Morgan Harper, 36, who is running to unseat Democratic Rep. Joyce Beatty in Ohio’s 3rd District, is part of a new generation of young, progressive candidates who want to shake up the economic and political systems that have left too many Americans struggling to get by.
Harper faces an uphill battle against Beatty, 69, who was elected in 2012 and has remained unchallenged in primaries since, in the heavily Democratic district that includes much of Columbus. The election will likely be decided in the March primary.
Harper, a newcomer to politics, is pushing for what she calls a “very progressive” agenda aimed at addressing issues of economic justice and creating a system that will “work for everyone.” Her campaign doesn’t take corporate PAC money, and she supports the Green New Deal, universal health care and swift action on reparations for racial injustice. Other young progressive candidates who are challenging incumbent Democrats in 2020 include 27-year-old Robert Emmons in Illinois, who is seeking to unseat longtime Rep. Bobby Rush.
“I consider myself part of a group of bold leaders ready for this next generation of work to make sure we have an economy that’s really for everyone,” Harper told HuffPost.
Harper is endorsed by Justice Democrats, the same group that backed Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) in her 2018 race, in which she famously beat a 10-term Democratic incumbent in Queens.
“It feels like everything is on the line. People in our generation are feeling, ‘Woah, what are we looking ahead toward?’” Harper added. “I meet so many people working two, three jobs and it’s still not adding up, who can’t cover housing expenses, are not getting benefits.”
Harper said she thinks people of all ages agree the systems need to change, noting that, as someone of a younger generation, “I am feeling that urgency of working with an understanding that I’m going to be a part of the next 40 years and what is that going to look like.”
Harper grew up in Columbus, the second most economically segregated city in the country, according to a 2015 study from the University of Toronto. Given up for adoption as a baby, she lived in foster care for the first nine months of her life before being adopted. She was raised by a single mother of two, a public school teacher who was an immigrant from Trinidad.
Her family went through a lot of “early financial stress and trauma,” she said, and her childhood in Columbus exposed her to the “economic inequality and segregation at play in Ohio and across the country, and made me want to do something about that.”
But Harper “got lucky,” as she put it, and received financial aid to attend private school. She later obtained her bachelor’s degree at Tufts University, a master’s degree from Princeton and a law degree from Stanford. After working at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau for three years, she was most recently employed at the Local Initiatives Support Corporation, a nonprofit that provides financial support and other resources to local community groups.
Harper thinks a “bold” progressive agenda is a winning platform in her district, which is about 58% white and 32% Black and has a median household income of about $38,000, per the 2010 census. She’s pushing for policies such as “Medicare for All,” the Green New Deal, tuition-free public college, more affordable housing and reparations.
“We have to be real about the injustices of the past that have been incurred by Black people,” Harper said, pointing to 20th-century federal policies like redlining that denied homeownership opportunities to generations of Black families. Fast forward to recent years: In 2016, Black families in the U.S. had a median net worth of $17,600, compared with white families’ median net worth of $171,000.
“The racial wealth gap didn’t just happen,” Harper said. “And it’s only going to be addressed through federal policy.”
“We can do this. We can rethink politics and have it be people-based and win.”
Harper criticized the current House bill around reparations, co-sponsored by her opponent Beatty, who is vice chair of the Congressional Black Caucus. The bill would establish a commission to study and develop proposals for reparations for African Americans.
“We don’t need to study anymore. We need to talk about solutions and how we implement them,” Harper said. “The history is there — just spend some few moments on Google. We’re good to go. Let’s start getting it done.”
Beatty told HuffPost that she had “not heard my opponent offer any solutions” and that she believes the bill will “identify real-world, workable solutions to address hundreds of years of enslavement and systematic discrimination.”
One of the main differences between Harper and Beatty’s campaigns is that the former doesn’t accept corporate PAC money. “When you’re taking this kind of money, you’re not free to speak your mind,” Harper said.
Beatty, who is a member of the House Financial Services Committee, gets significant donations from corporate PACs, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Her biggest donations so far this cycle have come from the insurance industry, commercial banks, securities and investments.
Beatty acknowledged that she had taken PAC funds, adding that her voting record in Congress “certainly reflects putting my constituents first.” She noted that she does not accept contributions from the gun or tobacco industries.
Harper is still a long shot against Beatty, who has raised nearly $700,000 per the latest filing and has more than $1.4 million in cash on hand. Harper, who launched her campaign in July, raised about $320,000 in her first quarter through the end of September, according to her team. Her donations came from more than 2,000 donors who donated an average of $85. Harper said she was “excited” about the haul, calling it a “testament to the strength of grassroots movements.”
“It just means people believe in what we’re doing,” Harper said. “We can do this. We can rethink politics and have it be people-based and win.”