Public service part of progression for Harris

Tuesday, October 24, 2006 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 11:15 a.m. CDT, Wednesday, July 9, 2008

What's the job?

There are 163 members of the Missouri House of Representatives, which works in conjunction with the Missouri Senate to pass legislation and craft annual state budgets, subject to the approval of the governor.

The General Assembly convenes in early January and continues its session through May. It occasionally reconvenes in September to reconsider either vetoed bills or bills strongly advocated by the governor but not passed in regular session.

Representatives earn $31,351 per year and receive daily expense allowances and reimbursements for mileage to and from the Capitol.

All of the professional steps Jeff Harris has taken in the past 20 years appear to fit together seamlessly.

The minority leader in the Missouri House of Representatives graduated magna cum laude from Vanderbilt University in 1987, followed by earning his juris doctorate from Cornell University and then gaining experience as a clerk for a U.S. district court judge in Mississippi. Between attending Vanderbilt and Cornell, Harris assisted in the 1988 presidential campaign of former U.S. Rep. Dick Gephardt, D-Mo.

In 1992, he joined the large law firm Bryan Cave in Kansas City. In 2001, he entered public service as an assistant attorney general for Attorney General Jay Nixon.

“It may appear logical in retrospect ... but it’s not like I had some sort of plan,” said Harris, 42, whose youthful skin and golden hair make him appear half his age.

Since leaving the attorney general’s office, Harris has been elected, then re-elected in 2004, by overwhelming margins as 23rd District state representative. This fall, Harris has picked up right where he left off, raising tens of thousands of dollars for his campaign and making the rounds at a host of forums and stump-speaking events.

At a forum last week on childhood education and health care, Harris and fellow Democrats running for state representative outlined initiatives to fund health care for those cut from Medicaid in 2005.

“I want to thank my Republican colleagues for coming,” Harris said jokingly in his opening remarks. The comment received a hearty laugh from the audience because none of the five Republican candidates who were invited showed up. One of those was Patrick Crabtree, a first-time candidate and Harris’ opponent.

Harris was first exposed to politics at age 8, when two Missouri politicians were in the news. In 1972, then-U.S. Sen. Tom Eagleton, D-Mo., ran unsuccessfully for vice president with Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern. In December 1972, Harris’ hero, President Harry S. Truman, died.

“I was a big Harry Truman fan,” said Harris, who has several pictures and busts of Truman in his law office. As a 7-year-old, Harris and his grandfather discussed Truman’s presidency.

“I really admired his decision-making,” Harris said. “He was plain-spoken, earnest and just someone that I’ve admired for a long time.”

Harris was also an avid reader of newspapers and of Time and Newsweek magazines. The news and politics became family dinner conversations.

“I just remember as a kid talking about matters of substance and public policy matters,” he said. “There were a lot of things happening in the 1970s and early 1980s.”

Harris’ mother and his father, who was on the Columbia school board for eight years and is a pediatrician in Columbia, also encouraged him to make an indelible mark on the world.

“I’ve seen my dad do it now for more than 40 years as a pediatrician and my mother do it as a stay-at-home mother,” Harris said. “In our house, public service was looked upon as something that makes the world a better place.”

But Harris’ public policy aspirations took a detour after graduating from Hickman High School — he had dreams of joining the PGA Tour. He enrolled at Vanderbilt and walked on to the golf team. But Harris, whose golf handicap was 2, dropped the golf dream after his freshmen year to focus on his studies.

Harris had his first taste of public policy when he volunteered for Gephardt’s 1988 presidential run. The campaign staff was so impressed with his hard work that he was hired as a field staffer, Harris said. Fourteen years after working for Gephardt, Harris became a state representative. He has soared through the state’s Democratic ranks. Harris quickly became the minority whip, the third-highest-ranking Democrat in the House of Representatives, in 2003. For the past two years, Harris has held the minority leader post, the highest Democratic position available in the House.

“There is just a lot of responsibility, and there are a lot of challenges,” Harris said. The toughest challenge, he said, is balancing time between his legislative duties and his wife, Katie.

State Sen. Chuck Graham, D-Columbia, said that Harris is a “bright, young star in the Democratic Party” and that his youthful looks belie his knowledge and experience.

“He spends the time to gather as much as information as possible to be informed and make good decisions,” Graham said.

Harris said he is most proud of sponsoring legislation that helps protect children. One bill he sponsored last April, would have charged parents with endangering the welfare of a child, a felony, if they were caught making methamphetamine, even if the child wasn’t present at the time the drug was made.

Besides the legislation he has sponsored or helped pass, Harris said he is proud of his relationship with constituents.

“We have been extremely accessible in this office, and I plan on being that way because I owe it to the taxpayers,” Harris said. “They are my bosses.”

Given his rise to prominence and the fact that term limits would end his House service by 2010, assuming he continues to be re-elected, it stands to reason that Harris might have his eyes on higher political office. For now, though, he insists he’s focused on Nov. 7.

“My focus is being on the best state representative that I can be,” he said.

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