswomen as socialists, communists, and, in one case, “the four horsewomen of the apocalypse.”
Harper acknowledged that, because of her platform’s similarities to those of Ocasio-Cortez, Tlaib, Omar, and Pressley, she could face similar labels down the line. She plans to address such comments in the same way she plans to address the proposals on her platform: by breaking down the buzzwords and focusing on articulating her policies to her would-be constituents.
“People can call me whatever they want,” she said. “I’m fighting for the policies I know are important for all of us to live healthy lives in a clean environment with jobs that make us able to get by. You can ascribe any label to that that you choose, I don’t really mind.”
Ohio has an open primary system, meaning that any citizen can choose between participating in the Republican and Democratic primaries, both of which will take place on March 10, 2020. With just over seven months until she faces off against Beatty in the primary, Harper said she is open to discussing the issues and her platform with “absolutely everyone who wants to talk about them.”
“We’re going to be building the structure to launch a really strong field and ground game to get out there in the communities, talk to people directly, and share what we’re going to fight for and what we think is needed in Washington,” Harper said.