Bipartisanship is passé. No one told Jordan Harris.

By: - February 11, 2019 8:24 am

Rep. Jordan Harris, D-Philadelphia, (Capital-Star photo).

Holding up fingers on just one hand, Jordan Harris can trace back the generations to when his ancestors were enslaved.

Belle, the Philadelphia representative’s great-great-great grandmother, was a slave. Mary Phillips, his great-great grandmother, and Ola Wallace, his great- grandmother, were both domestic workers.

His grandmother, Claudette Harris, raised three kids in the Philadelphia projects while working during the day and going to school at night — first at community college, then at Temple University — to become a teacher.

That degree set Harris’ mother on a path to get her own — and for her son to get two.

Now, a generational stone’s throw from slavery, the new Democratic House whip can see the course his family forged with education.

When he looks at criminal justice reform and education funding, he sees them through the lens of his family’s past.

“That’s how you change the trajectory of people’s lives,” he told the Capital-Star. “So when I come into [the Capitol], yes I’m results oriented because results matter to people whose lives will change, whose children’s lives will change, whose grandchildren’s lives will change. That’s what we’re doing here. And if we’re not serious about that work, what’s the point?”

At 34 years old, Harris is the youngest House Democratic whip ever.

He’s just started his fourth term representing south and southwest Philadelphia’s 186th district. His predecessor, a retired incumbent, toiled away for ten terms before becoming the House Democrats’ No. 2, tasked with keeping track of the caucus’ views — and if necessary, getting them in line with the party ahead of tough votes.

Not since now-U.S. Rep. Dwight Evans was ousted from his perch as the ranking Democrat on the state House Appropriations Committee in 2010 has a Philly lawmaker or African American been as high in leadership.

Harris’ friends and allies on both sides of the aisle describe him as dogged on issues he’s passionate about, yet affable and savvy enough to forge allies in unlikely places. Combined with a keen ability to understand individual motivations and stay loose when working on important topics, he can be a powerful force for compromise.

Those traits mean Harris can rattle off a string of accomplishments after just six years in Harrisburg.

They include the nation’s first Clean Slate law, which seals non-violent criminal records after 10 years; an executive order to ban questions about criminal records on government job applications; and $19 million to his district.

But that same drive for results and ability to find friends anywhere means that he can sometimes take on topics that are out of step with the bulk of his party. He’s been a co-chair of the Democratic Oil and Gas Caucus and is a vocal supporter of charter schools.

Harris contends any concerns are a problem of perception.

A former public high school teacher, he says his life has shown him the gains from a good education and the price of a poor one. If that means supporting charters to give his district a better choice, so be it.

“There is an awesome responsibility because there is a desire for results. And these results aren’t just about, you know, providing, you know, small trinkets for folks or friends,” Harris said. “None of that. These results are about changing the lives of people.”

Friends across the aisle

Born and raised in south Philadelphia, those around Harris could sense his ambition from an early age.

Debbie Mann, Harris’ fifth-grade teacher, said he was a focused, serious child who didn’t fool around much in class. When the time came to speak publicly, Harris wouldn’t hold back from sharing what was on his mind.

“He was an orator,” Mann said. “He had no problem getting in front of the class.”

But it was Harris’ portrayal of Frederick Douglass in a play that stood out the most to Mann.

She remembers watching him perform as the great abolitionist and seeing a future for him in public service and fighting for his community.

His first real shot at standing up to power came as a senior in high school. Harris was the student body president at John Bartram High School in southwest Philly when state Sen. Anthony Williams showed up to discuss plans to shut it down.

Harris and Williams got into a debate, according to the latter. But the fact that a high schooler would stand up to argue with Williams at all impressed him.

So he offered Harris an internship.

Harris said Williams’ tutelage helped direct him on his path to public service.

“He showed me that if used the right way, government can really empower people,” Harris said, adding: “It kinda helped chart the course … of me wanting to be an advocate for working class, poor people.”

In the Capitol, no issue has better exemplified Harris’ mission than criminal justice reform, especially the Clean Slate Act, which seals records so prospective job applicants won’t be harmed by a decade-old brush with the law.

The bill brought the Koch-backed think tank Americans for Prosperity, the conservative Commonwealth Foundation, and the American Civil Liberties Union together.

The legislation, signed into law last summer, also created partnerships between lawmakers from the leafy, affluent south central Pennsylvania exurbs and inner-city Philadelphia.

Rep. Sheryl Delozier, R-Cumberland, and Harris backed the House bill, while Williams teamed with then-GOP Sen. Scott Wagner of York County on companion legislation in the Senate.

The unlikely alliance between the Philadelphia Democrats and conservative Republicans was made possible in part because of the traits fellow members described in Harris. They complimented his ability to listen, figure out what drives other members, and make appeals to their core beliefs.

“I think he’s open to listening,” Delozier said. “That’s what we needed to be.”

Just last month, Delozier and Harris co-founded a 32-member bipartisan caucus to advocate for more reforms to keep people out of prison and in the workforce. Delozier said professional licensing reforms will be a priority going forward.

Rep. Seth Grove, R-York, is another across-the-aisle ally Harris has made by always keeping his door open — even to his ideological rivals.

“You may be polar opposites on issue X, but on issue Y you may be holding hands, skipping down the hallway,” Grove said. “He gets that it’s not an adversarial relationship.”

Harris even has the endorsement of new House Majority Leader Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster, who said he was confident that the new whip’s “skill set and his ability to articulate very thoughtful positions” could mean issues — like updating state charter laws — bogged down over the years could advance.

It’s not clear if a friendly attitude toward Republicans is what Democratic voters want.

Findings from Pew show that nationally, Democratic voters have started to look less and less kindly on compromise from their politicians, matching their GOP counterparts.

Pennsylvania has also become more polarized this decade, as the ranks of rural Democrats from the west and moderate Republicans from the Philly suburbs have thinned.

The geographic trend has shifted the Democrats’ power base east of the Susquehanna River. About 58 percent of the caucus now comes from Philadelphia or its collar countries.

That shift helped put Harris and two more of his colleagues from the southeast into leadership last November. Previously, just two members from the region served in minor roles in the seven-leader caucus. Now all but two, including Minority Leader Frank Dermody of Allegheny County, represent the southeast.

The change has created some hard feelings. But Harris has been taking to the road to visit each member’s home district and understand the local issues at play.

“[Harris has] made very clear he wants to do more listening than speaking” as whip, Rep. Mike Schlossberg, D-Lehigh, said.

Harris also thinks the changing of the guard “shows the diversity of our caucus, and I think that’s a good thing.” Rep. Joanna McClinton, a Philadelphia Democrat who shares Harris’ views on charters, became the first black woman to serve as caucus chair in November.

“It may have been some growing pains for us to get there,” Harris said, “but we’re here now.”

Towing the line

No individuals familiar with Harrisburg wished to go on the record with their criticisms of Harris. But privately, they cited his support for charter schools and openness to oil and gas industry as concerns moving forward.

Being seen as close to oil and gas could be tricky at a time when opposition to natural gas pipelines is animating suburban turnout. Support among the party for charter schools is similarly dismal: Nationally, just 34 percent of Democrats back them.

Harris said he took the oil and gas position at the insistence of “environmental friends” who wanted someone they could work with.

A 2018 scorecard from state environmental advocacy groups supports his claim. Harris’ votes over the past two years earned him a 100 percent rating.

As for his openness to charter schools, Harris described how much he values the power of education. But after watching friends fail out of school and end up in prison or dead, he thinks any paths for young people out of poverty should be kept open.

“There are those who have their opinion of it, but invite them to come to my district and see the young people who have been attending failing schools for years,” Harris said. “I invite them to talk their parents who attended that same failing school. I invite them to talk to their grandparents who attended the same failing school. And then I want them to come back and talk to me about where I am on public education.”

When Harris takes those votes, his fellow rebels are usually in similar circumstances — black lawmakers representing urban, majority-minority districts.

Harris also proudly claimed a perfect record with the Pennsylvania State Education Association. Chris Lilienthal, spokesperson for the state’s teachers union, said the group only releases its ratings to members but added that Harris “has been with PSEA on many votes, which is why PSEA was happy to recommend him in 2018.”

Another friend and fellow Philly member, Rep. Donna Bullock, views Harris’ record similarly. She might “not share all of Rep. Harris values,” but thinks he still can work for every member.

“On the hardest votes where it was necessary to make sure we took care of the public school systems, he was where we — as a Democratic Caucus — needed him to be,” said Bullock, who’s serving as an assistant whip to Harris this session.

For example, Harris voted against changes to the state school code that would have replaced seniority-based teacher layoffs with evaluation-based decisions. The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers opposed the bill.

Wolf let the bill become law without his signature. But he vetoed similar legislation the session before that had advanced with the help of a critical “yes” vote from Harris. He was one of three Democrats to defect and pass a Republican-proposed amendment to the bill 95-94 in 2015.

Harris also voted in favor of a bill from House Speaker Mike Turzai to expand a controversial state tax credit for private school donations that split the Democratic caucus. He was one of four Democrats to vote in favor of updates to charter rules.

For Marc LeBlonde, a senior policy analyst specializing in education at the Commonwealth Foundation, Harris’ tone says more than his votes so far.

“I love what’s he said on record about school choice,” LeBlonde said.

PFT President Jerry Jordan also struck an accommodating note on Harris. While Jordan contended that charters haven’t been the “laboratories of innovation” they were intended as, the union’s issues go further than blanket opposition to school choice and its backers.

Instead, he said the union is focused on continued investment in school buildings and restoring state reimbursements redirected to charters. That means keeping relationships with every member of the General Assembly.

“We have to look at more than that one issue,” Jordan said, adding he looked forward to working with the new whip.

Even if Harris has crossed the aisle to build policy or make friends in Harrisburg, he says it’s a product of the demands of office.

The October before a general election and the June of a heated budget fight each require different strengths. Harris thinks he has what it takes to manage both.  

“When I leave this building and we do an election, I’m going to fight like hell to elect as many Democrats to the House of Representatives that I can, and as many Democrats who believe in what I believe in across this commonwealth,” Harris said. “But when I step foot in this building, it’s about governing.”

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Stephen Caruso
Stephen Caruso

Stephen Caruso is a former senior reporter with Pennsylvania Capital-Star. Before working with the Capital-Star he covered Pennsylvania state government for The PLS Reporter.