Morgan Harper is not your typical politician. And she sure as heck isn’t trying to be.
The candidate currently vying for the Democratic nomination to represent the state of Ohio in the United States Senate has a background of fierce advocacy: previously serving as Senior Advisor at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and Director of Policy & Advocacy at the American Economic Liberties Project.
She speaks passionately about her childhood—she spent the first nine months of her life in a foster home before being adopted and raised on the east side of Columbus by a Public Schools teacher—and how her unique background inspires her outlook.
“We have to question who gets access to opportunities and work to elect people who care about getting things done,” says Harper.
When President Biden lost the state of Ohio in 2020, Harper says that was a wake-up call to dive in and get more involved.
“We weren’t just losing elections, we were losing what it means to be in a community and what it means to be Ohioans,” says Harper.
Now Harper is crisscrossing the state in a proudly grassroots campaign to put her name, her experience, and her plan for the future on the radar of Ohioans.
She paused in her jam-packed schedule to speak to The Buckeye Flame about her vision for LGBTQ+ Ohioans, the federal landscape for LGBTQ+ protections, and how she (deftly!) navigated that batshit crazy debate with Josh Mandel last week in a Black church.
Let’s dive right in. Ohio is just not great for the LGBTQ+ community. The Fairness Act has stalled for over a decade and Republican legislators are constantly on the attack to deny LGBTQ+ Ohioans both their rights and lived experience. Before we talk about legislative advocacy, how do you start by addressing the LGBTQ+ community here in Ohio?
MH: I start with outreach and always being in touch. I have existing relationships in the LGBTQ+ community, so it’s not like, “Now I’m running for office so I need to start talking to the LGBTQ+ community!”
I always want people to know that I’m open to feedback and want to hear about what the priorities should be. But this is a big one that you’ve identified. Everyone that I talk to in the community is very concerned—as we all should be—around some of the regressive legislation that is getting introduced in the statehouse.
Just the other day we had a call with a young Democratic group—not even specifically focused on LGBTQ+ community—where a young person was on the verge of tears telling me about how Ohio might not be a place where they want to live in the future, how these types of policies are in place that prevent young trans kids from being able to access the healthcare that they need, and how they might not be alive right now if they were in school under this legislation. That is heartbreaking.
This isn’t about just an issue for the LGBTQ+ community. This is for all fo us. If we’re trying to restrict healthcare for one group, that can be applied to all groups, and it really is a way to try to prevent the realization of what America is supposed to be about.
You have Ohioans who are saying, “This maybe isn’t the place for me” and you also have Governor DeWine trying to attract people to Ohio. What are your thoughts on Ohio not being a welcoming place for LGBTQ+ individuals?
It’s interesting you bring up DeWine. This is something that business leaders I’ve talked to identify as one of the biggest threats to our overall economic stability as a state. With the extreme and radical legislation being introduced in the statehouse, people who would consider relocating for a great job at say Intel would ask, “Do I really want to live in a place where my humanity isn’t going to be respected?” That’s not that appealing.
These are the stakes right now. Right now it’s not about party. If you believe in democracy and if you believe in Ohio being a state where everybody gets a chance, then—and I would say unfortunately because it would be great if we had multiple parties that stood for this principle—right now the only party that stands for those ideals are Democrats. So we need to rally around a Democrat winning this seat.
Why I entered this race is that I believe I put us in our strongest position to do that. And we have got to figure this out as quickly as we can.
On the federal level, the Equality Act is languishing in Washington DC. Do we have any shot at moving that forward?
I’m not optimistic about any legislation moving forward in DC, to be honest with you.
I am firmly in support of the Equality Act. I will note that my Democratic opponent [Representative Tim Ryan] was not an original co-sponsor of the Equality Act. I don’t know what his motivations would have been in that decision.
Right now, when we have all sorts of rights being looked at to be restricted based on identity and based on reproductive rights access, we need to have people who are going to be firmly committed to our values. Most people in our state believe that everything that the Equality Act and the Fairness Act stand for are what we should be about.
Though I’m not optimistic about the legislation moving forward, what I can say is as a U.S. Senator, I will continue to build support and make the case for why this type of legislation is important and why it does reflect our values as Ohioans.
Ok, Morgan Harper, we have to talk about it. Last week, I went to a Black church in East Cleveland for your debate with Josh Mandel and it was…wild. What does it mean that there are individuals in Ohio who take Josh Mandel seriously: this man who is consistently horribly transphobic, homophobic, and—to your face last week—incredibly misogynistic, sexist, and racist. What does it mean that there are polls that have him with *any* support, much less as a Republican frontrunner?
We have to take people like Josh Mandel seriously. There are some people in the Twittersphere that were critical of the fact that I was debating him publicly and saying that I was platforming him. <laughs> No. I, Morgan Harper, am one person in the state of Ohio. This person has been platformed over his 20-year political career by the conservative movement and the Republican party, whether he wants to admit to that or not. He pretends to be some sort of outsider, which is total nonsense.
Right now the focus should making sure that people in Ohio know about him. This guy could potentially become a U.S. Senator, and we need to be motivated to stop him. We win by getting more people to turn out to vote.
The fact that Josh Mandel on any given Tuesday can show up a church in certain parts of the state and get 500 people to listen to him, that’s a sign of a very serious threat.
That’s the mission of 2022, in my opinion. It’s not just Josh Mandel. It is about shining the light on this movement of people who do not think that everyone has the right to exist in our state, in our country, and have full access to opportunities. I don’t think that it’s a movement of people that represent the majority of Ohioans or people in this country. But it’s a very well organized and funded movement, funded by a lot of people with a lot of money who are willing to exploit these types of divisions for their own political and financial gain.
That’s what we’re up against.
There’s a lot of urgency. I feel a lot of urgency. That’s also my source of frustration with my Democratic primary opponent. We need to be out there. I have asked that we do six debates over the course of the primary. He has not taken me up on that. We are creating a vacuum. And it is being filled by hateful nonsense rhetoric by the likes of people like Josh Mandel.
We need a Democratic nominee who is ready to fight and stop it and win for the people of Ohio. I am that person and I don’t think my Democratic opponent is.
If Pixar comes out with Inside Out 2 and we could see inside Morgan Harper’s head, what on earth is going on in her head as she is standing in a Black church and Josh Mandel is calling her “angry” repeatedly? Of course, you’re a political candidate, but you’re also a human being. How do you navigate those moments?
Even for me being there—and we all know what Josh Mandel is—that he is wiling to go there, there is a moment of anger and shock about how callous and arrogant somebody could be. There were a lot of elderly Black folks who were in the audience and it is shocking that he would be willing to behave this way in front of people who have put so much work into having a space for people like me to have the freedom to live our lives and be who we are.
Unfortunately, I have encountered so much sexism and racism in some form just living my academic and professional life. It doesn’t have too long of an emotional impact on me. But I do think that we are best positioned to fight back against it.
In the first debate we had, he tried to paint me as, “Oh, another politician. Oh, a typical Democrat.” But it’s very clear that I’m not a typical democrat. I’m not a politician. That argument doesn’t stick. That forces him to go into racism. And blatant racism at that. When they go there, we have the ability to really show people who they really are and then motivate our voters to turn out to actually vote. That’s the only shot we have.
Obviously, so much of your success would depend on people actually voting. What is that elevator pitch of getting people to show up? Especially young people who don’t currently feel that motivation.
There’s a lot of fatigue right now, not just among young people, but also among traditional seasoned voters who are not feeling that all the work that we’ve put into politics really amounts to much.
You mentioned young people, and one of the topics that comes up for a lot of young people is student debt cancelation and the fact that a promise was made during the presidential election. That it hasn’t been fulfilled yet is frustrating. But the response to that is, “Ok, the reason why people feel like they can make promises and not keep them is because they know there won’t be repercussions because we haven’t expanded the electorate enough for that to be a core issue.”
With young people across the state, we have to make sure that they have a bigger voice in driving the agenda of what anyone elected to the U.S. Senate or other offices consider to be their top priorities.
This isn’t about me. I’m not looking to be anybody’s savior here. This is about us on a broad scale recognizing that we have the power to change the trajectory, but it’s not going to come from individual candidates. It’s really going to come from a broad set of folks mobilizing their networks and communities. And then we change what the political reality is for people. 🔥