In Ohio congressional primary, a generational battle as Morgan Harper takes on Rep. Joyce Beatty

Pro-Israel groups back Beatty over the 36-year-old Harper — who could be the next AOC

On a recent evening at a public library in downtown Columbus, Ohio, upstart Democratic congressional candidate Morgan Harper appeared at a forum organized by Yes We Can Columbus, an affiliate of the progressive Working Families Party. Harper was there to make her case to local constituents — and although she has never held elected office, the 36-year-old was unusually poised as she rattled off a series of bold policies, including the Green New Deal and “systemic reparations.”

Near the end of the forum, Harper fielded a question about bipartisan cooperation. “I’m willing to cross party lines to work with anyone who’s committed to the same values that I am,” Harper said, warming up. “But what I will not do is compromise away our future,” she added emphatically. “We have had a generation of that. It has not served us. It has enriched those who represent us. And we have got to change the way that we are holding people accountable.”

In many ways, Harper could have been interpreted as talking about her own party — and in particular, Rep. Joyce Beatty, the 70-year-old Democratic incumbent who Harper is hoping to unseat in Ohio’s primary election this Tuesday. Beatty has represented the state’s solidly blue 3rd congressional district, which includes most of Columbus, since 2013. While experts predict that Beatty will likely come out on top in the March 17 vote — which at the moment is still on despite concerns over the novel coronavirus — a win is not assured.

Harper has mounted an aggressive grassroots campaign since she announced her candidacy last summer. She also has the backing of Justice Democrats — the progressive political action committee that helped launch now-Reps. Ayanna Pressley (D-MA), Rashida Tlaib (D-MI), Ilhan Omar (D-MN) and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), known collectively as “the Squad,” into Congress.

“What the Squad showed us is that there were women, particularly women of color, who didn’t necessarily wait for their turn,” Harper, who is black, told Jewish Insider following the forum in Columbus.

Still, whether she will be the next AOC remains unclear. Despite an impressive ground game, Harper is going up against an older and more experienced African-American candidate with deep ties to the community and widespread support among business and political leaders, according to Paul Beck, professor emeritus in the department of political science at The Ohio State University. 

“Previous upsets of Democratic congressional incumbents have occurred most notably when the challenger is a minority and the incumbent is not — and in a district where minorities have been becoming more numerous,” Beck told JI. That is not the case, he said, in Ohio’s 3rd congressional district. 

Beatty also has institutional support from high-ranking members of her party, such as Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY), chairman of the House Democratic Caucus and a member of the Congressional Black Caucus. “Joyce Beatty is a hardworking, inclusive and results-oriented public servant,” Jeffries told JI. “Apparently, she is being targeted by hard left ideologues determined to prove they can defeat a sitting member of the Congressional Black Caucus. We didn’t start this fight. But we will finish it.” 

Whatever the outcome, the race is one of the more consequential contests to have emerged this primary season — and represents both an intriguing test case in intersectional politics as well as a kind of referendum, in microcosm, on the future of the Demoratic Party.

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Since launching her campaign, Harper has raised nearly $700,000, according to the Federal Election Commision, an impressive amount for a rookie candidate — though still much less than Beatty, who has accrued more than double that since the beginning of 2019. Still, Harper has abjured corporate donations — one way she has sought to differentiate herself from her opponent, who accepts money from the banking and insurance industries, both major commercial operations in Columbus. 

Harper and her team of volunteers have knocked on more than 60,000 doors since January, she told JI earlier this month, citing the number as evidence of her commitment to hearing constituents’ granular concerns. Her policy experience, she claimed, will serve her well if she is elected to represent a district that she feels has been sold out, in part, by what she described as Beatty’s fealty to corporations. 

In conversation, Harper speaks methodically, in a manner befitting a Stanford Law School graduate who once worked as a senior advisor in the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and, most recently, as a vice president of the nonprofit Local Initiatives Support Corporation in New York. 

For instance, on the topic of reparations — one of her primary issues — she suggests concrete policies, such as waiving property taxes for older black residents living in formerly redlined neighborhoods.

Still, Beatty has accused Harper — who moved back to the district in December 2019 after more than a decade away — of being disconnected from the community. “She clearly could not have a 3rd congressional district perspective,” Beatty said of Harper in a recent phone interview with JI. “There is no track record of working with or uniting with any of the communities.”

“I think she’s vague on most of the issues,” Beatty told JI, describing Harper as an “inexperienced” candidate only interested in talking about “revolution and blowing things up.” 

Harper rejects the characterizations. “It’s just not true,” she told JI. “The reality is, under eight years of Rep. Beatty’s leadership, we have not seen movement on the main issues facing this district — that people are not making enough to live, that we have had a decline in home ownership, that 75 percent of the homeless population here is black, that we have people that can’t afford apartments,” she added. “These have been issues that have been exacerbated over the time of Rep. Beatty’s leadership.”

Morgan Harper with a supporter

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Born and raised in Columbus, Harper expressed a deep kinship with her native city. Adopted from the foster care system at nine months, she grew up in the town of Berwick and spent much of her time at the local Jewish Community Center, where she went to camp and later worked as a counselor for disabled children. Harper, who said she still has many friends from that time, described the JCC as a kind of “community anchor.”

The Jewish population in the 3rd congressional district represents a sizable constituency, according to Justin Shaw, director of community relations at the nonprofit organization JewishColumbus. Though Shaw told JI that his organization does not endorse candidates, he doesn’t believe Harper’s stances “will resonate with the general organized Jewish community,” despite her affinity for some aspects of Jewish culture in Columbus. 

What Harper’s stances are, however, remain somewhat unclear, or “vague,” as Beatty posited. Justice Democrats’ platform describes Israel as a “human rights violator”; a spokeswoman for Harper’s campaign did not respond to several email inquiries asking if Harper agreed with the assessment from the group backing her. 

“I believe people in Israel have human rights and I respect that human rights are something that need to be preserved all over the world,” Harper told JI. “My platform is primarily focused on the rights of those living in the 3rd district, but one of the tenets of my life, I would say, is that until all of us are free, none of us are free — and I am committed to making sure that rights are protected.”

Such statements are too ambiguous for Jeff Mendelsohn, the executive director of Pro-Israel America. “A candidate who does not reveal or who has not formulated a position on one of the most important democratic allies in the United States — it makes you wonder,” he told JI. 

Still, Harper did not rule out the possibility of attending the annual AIPAC policy conference, which Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders boycotted this year, accusing the group of providing a “platform” for “leaders who express bigotry.” Harper took a more diplomatic tone when asked if she would go. Throughout her campaign, Harper said, she has been willing to meet “with people” and “talk about issues” — and if elected, she added, that wouldn’t change. “That’s my general approach,” she said.

Though she has never been to Israel, Harper expressed an interest in going someday. She told JI that she was supposed to visit a close friend who lives there, but that she had canceled her trip because it was the same week that her brother had his first child. Harper said she has an “open invitation” to visit her friend in Israel, and she hopes to make it there “at some point.”

Harper has focused her campaign primarily on local issues — even when it comes to foreign policy. “I think that I would advocate for a reprioritization of our military spending and our international involvement and start to allocate more resources toward some of the priorities I’m talking about — making sure everyone has health care, housing, that we’re doing something about the climate, creating jobs that pay enough to live,” she said. “Because we’ve had a long experiment in some of the military conflicts that have been entered over the course of my adult lifetime, and I don’t think that they have served us well.”

Beatty, meanwhile, presents herself as a strong ally of Columbus’s Jewish community and of the Jewish state. “Let me start by saying that I’ve had a longtime, longstanding relationship with my Jewish community and with Israel, and it’s far beyond just what one will say what they will do,” she told JI. “I have a track record.”

A member of the congressional Black Jewish Caucus, Beatty — who has been endorsed by Democratic Majority for Israel — traveled to Israel on a trip sponsored by the American Israel Education Foundation, an affiliate of AIPAC. “It was eye-opening,” said Beatty, who told JI that she has been a “longtime advocate” of providing foreign aid to Israel. 

When it comes to domestic concerns, Beatty has taken aims to protect places of worship as antisemitic attacks have increased around the country. The congresswoman recently cosponsored legislation to aid synagogues and other places of worship in offsetting the costs associated with boosting security, among other things. 

“She’s a very important ally,” said Pro-Israel America’s Mendelsohn, whose organization has endorsed the congresswoman. Shaw agreed. “Congresswoman Beatty has been an incredible friend to our community,” he told JI.

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Of course, Beatty will need the support of more than just Columbus’s Jewish community if she intends to win on Tuesday, and she isn’t taking her seat for granted. “I’m running very hard, but I run hard all the time,” she told JI. “I take any opponent seriously because I take my constituents seriously.”

Previously, Beatty served in the Ohio House of Representatives — where she succeeded her husband, Otto Beatty, Jr. — from 1999 to 2008. After term limits forced her to seek new employment, she worked as a senior vice president for outreach and engagement at The Ohio State University. 

Her long involvement in Columbus politics, however, leaves her open to attacks. Earlier this month, The Intercept — which has been boosting Harper since last summer — reported that Beatty and her husband “made a significant profit on a property sold to a developer, while her husband sat on the zoning board that approved the sale.”

Beatty, left, with former Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and former Central State University President Cynthia Jackson-Hammond

Such actions represent the kind of self-dealing that Harper — who backs an affordable housing agenda that stabilizes rents — would hold up as a symbol of corruption in the community — and she has. Whether such a revelation will swing the election, though, is doubtful, given that Beatty is popular in the district.

Similar to Bernie Sanders’ approach, Harper is relying on the support of young voters, particularly college students, to get her over the finish line — where a victory in the general election would be all but assured in a district that consistently votes Democratic. 

“We have activated young people,” she told JI in early March. “I just saw an [Ohio State] student last Friday who said, ‘I re-registered in time before February 18 to make sure that I can vote for you.’” 

“That is inspiring to me,” she added. 

But the novel coronavirus has disrupted her plans as Ohio State’s classes have been moved online and students were instructed to leave campus this week, and as people around the country have been encouraged to keep their distance from others, which could discourage voters from turning out for the primary. 

In addition to these challenges, the recent loss by Jessica Cisneros to Democratic incumbent Rep. Henry Cuellar in the Texas congressional primary was a significant setback for the Justice Democrats, which supported her — and perhaps a portent for Harper.

Even so, Harper expressed confidence about her prospects in conversation with JI. “I feel fantastic,” she said after the public library forum, laughing nervously.

It was unclear if she was wired to the point of exhaustion — which would have been understandable — or if she was anxious about losing to Beatty. Or both.

Either way, on March 17, Harper will find out if her insurgent campaign carries with it enough momentum to bring her to Congress and give her membership in the Squad — or if it simply isn’t her turn yet.

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