Mark Harris graduated this past weekend, but did not attend any of the Commencement festivities. He was too busy preparing for a November election for the 42nd district of Pennsylvania’s state legislature.
The 21-year-old political science major defeated a five-term incumbent state representative in last week’s primary election and will be representing the Republican Party in the general election.
“I love doing this stuff,” Harris said. “It’s important for the state, and it’s my passion.”
Harris, a conservative Republican, beat 53-year-old state Rep. Tom Stevenson, a moderate republican, by 9 percent of the vote to win the primary last Tuesday. Moderate Republican Daniel Hackett also ran for the seat, which represents a district south of Pittsburgh that includes Harris’s hometown of Mount Lebanon.
A 2003 high school graduate, Harris said he completed his GW credits last semester and earned his final three credits for graduation through an independent study course built around his campaign.
Harris attributed his success in the primary to honest campaigning and speaking about issues that resonated with voters. He said property tax reform will be an important issue in the upcoming November election for the seat.
“We need real property tax reform to get Pennsylvania moving, and I expect that message to carry on Election Day,” Harris said.
Harris added he hopes to raise about $200,000 over the next six months to fund his general election campaign. He said he raised about half of that amount to run in the primary election.
Unlike many state primary elections, Harris’s election has garnered national media attention. In the days following last Tuesday’s election, stories in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Associated Press mentioned the results. On Friday, Harris appeared on CNN’s On the Story, filmed in GW’s Jack Morton Auditorium.
Harris’s victory comes in a year when at least 14 incumbent GOP lawmakers also lost their respective primary elections, according to the Associated Press. Delano said this may be due to the large number of Pennsylvania voters who disapproved a pay raise lawmakers passed for themselves last year.
“It’s pretty impressive,” said Jon Delano, a Pennsylvania media personality and public policy professor at Carnegie Mellon University. “Any time you beat an incumbent by any number of votes, it’s a big victory.”
Delano said that Harris’s opponent Stevenson made a “tactical mistake” by not emphasizing his own accomplishments and instead focusing on Harris’s young age.
“I think (Stevenson’s campaign) backfired,” Delano said. “People felt this was a very unfair, negative campaign.”
Stevenson did not return phone calls last week.
In November’s general election, Harris will face 33-year-old Democrat Matthew Smith.
Delano said Harris’ victory over Stevenson will likely shift some moderate Republican voters toward Smith.
“The Democrats sense a real opportunity,” Delano said. “I think this is going to be one of the hardest – fought legislative battles in Pennsylvania.”
Smith, a lawyer at a prominent Pittsburgh law firm, called Harris’ win “interesting.”
“People are ready for change and reform in Harrisburg, and that came in loud and clear,” Smith said.
Smith says he does not plan on attacking Harris’ age.
“I’ve never been one to make age an issue,” he said. “I’m going to focus on running a positive, issue-oriented campaign.”
Harris, who calls Smith “a nice guy,” acknowledged that he has a tough campaign ahead of him. Harris said he knocked on 5,000 doors before the primary and added, “I’ll probably have to knock on 10,000 doors to win the general election.”