Senior Mark Harris is not your typical 20-year-old college student. He has his own Web site. He e-mails reporters from his Blackberry during movies. He drives home almost every weekend to ask strangers for money. And he is running for a state representative seat in Pennsylvania.
Harris, a conservative Republican, is challenging incumbent Rep. Tom Stevenson in the state primary next year on May 16. Stevenson, a moderate Republican, is serving his fifth term as representative to the suburban 42nd legislative district, just south of Pittsburgh. The district includes Harris’ hometown of Mount Lebanon.
“I decided to run because I love Pittsburgh and the suburbs where I’m from, and I was sick of how mismanaged the state was,” Harris said.
Harris is especially critical of Stevenson’s vote to give state legislators – including himself – a 16 to 34 percent pay raise.
Since the pay raise passed in July, legislators who voted for it – both Republicans and Democrats – have faced a firestorm of criticism.
“I think the pay raise is the straw that broke the camel’s back,” Harris said. “It’s a flagrant disregard for the (Pennsylvania) Constitution.”
Harris says his first act in office would be to vote for a repeal of the pay raise. A small government conservative, Harris would also like to see Pennsylvania’s legislature downsized to a more part-time body. Stevenson did not return repeated phone calls from The Hatchet. Josh Wilson, communications director for the Pennsylvania Republican Party, also did not return phone calls.
He says a lack of jobs is keeping young people from returning to Pennsylvania – particularly the Pittsburgh region – after college.
Harris’ candidacy has caught the attention of local media in Pittsburgh. He has been the subject of two articles in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, has appeared on KDKA-TV and has been interviewed on local radio stations. In an interview on KDKA radio, Harris defended his decision to run for office at a relatively young age.
“It’s going to be the issues of the day which ultimately are going to win out,” he told KDKA.
Jon Delano, a local media personality and professor of public policy at Carnegie Mellon University, said despite’s Harris’ optimism, the student has many hurdles to overcome.
“I think he has a very uphill battle,” Delano said in a phone interview. “He not only has to defeat a Republican incumbent in his own party, but he also has to win in a moderate district running as a conservative candidate.”
“For a 20-year-old he is tremendously articulate,” Delano added.
The most important thing for Harris to do now is use those speaking abilities to get his name out to voters, Delano said.
“Right now 99.9 percent of Republicans do not have a clue who Mark Harris is,” Delano said.
And once people find out who he is, Harris faces the challenge of getting them to take him seriously. Although he is active in the College Republicans and the Young Conservatives of Pennsylvania, Harris has never held a public elected office.
To overcome that challenge, Harris needs to raise enough money to be able to get his message out to the public, he said.
“I’m very serious about winning this race, and I will raise the resources and put in the effort needed to do so,” Harris said. “Fundraising is going very well … I’m confident we’re going to have the money we need to win.”
Even if Harris defeats Stevenson in the primary, he still has to face a Democratic challenger in the general election.
Matthew Smith, a 33-year-old lawyer who lives in Mount Lebanon, is so far the only Democrat to publicly announce his candidacy for Stevenson’s House seat. Smith and Harris share a desire to reform the legislature.
Smith approves of Harris’ call for reform, and he said he doesn’t see Harris’ age as a handicap.
“I don’t think that age should really be an issue,” Smith said in a phone interview. “It should be a matter of what ideas the person brings to the position.”
But age apparently may have been an issue for GW senior James “Jake” Gilbreath, who ran unsuccessfully for the Texas House of Representatives last fall. His opponent questioned his experience, telling a local newspaper that if Gilbreath were his son, he would advise against him running.
Gilbreath’s age was not the only challenge he faced. He was running as a Democrat against a popular incumbent Republican in a staunchly Republican district. Money was tight, and Gilbreath had only a few volunteers.
Gilbreath welcomed the news of another GW student running for state office.
“It’s great that someone else is enthusiastic enough to get out there,” Gilbreath said in a phone interview. “You don’t have to win to get involved.”
This weekend Harris will drive to Pittsburgh for the third time in four weeks. There he will attend a local Republican women’s event – a fashion show. For Harris it is one more small step down the path to elected office.