Senator Fred Harris on Politics, Part 2

Part 2: A Forward Look

By Lance Chilton

Corrales resident Fred Harris has been optimistic about the United States throughout his 64-year career in American politics, which continues as he runs a congressional internship in political affairs for University of New Mexico students.

This is not blind optimism; Mr. Harris, who was a Democratic Senator from Oklahoma from 1964 to 1972 and a presidential candidate in 1972 and 1976, reads voluminously and has studied and lived American politics since then.  Despite his underlying optimism, he said during a 2018 address in Minneapolis that “Our country is in grave, grave danger.”

Mr. Harris became active in Democratic politics as a University of Oklahoma undergraduate in the 1950s.  After law school and having started in a law practice in Lawton, Oklahoma, promising to be active in the practice but not in law, Mr. Harris became a state senator to replace a legislator who had died.  Sen. Harris quips that when he told his father that he was running for the seat, his father asked how much that would cost.  “About $10,000” was the answer.  And how much does the job pay “$200 per month during the session,” the would-be senator answered.  His father was not impressed.

Fast-forwarding to the present (and omitting much information about Fred Harris’ Senate career and his involvement with the Kerner Commission about which I wrote last week), following Mr. Harris 8 years in Washington as senator, I asked him what he thought of the current US political situation.  He spoke meaningfully of the polarization of American politics, Senator Harris noted that the era of being able to “Disagree without being disagreeable” ended with the advent of Newt Gingrich.  But he expressed great hope in Joe Biden’s ability to bridge gaps and to negotiate between opposing parties.  He spoke of the deepening of Vice President Biden’s character by the severe tragedies he and his family have suffered.  “Joe is a likable guy,” he said, “with an FDR-like posture toward reviving the country.”

Fred Harris is also optimistic because he is seeing more political activism all over US society – examples he gave are Black Lives Matter and the Women’s March.  We have to be active, he said, “and we have to stay mad as hell.”

He was heartened especially by the recent Democratic primary in New Mexico: by its exceptional turnout, especially mailed in absentee ballots, by the fact that we will elect a Congressional delegation including three outstanding women of color, and by his pleasure in a remarkable crop of new state senatorial candidates in our party.