Ideas

Ideas | Tony Rehagen

Red state betrayal: Is this the beginning of a new post-partisan era?

Mark Harris fights back tears as his son John Harris testifies during a public hearing before the North Carolina State Board of Elections in Raleigh, N.C., Feb. 20, 2019. Harris testified that he had warned his father, the Republican candidate in North Carolina's ninth Congressional district, in April 2017 about his misgivings over L. McCrae Dowless Jr., a campaign operative. (Travis Long/Pool via The New York Times) -- FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY
Travis Long/Pool via The New York Times/file
Mark Harris fought back tears as his son John Harris testified during a public hearing before the North Carolina State Board of Elections in Raleigh, N.C.

ON TUESDAY, MARK HARRIS, a former Republican congressional candidate from North Carolina, received a subpoena from the US Justice Department. It is a sign that federal prosecutors are investigating possible election fraud committed by members of Harris’s campaign last November in the state’s 9th Congressional District.

This is just the latest wound for Harris, an evangelical minister and leader of North Carolina’s Baptist Convention. His victory had already been revoked by election officials; his campaign aide had been indicted for tampering with ballots on Harris’s behalf; and he’d withdrawn his candidacy for a new, do-over election.

But the ukindest cut for Harris may be the fact that he was betrayed by his own son.

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On February 20, a tearful drama between Mark Harris and John Harris played out in what felt like a high-profile, reality TV version of America at this intensely partisan moment.

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John Harris, a 29-year-old Assistant US Attorney, testified before the North Carolina State Board of Elections that his father had hired political operative Leslie McCrae Dowless against John’s better advice.

Poised and youthful in a blue suit and red tie, the younger Harris coolly recalled warning his father back in 2017 that signing up with Dowless would be a mistake. “I thought what [Dowless] was doing was illegal,” he said. “And I was right.”

oJohn’s suspicions first arose back in 2017, when his father was considering hiring Dowless for his nascent campaign. Concerned that Dowless might be using shady practices, John found that the absentee ballots in support of one his candidates from a prior election had been submitted in bunches. That led John to conclude that someone was illegally collecting those ballots from the voters. He wrote as much to his father in a series of emails on April 7, 2017.

Mark responded with a dismissive “Thanks so much,” and proceeded to hire the political consultant. But he also chose to pay Dowless as a contractor through a third-party consulting firm to insulate the campaign from possible illegality.

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According to authorities, John’s fears were valid: Dowless’s team allegedly paid employees to illegally collect absentee ballots from voters in two remote counties of the district, and change or forge votes for the senior Harris before submitting them on Mark Harris’s behalf in the 2018 general election. As election night wore into the early morning, Harris was unofficially ahead of his Democratic challenger by just 905 votes.

Dowless was indicted on seven felonies, including three counts of obstruction of justice, two counts of conspiracy to commit obstruction of justice, and two counts of possession of absentee ballots. Mark Harris has called for a new election and pulled himself from consideration, citing health reasons.

As John sat confidently on the witness stand, Mark watched from the back of the room. The elder’s wedding band showed as he held his left hand to his lips to stifle sobs. His face turned red, eyes welled up.

These were tears of shame — both for his own actions and, quite possibly, the treachery of his son.

At the end of his testimony, John Harris’s hard-nosed prosecutorial demeanor broke, too, as he talked about his father and his family. He choked up, his voice broke, and he began to cry. Pulled between his oath as a lawyer, his duties as a citizen, and his devotion to his father, he wanted to make it clear that he was doing what he thought was right.

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“I love my dad, I love my mom, O.K.?” John Harris said, voice wavering. “I certainly have no vendetta against them, no family scores to settle, O.K.? I think they made mistakes in this process and they certainly did things differently than I would have done them.”

THAT EMOTIONAL SCENE hit home for many American families — including mine.

Family always came first in the tiny mid-Missouri town where I grew up. Politics was just another topic for argument’s sake, on the level of debating whether Albert Pujols was as good a hitter as Stan Musial.

But our views are shaped by what we see. My experiences as a journalist talking to, and telling the stories of, people who came from different backgrounds flipped my perspective from that of my father, who has spent almost all his life in that small Midwestern community in which he — and his father — were born.

It has been 20 years since “Pop” and I have agreed on politics, since I left our rural red Missouri home to work in bluer shades of metropolitan Indianapolis, Atlanta, and St. Louis. Although our views have diverged, I have always respected his conservatism, so much so that I defend it when my liberal friends reduced it to villainy or caricature. To do any less, I have felt, would be a betrayal of my father, of my own blood.

And when it comes down to it, my father and I are each just one vote that cancels out the other. Who cares if we don’t talk about our differences anymore? As two ordinary men, we can afford that luxury.

That’s what made watching the rupture of a powerful political family like the Harrises all the more poignant.

Modern research has downplayed the idea that children inherit their ideologies and party affiliations from their parents. But American politics has always been a family affair, from John and J.Q. Adams to George and George W. Bush, to me and my father.

Sometimes it manifests in lock-step nepotism, either to the child’s benefit (Ivanka’s and Jared’s security clearances) or possible detriment (Donald Jr.’s expectation of indictment). In rare instances, it has broken into open revolt, as with Ron Reagan’s lambasting of his father’s renowned conservatism, or Mary and Liz Cheney pulling their VP father in both directions on the issue of same-sex marriage. But most cases of pushback on parental politics have taken on petty undertones — just another round of the old bemoaning those damn kids who, in turn, seem to be trying to ditch generational baggage.

What’s so gripping in this case is that John Harris didn’t set out to be a rebel. He did not act out of spite or malice towards his father. He did not even challenge the elder’s political beliefs. But when John learned that his emailed warnings had not been turned over to the Board of Elections, as his father’s lawyers had told him they had been, he put blind blood loyalty aside to serve the greater good.

John Harris, the son of Mark Harris, testifies during the third day of a public evidentiary hearing on the 9th Congressional District voting irregularities investigation Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2019, at the North Carolina State Bar in Raleigh. (Travis Long/The News & Observer via AP, Pool)
Travis Long/The News & Observer via AP/Pool/file
John Harris testified before the North Carolina State Board of Elections that his father had hired political operative Leslie McCrae Dowless against John’s better advice.

THE BALLAD OF John and Mark Harris is, in a way, the first sign of a post-partisan America. It tells the story of family acting on a moral imperative to correct course in the name of the greater good.

We’re seeing this play out a lot these days. Siblings Andy and Emily West had long tolerated their father, Steve West, espousing and promoting racist and anti-Semitic views on his radio show. But when he refused to drop out of last fall’s race for Missouri Legislature, they went to the Kansas City Star and announced that Steve West “must be stopped,” that his “ideology is pure hatred,” and that his election would only “legitimize him.”

In Arizona, six siblings of Representative Paul Gosar filmed an ad endorsing their brother’s Democratic opponent. Speaking for the family, one of the brothers told the Washington Post that they felt obligated to speak out against Paul’s far-right views. “We gotta stand up for our good name,” David Gosar said in the ad. “This is not who we are.”

Representative Bob Goodlatte of Virginia wasn’t even running, only campaigning for a fellow Republican to replace him when his son, Bobby Goodlatte, publicly endorsed the Democratic opposition and donated the maximum allowed to her campaign. Bobby was vexed by his father’s behavior in questioning the FBI agent Peter Ztrzok, who’d sent anti-Trump texts during the 2016 campaign. Bobby tweeted: “I’m deeply embarrassed that Peter Strzok’s career was ruined by my father’s political grandstanding.”

In all these situations, either directly or indirectly, the betrayers implied that they were acting to protect the integrity of the family and the larger world — even if it meant taking down a prominent member of that clan in the process.

Perhaps the bond of blood isn’t breaking, but rather, growing stronger — strong enough to motivate men and women to cull their own fathers and brothers to strengthen the herd, and preserve the integrity of politics in these changing times.

At the hearing in February, the younger Harris expressed this very idea in a powerful way: “Thinking about all of this and engaging in this process and watching it all unfold, I’ve thought a lot more, probably, about my own little ones . . . and the world we’re building for them,” he said. “We have got to come up with a way to transcend our partisan politics, and the exploitation of processes like this for political gain.

“I’m just left thinking that we can all do a lot better than this.”

Tony Rehagen is a freelance writer based in St. Louis. Follow him on Twitter @trehagen.