Q&A

Rep. Harris on leading the Black caucus, 21st Century Scholars expansion plans

Earl Harris Jr.

Rep. Earl Harris Jr., D- East Chicago, talks at the podium on Feb. 22, 2023. (Credit: Indiana House Democrats)

Earl Harris Jr.
Rep. Earl Harris Jr., D- East Chicago, talks at the podium on Feb. 22, 2023. (Credit: Indiana House Democrats)

East Chicago Rep. Earl Harris Jr. is new to his role as the head of the Indiana Black Legislative Caucus, but the Democrat’s name might sound familiar. 

He follows in the footsteps of both of his parents. His father, Earl Harris Sr., served a portion of northwest Indiana as a lawmaker for more than 30 years by the time he passed away in office. His mother was caucused to serve the district before Harris Jr. was elected in 2016.

Perhaps Harris Jr.’s biggest legislative accomplishment to date was being chosen this December to lead the Black caucus, one of the more politically active caucuses in the Statehouse.

State Affairs talked to Harris about following in his parents’ footsteps, IBLC’s legislative agenda, getting bills passed in the superminority and his bill expanding the 21st Century Scholars program, as the 2023 session starts to wrap up.

This conversation has been edited for clarity, brevity and length. 

Q. Your parents both served in the Statehouse. Did you always know you wanted to run for office because of that?

A. I do follow in the footsteps of both my parents. My father served until March 23rd of 2015 when he passed away, and then my mother was caucused in. I was born and raised in East Chicago, [and at the time of his father’s death] was living here in Indianapolis.

I'm an only child. Dad had cancer so we knew it was a matter of time, so we had some conversations about what would happen. When Mom decided she wanted to stay in East Chicago, I moved back to East Chicago.

After the dust settled, people started talking to my mother about her running to replace my father. And then me running [after]. The original plan was Mom was going to run for reelection, and then I was going to run two years [after that]. She had a health issue and ended up in the hospital, so we decided it was not a good idea for her to have to deal with running for office. It moved up the timeframe of me running by two years. 

Q. Why was it important to you to honor your father's legacy in that way?

A. Some of it was there were things that Dad worked on, things we wanted to continue in growing the area, and then I brought into it some of my own experiences. A lot of the time when I lived here in Indianapolis, I worked in Indianapolis Public Schools, and so education is a big thing for me.

Being around this [building] almost all my life, I jokingly said I already knew where the bathrooms were when I got elected. [This was] really an opportunity to dive all the way in and see what good I can do.

Rep. Earl Harris Jr. (center) and his parents, Earl Harris Sr. and Donna Harris, shown in 2014. (Credit: Portrait Innovations, provided by Rep. Earl Harris Jr.)

Q. The IBLC's agenda this year is largely focused on educational attainment. Why is that?

A. Every year, IBLC has a theme for our agenda, and everyone gets to submit a bill. This year's theme is closing the achievement gap. Part of that came out of we know that COVID really did a lot of damage for all young people in terms of education. For Black and brown kids [it caused] a little bit more damage.
 
We're the Indiana Black Legislative Caucus, but when you look at our pieces of legislation, they really do benefit, for the most part, everybody. We really want to see what we can do in terms of legislation that would make things better for young people, and again, try to catch people up.

Q. Can you describe some of the bills the IBLC has pushed this legislative session?

A. They focus on education; they focus on achievement. Some of them are very directly [tied to it]. But some of them are connected to it. When you look at a bill about universal free school breakfast and lunch, when you talk about tax credits [for teacher supplies], when you talk about putting seat belts on school buses, when you talk about bias crimes, domestic violence, those are things that may not be direct classroom type things, but they affect how young people are going to learn and so they fit into the mix.

One that I'm extremely proud of that I authored is House Bill 1449. That has to do with 21st Century Scholars. So many times since I've been in office a parent will say, ‘My kid’s in high school and they want to continue education post-high school. Do you have any ideas on how they can pay for it?’ One of my first answers to them is, ‘Are they a 21st Century Scholar?’ And most of the time, if not all, the parent looks at me and goes, ‘What's that?’ If they're in high school, it's too late to sign up.

I filed a bill last year about 21st Century Scholars that would have moved back the signup date, and it would have made it a click box on free and reduced lunch. Over the summer, right after Chris Lowry had just become the new commissioner of [​​Indiana's Commission for Higher Education], we were having a conversation outside in the [Statehouse] parking lot. As I like to jokingly say, that's where all the important conversations happen.

We started talking about automatic enrollment, so that's really where this year's version of the bill came from. Even if students don't know they are eligible for it, they’ll get enrolled into the program. And CHE [Commission for Higher Education] will do more work to inform parents, inform students and help students get prepared for college.

We also know that this is something that's on the governor’s agenda. We're very proud of that. We should do whatever we can to help people continue their education post-high school. I don't care if it's a certificate, two-year degree, a four-year degree. If you look at the bills I’ve filed and look at one of my agenda items, education and continued education is a big priority. 

Q. It’s kind of unusual to see a Democrat carrying a Republican governor’s agenda item. Was that just a coincidence?

A. This is one of those cases, which hopefully there are more of these than not, where it really doesn't matter if you're an R or a D, it's about what's good and what's best for the state and how can we make things better. It's not as if the governor and I sat down and had a conversation about this. It just worked out that way.

Back in my 20s I learned this whole theory of a win-win. Do things where everyone wins. The student wins because they have money for college, the parent wins because their student has money for college. Universities and colleges win. They're not at 100% capacity, so it's more butts in seats. Businesses and organizations that are going to hire win because [there are] more educated, trained, skilled people, and it helps us as a state. 21st Century Scholars has a 10-to-1 financial return. I was not a finance major, but I know that if for every dollar I give you, you give me $10 back, that's a great deal. So it really is a win-win.

https://stateaffairs.com/indiana/politics/indiana-democrats-bills-2023-session/

Q. How successful has IBLC been this session in getting its agenda moved?

A. Besides House Bill 1449, which is mine, [Rep.] Carolyn Jackson has House Bill 1138, which is [about] preschool childcare facility drinking water. Rep. Jackson, since she got elected, has been very focused on making sure that young people have clean water that isn’t full of lead, full of other things that could cause health issues.

It's all about the long game. So as much as we would love for every bill we file to become law in the first year or two, that's not the reality of what's going to happen. You lay groundwork and you continue to push and get things done.

Q. There are only Democrats in the IBLC. Because Republicans hold the supermajority, how does that impact how successful you are?

A. Well, IBLC is nonpartisan; it just turns out that all of the members are Democrats just because of the way it works out here. But I said this when I ran the first time, I'm a big believer that relationships equal resources. It's about those relationships. It's about having conversations with people and helping people understand [your legislation].

There was a bill that did not get heard this session, and I'm on Ways and Means, and Chairman Thompson said, ‘Hey, I'm not going to hear your bill this year. But let's talk about it over the break.’ So that's also what happens as you build those relationships.

As we continue to work on things, we know that that's vital, not just because we're IBLC members, that's vital because we are in this superminority. We know that the way the math works out, if you're a Democrat you can't get anything done if you don't have Republican support. 

Q. Why should all Hoosiers regardless of race care about what the IBLC is doing?

A. The agenda is beneficial to everyone. When you look at our agenda of closing the achievement gap, it doesn't matter if you're an R, it doesn't matter if you're a D, it doesn't matter your ethnicity, your gender. That's an important thing for all of us.

The bills we've authored and the bills that are going through are going to benefit everyone here in the state of Indiana. It doesn't matter what the author or the senator or representative looks like. 

Q. In 2021, there was tension in the Statehouse over race after some Black lawmakers were booed while talking about whether a bill was racist or not. Do you think attitudes toward race in the Statehouse have shifted at all since then?

A. My hope is things continue to get better, but we've seen some things on the national level that make you wonder if we're heading in the wrong direction.

We'll do what we can to make it better, but we understand that there's a lot more than just [those of] us that are elected here at the Statehouse can do to help this out. My hope is other non-Black legislators understand a little bit more about the reality of things that we have to face as minorities and understand that it's a little bit different than what white people have in terms of experiences.

Representative [Vanessa] Summers has a bill on implicit bias in medicine. We know that's an issue. That's not only an issue here in Indiana. There was a [Black female Indiana] doctor who recorded herself talking about how [doctors] wouldn't do what they were supposed to do [when treating her]. Even a celebrity — rich, famous, Serena Williams, the tennis player — it’s well-documented that when she was going through her health issue around her pregnancy and childbirth, she couldn't get doctors to pay attention and listen.

There's lots of stories like that.

Q. Last year you earned the 2022 Civility in Government Award. How do you keep that reputation enough to earn that award when things can be tense in the Statehouse?

A. If we're going to be successful as members of the Indiana General Assembly, and I say this for everyone, you have to get along. We're not always going to agree, and that's sometimes inside of the same party. Not every Democrat agrees with every Democrat and not every Republican agrees with every Republican, but you have to understand that OK, I can look at the legislation you file. I may not like it, but it doesn't mean that you are my enemy. We may think differently, but maybe I can talk to you and maybe build some understanding.

I think you get a little bit further with that than yelling and screaming at the top of your lungs at someone and pointing fingers and all of that. It's not my style in general, even before I came here. I think if you do that in a lot of cases, the person you're doing that to is just going to shut off. I don't think that ever is going to be the right way to go and get anything done, especially in this space.

Q. Ending on a lighter note, what do you like to do in your free time?

A. It depends. I'm big into music and sports. Prince did not come to Indiana and discover me so I'm very disappointed in that, but I'm a big musicaholic, sports, entertainment. I try to do things that are relaxing. I actually went to see Jo Koy, the comedian, Saturday in Chicago.

And then I also am [really into] bike riding. I'm glad that the weather is getting warmer because it's time to get back on the bike, improve my shape, and lose a few pounds. Being here at the Statehouse, there's way too much sitting and way too much eating.

I love hanging out with my family and friends. I don't get to see them as much during session because it just takes up so much time. Because of my background in media, creativity is always something fun, so anything that's creative usually draws and gets my attention like movies, television shows, etc.

Contact Kaitlin Lange on Twitter @kaitlin_lange or email her at [email protected]

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