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Politics & Government

Analysis: Senate candidate Morgan Harper tries to overcome 'the status quo'

U.S. Senate Democratic candidates Morgan Harper and Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, shake hands at the end of Ohio's U.S. Senate Democratic Primary Debate on Monday, March 28, 2022 at Central State University in Wilberforce, Ohio.
Joshua A. Bickel
/
POOL The Columbus Dispatch
U.S. Senate Democratic candidates Morgan Harper and Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, shake hands at the end of Ohio's U.S. Senate Democratic Primary Debate on Monday, March 28, 2022 at Central State University in Wilberforce, Ohio.

To say that Morgan Harper's campaign for the Democratic U.S. Senate nomination in Ohio is an underdog effort is an understatement. The boulder she is trying to push up that hill is enormous.

She is taking on U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan, who has represented the Mahoning Valley in Congress for two decades. He has an enormous advantage in money, a large lead in the polling and nearly all of the big-time endorsements, from Sen. Sherrod Brown to the Ohio AFL-CIO to the Ohio Democratic Party itself.

None of this seems to faze her.

She has a story to tell — the story of someone who spent the first nine months of her life in a foster home before being adopted by a Columbus school teacher; of a childhood spent in hard financial times as her mother was going through a bitter divorce.

She earned a scholarship that allowed her to have a first-class education at Tufts, Princeton and finally, Stanford, where she earned her law degree. She clerked at the U.S. District Court of Southern Ohio and served in the Obama administration at the Consumer Financial Protection Agency.

And Harper has also earned the street cred to present herself to Ohio Democrats as the "progressive" candidate with her resume in recent years — working at a non-profit committed to fighting to break up corporate monopolies and as co-founder of Columbus Stand Up!, a grassroots community organization that delivered 30,000 masks to residents during the pandemic, drove voters to the polls during the 2020 election, and transported people to their COVID-19 vaccination appointments.

Now she is putting her community organizing skills to use in her first statewide political campaign. And she has turned out to be an indefatigable campaigner.

Earlier this week, on a brutally cold day that saw snow falling from the sky in mid-April, Harper was running from Dayton to Butler County to Norwood to drum up interest in Ohio's early voting period and to do the most important thing an underdog candidate can do — bang the drum to get out the vote.

During mid-afternoon, with a winter wind howling, she stood outside Hamilton County's Early Voting Center in Norwood with a handful of supporters, wearing a light jacket and a t-shirt that said "Morganize Against The World."

 Morgan Harper talks to early voters outside the Hamilton County Board of Elections on April 18, 2022.
Howard Wilkinson
/
WVXU
Morgan Harper talks to early voters outside the Hamilton County Board of Elections on April 18, 2022.

It was fairly quiet that afternoon; none of the long lines that were seen there in the 2020 presidential election. But her campaign had contacted some Hamilton County supporters who came out to meet the candidate and cast their early ballots.

Several supporters gathered around her as she gave a pep talk.

"Just keep spreading the word,'' Harper said. "Talk to your friends. Make sure they know about this campaign. Get them out to vote. That's the key — turnout. That's what we absolutely have to do."

Among the early voters who showed up were her uncle and aunt — Joseph G. Harper III and Judy Harper, of nearby Kennedy Heights.

"We are very proud of her,'' her uncle said. "She has come a long way."

 Morgan Harper with her uncle, Joseph G. Harper III, and aunt Judy Harper, both of Kennedy Heights outside the Hamilton County Board of Elections in Norwood, April 18.
Howard Wilkinson
/
WVXU
Morgan Harper with her uncle, Joseph G. Harper III, and aunt Judy Harper, both of Kennedy Heights outside the Hamilton County Board of Elections in Norwood, April 18.

The 38-year-old candidate had her David-versus-Goliath moment on March 28, at a theater at Central State University. It was her one shot at a head-to-head debate, televised statewide, with Ryan, her principal opponent.

She took advantage of the opportunity, using almost every question put to her as an opportunity to point out what she sees as weaknesses in Ryan's campaign — including his fairly recent conversion to a pro-choice position on abortion and his record of taking hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from the military defense industry.

About all Ryan could say in response was that defense contractors are important job creators in Ohio and that he represents the workers, not the CEOs.

"I knew this would probably be my only chance to raise these issues with the congressman in a statewide forum," Harper told me in Norwood. "I needed to make my point that the status quo is not good enough. People want people representing them in Congress who are going to work for them, not special interests."

There were a lot of people in the Democratic Party scratching their heads earlier this year when Harper agreed twice to debate Josh Mandel, perhaps the most strident of the seven Republican Senate candidates in what has been a raucous primary contest.

Harper's campaign rolled out a six-figure TV ad buy earlier this month for a 30-second ad aimed at introducing her to Ohio's Democratic primary voters. But it came out just after Ryan had launched a $3.3 million TV ad campaign in which he blamed China for Ohio's economic troubles.

Another example of the David-versus-Goliath nature of this race.

Morgan Harper has the slingshot; now we will see if she has the aim.
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