How Morgan Harper’s Ohio Primary Challenge Explains The House Democratic Meltdown

Originally published in The Intercept on July 16, 2019, with Ryan Grim.
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WHEN MEMBERS OF the Congressional Black Caucus took aim last week at New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the organization that boosted her primary campaign, Justice Democrats, there was no mystery as to the motive: It’s about the primaries.

Senior members of the CBC who have served in Congress for decades are suddenly facing challenges, or looking over their shoulders at one, disrupting the smooth, biennial tradition of effectively unopposed reelections.

On Friday morning, The Hill published a story quoting multiple members of the CBC, and anonymous staffers, accusing Justice Democrats of targeting members of color up for reelection.

That was followed Friday night with a controversial tweet blasting Ocasio-Cortez’s chief of staff, Saikat Chakrabarti, a co-founder of Justice Democrats. The tweet was sent from the account controlled by Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, who replaced his mentor, the ousted Joe Crowley, as chair of the House Democratic Caucus. Jeffries, a CBC member, has been the subject of a reported primary effort by Justice Democrats, but no one has yet to materialize (and the group denies it was recruiting anyone).

It capped off a week in which House Speaker Nancy Pelosi singled out Reps. Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar, and Ayanna Pressley for criticism in an interview with New York Times opinion columnist Maureen Dowd, and followed it with a condemnation of Chakrabarti in a private caucus-wide meeting. Over the weekend, Democratic leaders leaked polling numbers purporting to show that Ocasio-Cortez and Omar were deeply unpopular with white, non-college-educated voters and putting the House majority at risk.

If Pelosi’s goal was to diminish the Squad and elevate the rest of her caucus, it backfired. President Donald Trump picked up on the poll, and Pelosi’s criticism, and suggested the four members of Congress all “go back” to a different country. “I’m sure that Nancy Pelosi would be very happy to quickly work out free travel arrangements!” he tweeted.

Party leaders who won back the House on a pledge to resist Trump are instead feeding him ammo to fire at members of their own party. The strange behavior is only explicable in the context of deep anxiety around the vulnerability of incumbency. To get a sense of just why incumbent Democrats are lashing out so wildly, the case of Columbus, Ohio, is instructive.

DURING THE 2010 tea party wave, Republicans won what was then a swing seat from freshman Democratic Rep. Mary Jo Kilroy. Republicans then gerrymandered the state, packing as many Democrats as they could into Ohio’s 3rd Congressional District, which includes most of Columbus, and giving the Republican incumbent a new, safer seat. Kilroy and Joyce Beatty both ran in the redrawn 3rd District in 2012, with Beatty coming out ahead in the primary, with 38 percent of the vote to Kilroy’s 35. She went on to easily win the general election.

Though it’s a safely Democratic district, Beatty, who is a member of the CBC, became a fast ally of the banking industry after winning a seat on the House Financial Services Committee — known as a “cash committee” for its ability to raise corporate PAC money for its members. So far this cycle, the industries that make up her top five donors are insurance companies, commercial banks, real estate, securities and investments, and finance/credit companies, according to data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics. She’s taken more than $2 million in corporate PAC money over her four terms.

Beatty’s funding is part of a K Street strategy that exploits the large wealth gap persisting in many majority- or plurality-black districts — a gap that makes it much harder for CBC members to raise from wealthy donors the kind of money needed to safely stay in Congress. That, in turn, makes corporate PAC money attractive to fill the gap. CBC members privately bristle when Democrats from wealthy districts announce pledges to forswear corporate PAC money, but still fill their coffers with max-out checks from local millionaires and billionaires in San Francisco or Seattle.

By the old rules of Democratic Party politics, Beatty has done everything right. She got into Ohio politics in 1999, taking over her husband’s seat in the state House, and steadily rose through the machine, becoming the first female Democratic House leader in the state’s history. During that time, the Ohio Democratic Party largely collapsed, with the state moving from purple to red, but Beatty continued to rise, becoming a top official at Ohio State University, and by the time she’d arrived in the U.S. House, her seat appeared to be hers for life.

But now Beatty, who is 69, is facing a primary challenge from Morgan Harper, a 36-year-old progressive who leapfrogged the usual path to a seat, threatening the fragile machinery constructed in Ohio to guide and constrain party politics. If the elected official toward the top of the ladder isn’t safe, all of a sudden the lower rungs start to seem less reliable. If the party machinery and its business allies can’t deliver a House seat to a loyal politician who has paid her dues, the rationale for the machine itself begins to evaporate.

Harper is running on her own, without any assistance from Justice Democrats or other national progressive groups. But back in Washington, incumbent Democrats privately suspect that Justice Democrats and Ocasio-Cortez are behind it.

THE CHALLENGER IS a dangerous one for the machine. Born in Columbus, Harper spent her first nine months in foster care. She was eventually adopted and grew up in Berwick, a predominantly working-class, black Columbus neighborhood, and received financial aid to attend a local private school. Harper, who is black, would write later she “developed an intense commitment to fighting inequality after seeing how opportunities open up, no matter your upbringing, once you’re equipped with resources.”

She left Ohio for college: With more financial aid, she went to Tufts, then attended Princeton for a master’s in public affairs and Stanford for law school. She went on to become a senior official at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, whose first permanent head, Richard Cordray, is a protege of Sen. Elizabeth Warren and lost a bid for Ohio governor in 2018. Harper left the CFPB in February 2017 to take a job with Local Initiatives Support Corporation, a national community development financial institution. This past December, she moved back home to Columbus.

She launched her campaign on July 1, her birthday, with a progressive platform that includes universal child care, tuition-free public college, Medicare for All, reparations, affordable housing, and a Green New Deal. Her website says she “care[s] about nothing more than ending economic segregation” and she’s “convinced we need a new generation of bold leadership in Congress” to ensure her story is not an anomaly.

Harper said that her platform is driven by her experiences as a child in Columbus. “When you have experiences early in life when you see how much your parents are stressed for money, juggling bills, it doesn’t really leave you,” she said.

“It’s hard to ever feel like you’re all good when it’s a single parent who’s a public school teacher and there’s two kids involved,” she said of her mother, who raised her and her brother. “But my mom worked very hard with that income to try to make opportunity for us and sacrificed quite a bit, prioritizing education so that we could get scholarships, but also she could contribute to send us to private school.”

Harper wasn’t recruited by local or national groups, and while her campaign has reached out to Justice Democrats, no decision on an endorsement has been made. Other local progressive groups like Yes We Can: Columbus Working Families and Democratic Socialists of America haven’t endorsed Harper, though are considering it.

Tammy Alsaada, a top organizer with the Columbus-based People’s Justice Project, said that when Harper announced, political figures from around the city called to see what they could find out. “This was really surprising to a lot of folks,” she said. “I’ve been getting a lot of calls from folks saying, ‘Did I know this was happening?’”

Alsaada said that one of the group’s co-founders, Aramis Sundiata, was supporting the Harper campaign, but that she herself was taking a wait-and-see attitude and planned to meet with her soon. Neither Beatty nor Harper have been outspoken yet on policing, she said, which, along with community investment, is the issue she hears about most from the public.

Beatty, Alsaada added, has deep connections in the community, while Harper has been away and is largely unknown. “She’s very young, very new, and a lot of people don’t know her. … That’s gonna be something she’s gonna have to overcome. This district is a district of relationships that are long established,” Alsaada said. “Joyce has supported a lot of things in our community and built lots of strong relationships.”

But, Alsaada continued, things are in flux, and Columbus could be open to somebody new who’s willing to fight. “Joyce Beatty is from this community; I have to say, personally, that she has been a person in the community that’s been respected, but we need people who will take a bold stand,” she said. “You can’t count on folks to blindly vote party line.”

THE FRANKLIN COUNTY Democratic Party, which overlaps with the 3rd Congressional District, has been chilly to progressive challengers in the past. In 2017, when a slate of candidates aligned with the Working Families Party ran for City Council and school board, Jen House, the chair of the county party’s endorsement process, told the Columbus Dispatch the candidates were trying to undermine the work of the local party. She later expressed frustration to The Intercept at those “who call themselves Democrats standing out there and refusing to acknowledge” the positive work Democrats are achieving. She added that “being constantly negative” contributes to an attitude, prevalent in Columbus and throughout Ohio, that government can’t succeed.

That lefty uprising fell far short of its goals, with incumbents easily reclaiming their seats and progressive challengers attributing their losses to lack of funding. “The incumbents raised over a million dollars for this race,” a spokesperson for the Yes We Can slate said in the days following the election. “We were outspent 10-to-1. And yet we still garnered tens of thousands of votes across the city.”

But the progressive movement in Columbus has grown stronger over the last two years. Yes We Can continued to build its base and the Columbus DSA chapter significantly grew its membership, now claiming a much more robust electoral organizing component. The Columbus teachers union, under new leadership, has also been taking more vocal, progressive stances and recently threatened a strike. In 2017, the union took a vote of “no confidence” in the city’s seven-person Democratic school board.

During the 2016 primaries, Hillary Clinton beat Bernie Sanders in the district, 60,000 to 44,000. Beatty ran unopposed, and only about 80,000 people bothered to fill in her bubble. The March 10, 2020, primary is a ripe opportunity for Harper, given the stakes of the presidential contest; presuming Sanders and Warren are still in the race, progressive turnout could be especially high.

The Harper campaign believes it can win by turning out 100,000 voters — which would be a significant increase in the number of votes cast in the district — through a volunteer-fueled ground game. Ohio’s 3rd Congressional District is more than one-third African American. As Harper recently noted, the median age in the district is 32, with many people moving into the city from other places. Already around 200 people have signed up to volunteer, and the local press has been closely following the campaign: a break from the traditional media blackout that often greets primary challengers in other districts. “We’re getting a lot more coverage of it than we expected,” Harper told The Intercept.

The coverage is driven partly by an unexpected shake-up to what was to be a sleepy congressional primary and Harper’s compelling life story. But the attention is also likely related to her ability to operate fluently in elite spaces, something an insurgent like Ocasio-Cortez, who was a full-time bartender, initially lacked. Harper’s time at elite colleges and universities, as well as her successful career, coupled with her fiancé’s political background and his job with the Clinton-connected global consulting firm Teneo, gives her access to a universe of contributors that may help get a campaign off the ground fast, before a small-dollar network can be built. Where Ocasio-Cortez was on a shoestring budget until just weeks before the primary, Harper’s campaign expects to raise more than $250,000 this quarter.

The combination of her potential resources, connections, and progressive policy platform, which could activate a local grassroots army of support, makes Harper’s challenge highly credible. It also makes it all the more threatening to incumbents in Washington — not because it’s being driven by national agitators like Justice Democrats, but precisely because it isn’t.

Ocasio-Cortez’s victory has created a permission structure that Harper is relying on to launch her bid, but otherwise, she sees the opening, and she’s doing it herself. “No one put me up to this,” Harper said.

HARPER SAID THAT she sees elected officials like Pressley, Omar, Ocasio-Cortez, and Tlaib as role models. “I most closely identify with the women who are pushing for the bold policies that we’re going to need to make sure people are OK, and we build a United States that works for everyone,” she said.

But, as Pelosi frequently notes, their numbers in the House are small. Expanding to a size where they can be more than a leadership punching bag will require bringing a dozen or two Morgan Harpers to Congress. They’ll have to fight the CBC to do it.

In 2018, when Pressley, D-Mass., now a Black Caucus member, ran against white Democrat with the endorsement of Justice Democrats, prominent CBC members got behind the white incumbent. Over the weekend, Pressley took what some saw as a veiled shot at the CBC while at Netroots Nation, a progressive political conference, telling aspiring candidates there that if they get to Washington, they need to be true to what brought them there:

I don’t want to bring a chair to an old table. This is the time to shake the table. This is the time to redefine that table. Because if you’re going to come to this table, all of you who have aspirations of running for office, if you’re not prepared to come to that table and represent that voice, don’t come, because we don’t need any more brown faces that don’t want to be a brown voice. We don’t need black faces that don’t want to be a black voice. We don’t need Muslims that don’t want to be a Muslim voice. We don’t need queers that don’t want to be a queer voice. If you’re worried about being marginalized and stereotyped, please don’t even show up because we need you to represent that voice.

Omar, D-Minn., who was also supported in 2018 by Justice Democrats, distanced herself from the CBC’s recent attacks. “I have not seen a collective statement from the Congressional Black Caucus. As you’re aware, I’m a member,” she told The Intercept. “Individual members can and are free, I suppose, to share their opinions on how they feel about things, but that really is not in line with how I think about the statements [Ocasio-Cortez] has made. And I really think that this back and forth is a hindrance to the integrity of our caucus as we work to resist detrimental policies that are coming from this administration.”

She added that the House Democrats tweet targeting Ocasio-Cortez’s chief of staff was “bizarre.”

No matter how clear it is that Harper’s choice to run was all her own, some incumbents and local party leaders will see a nefarious national plot, another orchestrated attempt to knock out a veteran black lawmaker.

“It just seems strange that the social Democrats seem to be targeting members of the Congressional Black Caucus, individuals who have stood and fought to make sure that African Americans are included and part of this process,” Rep. Greg Meeks of New York, who replaced Crowley as chair of the Queens Democratic Party, told The Hill. (Meeks is facing a primary from first-time candidate Shaniyat Chowdhury.) Beatty was mentioned by CBC members in The Hill’s article last week as somebody Justice Democrats may target, along with Anthony Brown, D-Md., and Yvette Clarke, D-N.Y.

“I don’t know if Beatty is like a [Joe] Crowley in Washington but she’s certainly one of a handful of people who are a party boss in local politics,” a Columbus progressive told The Intercept. They suspect the reaction from establishment Ohio Democrats will be similar to the recent protests against primarying 10-term Rep. Lacy Clay, a CBC member from Missouri who was also challenged by a black woman, Cori Bush. Bush fell short in 2018 but is running again.

A spokesperson for Beatty did not return The Intercept’s requests for comment, and Michael Sexton, the executive committee chairman for the Franklin County Democratic Party, also did not return requests for comment about Harper’s candidacy.

In the meantime, Harper said she’s run up against some challenges already. ”It’s been tough to find a compliance firm,” she said, referring to the consultants who help campaigns file disclosure forms with the Federal Elections Commission. “People are nervous about being associated with a primary race. We had one and then we lost it.”

But she found a new firm and is plugging ahead. “This is a country that’s been based in competition,” she said, “in having open voices and people being able to express their opinions. To think that in our politics we wouldn’t give room for that, and space for that, to people who are trying to represent different perspectives — I don’t really understand it, and I think any attempt to try to suppress that is only going to backfire.”

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