By Linley Sanders
Morgan Harper remembers her first job, which came long before her career as a lawyer, her position at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and her work in systematically under-served communities.
As a Girl Scout, she funneled her naturally competitive spirit into knocking on doors, speaking to people she’d never met before, and pitching famed Girl Scouts of America cookies in pursuit of grand prizes. It long preceded her progressive bid for Congress, but it made its impact.
“I’ve always been a little bit of a hustler,” 36-year-old Harper told MTV News. “A lot of those [campaign] skills, funnily enough, were honed in Girl Scouts while selling Girl Scout cookies. You give me a goal, and I’m going to attack it. I gave my all.”
Flash forward a few years from wearing the Brownie sash, and Harper is running a Democratic Primary campaign to represent Ohio's 3rd Congressional District. She’s challenging Representative Joyce Beatty, a moderate Democrat who serves as the first vice-chair for the Congressional Black Caucus and has been in office since 2013. The Democrats will face off in the primary on March 17 to see who will run in the general election in November 2020.
Harper, a progressive Democrat, wants to introduce reformist policies to the district — like a federal jobs guarantee, tuition-free public college, and The Green New Deal. She believes Ohioans are ready for a total transformation — and she wants to center that change on the people in the district who work two or three jobs but don't have access to healthcare or cannot afford a home.
“We're really at a bit of a breaking point here,” Harper says. “There's a movement happening to do things in Congress that you don't always get a lot of opportunities to do. [We can] pass legislation that's going to fundamentally change how this economy works and make sure that it works for everyone. There's so many people living here that really need that kind of bold change to happen very quickly.”
In an emailed statement to MTV News, Beatty said she leads with progressive principles and has secured funding for affordable housing, healthcare, and early childhood education throughout her tenure. The Congresswoman also described elements of Harper’s platform — like her support of the Green New Deal — as “essentially a pipe dream that will never get done.”
“These times are too serious for pipe dreams, lack of experience, and template agendas,” she said in the statement. “We need to defeat Donald Trump, stop his dangerous agenda, and get things done for the people of Ohio’s 3rd Congressional District.”
The district, which includes the state capital of Columbus, is rated “solid Democrat” by the Cook Political Report. In 2018, Beatty won the district with 73.6 percent of the vote against her Republican challenger, and it’s considered 36.2 points more Democratic than the national average by FiveThirtyEight’s forecasts. It also includes portions of Franklin County, where Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton received 59.8% of the vote against President Donald Trump in 2016. (He eventually won the state’s electoral votes by a margin of 8.13 points.)
Many of Harper’s campaign promises were informed by her childhood in the 3rd District, and by the opportunities she was afforded that other people might not have been granted. She spent the first nine months of her life in an Ohio foster home; her mother, a public school teacher, raised her in Columbus.
“Being someone who's adopted, I knew from day one that there were no guarantees. I have never been able to live with the illusion of entitlement,” Harper told MTV News. “I do think sometimes [entitlement] can be something that drives a lot of people's thinking — especially people who are in a more privileged position — about public policy. As someone who got lucky breaks and opportunities, I reject all of that. We cannot leave this to chance; we cannot leave outcomes to just the randomness of who your parents happened to be.”
She got her bachelor's degree from Tufts University, Master’s degree from Princeton, and a law degree from Stanford — and credits a lot of scholarships and a job at a law firm with helping her clear the debt she accrued in the process. Her first post-college job was at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau in Washington, D.C., where she served as the Senior Advisor to the Director, and protected consumers against predatory lenders. Even though she forged a path often seen as elite, she doesn’t expect everyone to do it on their own.
“We have to level the playing field and make resources available to everyone,” Harper says; that’s why she supports making public college tuition-free. “To me, those resources include healthcare, access to education — like secondary, vocational, and college-level — and housing. These are the building blocks of life that we know everyone needs, and we need to meet those basic needs.”
Those progressive tenants align her well with Justice Democrats, the Political Action Committee that has endorsed her and famously backed Representatives Ayanna Pressley, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, and Rashida Tlaib before their victories in 2018.
The executive director at Justice Democrats, Alexandra Rojas, told MTV News that Harper stood out to the organization because of her progressive policy stances, life story, and past work as a champion for working people.
“All of the candidates that we’re hoping to back this cycle have to have a proven track record of service in their life,” Rojas said. “For someone like Morgan Harper who grew up in a foster home and was adopted and raised by the east side of Columbus by a public school teacher, she had a completely different way of life based on the small circumstance that she was born into... There's so many reasons that speak to why she is someone that we felt we could get behind as a champion.”
Harper has long-agreed with another progressive Democratic viewpoint: the impeachment of President Donald Trump. Even before a whistleblower complaint emerged that Trump asked the president of Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden’s family, Harper said that people in Ohio’s third district were telling her that they supported the President’s removal from office. Early data showed that the state was split: a recent poll of 837 Ohio voters showed that 47 percent of Ohioans supported impeachment while 43 percent were opposed.
“My experience in Central Ohio and in the third district is that it is a very diverse place with people that understand right and wrong pretty clearly,” Harper says. “We have a president that is wrong, and he is breaking the law. He is not serving us; he is causing turmoil in this country, and we've got to put a stop to it.”
The corruption in America’s political system is something Harper considers a lot, even in her own campaign. She — like many other progressive Democrats — is not accepting corporate PAC money or funds from gun manufacturers, and tells MTV News that grassroots donations were the only way she could run a campaign.
“It does make it more complicated to raise funds… I’ve got to work a lot harder in most cases to get up to that level of money from individual donors. But it’s work that I’m willing to put in,” she says. “I signed up for this, and I truly believe it's the only way that we can get politics back on track for the next generation. It’s the only way that we can get people — real, hard-working people in this country and the 3rd District — to take politics seriously.”
She shakes off notions that her progressive policies are too bold for Ohio’s 3rd Congressional District, noting that it’s impossible to address the systemic issues impacting Ohioans with incremental change.
“I'm going to be true to that in the policy positions that I'm advocating for when I represent the Third District of Ohio,” Harper says. “We should be part of the vanguard that is defining what's possible in Washington.”