Is Morgan Harper the AOC of the Midwest?

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“When I was in policy school, we had a talk with the dean at the time about this idea of can women have it all,” Morgan Harper, the 38-year-old candidate for U.S. Senate, recalls from her time at Stanford University. We’re speaking in an empty office at her campaign headquarters, a new coworking space near downtown Columbus, and Harper appears every bit the young, fresh-faced candidate archetype: blazer sleeves rolled at the elbow and new hope upon her brow.

“It’s interesting that there’s an expectation that anyone has at all, because that’s just not my orientation,” she continues. “I don’t really want it all. I just want a couple things.”

In August, the Columbus native announced a run for Senate to represent Ohio, putting her up against Tim Ryan, a longtime Democratic congressman and former candidate in the 2020 presidential election. As of now, Harper is the only candidate running on a platform of universal health care, childcare, and education. The primary has already garnered national attention due in part to the crop of Republican opponents that range from Josh Mandel, a former Ohio state treasurer who recently linked vaccine passports to the Nazi registration of Jews, to JD Vance, the author of Hillbilly Elegy and venture capitalist who just came under fire for calling exceptions for rape “inconvenient” in the wake of the Texas ban on abortion.

Ryan, who’s served 10 terms and has the upper hand when it comes to name recognition, good standing with the Democratic party, and campaign funding (he recently announced that his campaign has raked in $2.5 million), will likely be tough for Harper to overcome. The last few campaign cycles have proven that progressives don’t exactly show positive polling results in Ohio, especially when their opponent is an incumbent Democrat. In August, former state senator Nina Turner, perhaps the most recognizable progressive in Ohio, lost a particularly contentious primary in Ohio’s 11th Congressional District special election to an establishment-backed opponent. While endorsements from high-ranking Democrats are well worth their weight for party loyalists, apathy among many Ohio voters hasn’t exactly helped candidates like Harper or Turner. In the latter candidate’s race, it was estimated that 80 percent of eligible voters in the county didn’t participate.

Morgan Harper speaks at a rally for housing rights in Columbus, Ohio.
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But Harper is as focused now as she was when she made her debut in Ohio politics two years ago, after years of working as a consumer protection attorney and community organizer. In 2019, she took on Democratic establishment-backed, four-term incumbent Representative Joyce Beatty and quickly joined the ranks of Cori Bush and Rashida Tlaib as a progressive challenger to watch. Harper ran a grassroots campaign with an emphasis on ensuring economic security and better opportunities for marginalized communities, and argued that the most vulnerable constituents were paying the price for Beatty’s and other Democratic incumbents’ relationships with corporate interests and dark money.

Instead, Morgan swore off money from corporate political action committees, lobbyists, and the fossil fuel industry, and refused donations from payday lenders and firearms manufacturers. She nabbed endorsements from Justice Democrats and the Sunrise Movement, attracted an onslaught of national press, and raised a remarkable $323,000 during the first quarter of her campaign. But perhaps above all, Harper awakened the Columbus area’s most skeptical, including youth, engaging directly with students at The Ohio State University and coining the term morganizing to describe her campaign’s particular emphasis on grassroots, guerilla-style campaigning.

“I’ve met a lot of people in Ohio that say they haven’t really been talked to since the Obama campaign,” Harper says. “Things have only gotten worse, yet they don’t feel like the political process is for them. To get better policy outcomes, you have to get more people engaged.”

A month into campaigning, Harper made headlines when then New York Times deputy Washington editor Jonathan Weisman tweeted, “Justice Democrats has backed another primary challenger, this one seeking to unseat an African-American Democrat, Joyce Beatty, who represents Columbus.”

Harper then quote-tweeted Weisman, deadpanning, “I am also black.”

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The exchange caught the attention of thousands, including famous figures like Roxane Gay, who tweeted, “Any time you think you’re unqualified for a job remember that this guy, telling a black woman she isn’t black because he looked at a picture and can’t see, has one of the most prestigious jobs in America.”

But no endorsement or campaign effort to reach voters amid a worsening pandemic would be enough for Harper to overtake Beatty in the primary. Despite the loss, she doubled down and made new commitments to the community via the launch of her own nonprofit, Columbus Stand Up, which provides an array of services to families in need.

Things have only gotten worse, yet they don’t feel like the political process is for them. To get better policy outcomes, you have to get more people engaged.

As the pandemic rendered the poor and working-class neighborhoods of Columbus particularly vulnerable, the nonprofit distributed more than 20,000 masks to help protect the community against the spread of COVID-19. In the lead-up to the presidential election in November, Harper and others also initiated a free ride-share program to get voters to the polls and later, as vaccines became available, to upward of 20 Central Ohio vaccination sites. The program became such a success, it was able to partner with the Central Ohio Transit Authority to provide backup rides with a free taxi-style service if drivers weren’t available.

“After the congressional, I had a lot of folks wanting to congratulate me for processing failure and still being able to just show up,” Harper remembers. “I don’t take setbacks as an internal attack. I know who I am, I know why I’m doing it, I know who’s with me, and I always, always, always focus on delivering results for working people. That’s all I care about.”

Maria Vrcek, a coordinator at Columbus Stand Up, recalls how, at the height of the pandemic, Harper remained accessible to people, actualizing solutions for the issues that most plagued them.

“People reach out to Morgan as a substitute for their own elected representatives. Every Wednesday evening, we would meet for a Columbus Stand Up meeting, and every week someone new would join—someone who’d reached out to Morgan because they wanted help solving some community problem, or had an idea for a project to improve their community. Morgan always says yes.”

It was in her work with Columbus Stand Up that she became inspired to run for office again—and to dream even bigger. For Harper, while there is unquestionable impact made by community organizing, changing the fundamental economic conditions of a city and, more broadly, a country can be manifested only with the resources—and finances—of the federal government.

“People ask me what the difference between a grassroots candidate and a more mainstream ‘politician-type’ of candidate is,” she says. “The work doesn’t stop right after an election or campaign. Our goal is justice, and that is a daily push.”

That push means digging further into the basics—morganizing, for starters—that made her first attempt so memorable. So far, she’s written powerful op-eds for The Columbus Dispatch, calling on Democratic leaders to expand the Supreme Court and forewarning Ohioans that the state could soon follow Texas’s lead in banning abortion; visited area schools and reengaged with students; and met with community members who perhaps haven’t felt truly seen by state lawmakers.

She also accidentally went viral again, this time on TikTok. In a 15-second video, she’s seen campaigning at a football game and is abruptly stopped by a passerby.

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“I just want to say, you’re gorgeous.” he tells her. Harper stops, turns around, and extends a hand.

“Thank you. I’m also running for U.S. senate, so, more importantly, you need to make sure you’re paying attention to my Senate race,” she says.

But getting Ohioans to pay attention is only the first step. While a recent donation announcement wherein Harper raised more than $530,000 in just six weeks would indicate a swath of the population is ready for the Midwest’s own AOC, Harper still needs a lot of people to get on board with her agenda, including skeptical voters who likely align with her platform more than they realize. While many would argue that candidates like those Harper is taking on—figures who are typically upheld by a combination of name recognition and state party support—are more favorable in elections, Harper understands that the term progressive might be part of the problem.

“When you get to the heart of progressivism, most people agree that it isn’t right that big pharma gets to set the prices for drugs. It isn’t right that if you need insulin and you can’t afford it, you might die. To me, the core definition of what progressive is getting at is fairness,” Harper says. “If there’s one thing that unites a lot of people from Ohio, it’s that we have a pretty good sense of what’s right and what’s wrong, and we aren’t afraid of calling that out.”

To me, the core definition of what progressive is getting at is fairness.

The phrase meeting people where they are has become something of a tired cliché in the campaign world in recent years, but Harper is taking the phrase quite literally. She tells me about a conversation she had with an elderly potato farmer in nearby farm town Lima just weeks earlier: The man had recently retired, believing decades of labor and his wife’s income and health care from her job at a local hospital would be more than enough to cover them. But when health care costs skyrocketed, he found himself with little option but to return to work at a local refinery to pay for better coverage for the two of them. Harper, a staunch advocate of free health care, asked if he’d ever heard of Medicare for All. He hadn’t.

“A person who’s in that set of circumstances is an ideal person to be talking to about the universal health care system,” Harper says. “But these aren’t conversations that are going to be had through paid ads. These are conversations that have to be direct.”

morgan harper

Morgan Harper for Ohio

A Columbus native, Harper’s empathy for those struggling to survive amid economic precarity comes from an intensely personal place. She spent the first nine months of her life in a foster home before being adopted and raised by a public school teacher and immigrant from Trinidad. Harper would soon count herself among the first classes of female students at the formerly boys-only Columbus Academy, where she pinpoints her earliest memory of having political aspirations.

“That [experience] was really confronting a culture that was not for me as a young Black girl and having to craft an identity in that environment,” she remembers. “It was like, ‘Okay, I’m never going to win the money game, and I’m never going to win the mainstream acceptability game. I am just going to have to figure out what it means to be Morgan Harper.’”

As it would turn out, Harper would make a career of determining who she was amid spaces that, as she says, weren’t made for her. She was awarded scholarships to Tufts University, where she earned a bachelor’s in both Spanish and community health; Princeton University, where she obtained a graduate degree in public affairs; and, finally, from Stanford University, where she studied law. At the start of her career, Harper clerked at the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio, worked as a paralegal at the Federal Trade Commission, and was a special assistant at the Center for American Progress. She spent three years in D.C. at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and two years in New York City at Local Initiatives Support Corp., a nonprofit focused on community development. And most recently, prior to her congressional campaign, she was the director of policy and advocacy at the American Economic Liberties Project, a nonprofit fighting to break up corporate monopolies across the economy; she would also testify before Congress on the unchecked power of Big Tech during this time.

As my time with Harper comes to a close, our discussion becomes lighter. We talk astrology (she’s a Cancer), her messy habits (thankfully, her fiancé doesn’t mind picking up after her), and what her family and friends make of the campaign. She recalls a recent conversation wherein she told a friend that she thought people needed to see more aggression from her.

“My friend was like, ‘You? More aggressive?’” Harper tells me. “At my core, I am a chill person. I just believe very strongly in right and wrong, and I’m willing to fight like hell.”

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