Minority leader Harris confident even on wrong side of supermajority

Friday, February 5, 2016, Vol. 40, No. 6

Harris

Lee Harris says he ran for state Senate because he felt Memphis could do better on Capitol Hill, defeating Ophelia Ford in 2014.

In his second legislative session, the Senate Minority leader says Democrats, though small in number, are making “inroads” while he continues to focus on improving neighborhoods from downtown Memphis to Millington.

“I like a lot of things about the most prominent political family in the state of Tennessee, the Ford family,” says Harris, 37, a University of Memphis Federal Express Chair of Excellence law professor and former Memphis City Council member.

“But I thought in this particular case it was really a chance to contribute and really to improve the performance and the reputation that we had in Nashville.”

The Senate Democratic Caucus has only five members, with Republicans controlling a supermajority and Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey commanding the body with a strong hand.

But Harris seems unfazed.

“We’ve got the most effective set of legislators in the Senate,” he says, pointing toward a 2016 agenda focusing on criminal justice reform and infrastructure, roads and public transit.

And he expects to make progress this session, saying his counterparts across the aisle are focusing instead on what they’re not going to do.

For instance, Gov. Bill Haslam is proposing no initiatives to reform the gas tax, even though Tennessee has at least $6 billion in languishing road projects, including the $225 million Lamar Avenue improvement proposal in Memphis. Republican leaders say a gas tax increase or reform will not be approved this year, though they acknowledge it is needed.

Democrats, on the other hand, are proposing a bipartisan bill to give authority to finance roads through a gas tax to city and county governments, Harris says, one of several mass transit initiatives.

After a year of work by the Governor’s Sentencing and Recidivism Task Force, Haslam is set to back changes in prison sentencing structure to deal with serious offenders and propose alternatives for other offenders. Prevention and intervention, as well as steps to provide more assistance to victims, are part of the governor’s package.

Yet Harris calls Haslam’s plan “nibbling around the edges,” adding Democrats will propose more comprehensive changes on criminal justice reform. Harris, for instance, is sponsoring legislation with Democratic Rep. Brenda Gilmore of Nashville to change sentences affecting those guilty of possessing small amounts of drugs in school zones.

If a violator lives near a school and is arrested – even when school is out for the summer with no children present – they can land in jail three times longer than someone who lives farther away from a school zone, he says. The result is devastation for family and long sentences for non-violent offenders, he contends.

“The only thing being in the minority means is you’ve got to be more prepared, and luckily we are,” Harris explains. “And it means it’s gonna be tough to get some types of bills passed. Like some of these social issues. Like abortion and guns, I’ll give you that.

“The numbers don’t work in our favor for abortion and guns. But 99 percent of the other types of issues the Legislature considers, the spoils will go to the most prepared.”

What legislators say

Harris replaced longtime Memphis Sen. Jim Kyle as Democratic leader, and Sen. Sara Kyle, who also won election in 2014 after her husband left the Legislature, is impressed.

Sara Kyle calls him a “very progressive individual” and points out Harris came to Capitol Hill with key experience as chairman of the Memphis City Council finance committee.

“He’s a real leader,” she says. “He gathers us together in our caucus and keeps us in mind on issues that are important and pertinent to our districts. And I look forward to Lee taking greater leadership positions as we move forward.”

Kyle concedes the Senate is in the midst of a “partisan situation” with Republicans holding 28 seats. But she says Harris and Sen. Jeff Yarbro, a Nashvillian who chairs the Senate Democratic Caucus, are “very bright guys” working to pass policy “that governs and takes care of Tennessee, not just favor one side or the other.”

Republican Sen. Doug Overbey, who serves with Harris on the Senate Judiciary Committee, says Harris “has caught on remarkably fast to the process. He has shown himself to be a quick learner.”

Political jump-start

A graduate of Morehouse College in Atlanta who holds a law degree from Yale University, Harris was involved for several years with the Shelby County Democratic Party before winning election to Memphis City Council in 2010.

Capturing the seat was hard because he was relatively unknown and a middle-class African-American running to represent several low-income neighborhoods.

“You’re considered pretty suspicious. The question is whether or not you’re a wolf in sheep’s clothing,” Harris explains.

Even though he raised plenty of money and netted key political endorsements as a “liberal’s liberal,” no local unions would support him.

But once people got to know him, he says, “I think they would describe me as someone with the courage to stand alone, the courage to be independent and the courage to advocate on behalf of the folks I represent.”

Harris continued to show fundraising prowess for his Senate campaign, raising more than $100,200, including backing from Communications Workers of America, International Association of Firefighters Local 1784, Tennessee Laborers PAC and Tennessee Professional Firefighters PAC.

He also landed $3,000 from Tennessee Parents/Teachers Putting Students First and $2,500 from Tennessee Federation for Children PAC, groups supporting vouchers to send students to private schools.

His independent streak didn’t serve him well, though, on a bill he sponsored in 2015 requiring city councils and county commissions to obtain voter approval if they plan to borrow more than 10 percent of their operating revenue for a construction project.

The measure received a cool response from Memphis City Council members concerned about governing by referendum.

Harris’ 2016 bill requiring term limits for legislators – no more than 12 years in the General Assembly – also faces an uphill climb.

State Sen. Lee Harris

D-Memphis, District 29

Age: 37

Education: Bachelor of Arts from Morehouse College, law degree from Yale Law School

Career: University of Memphis law professor, Federal Express chair holder

Family: Wife, Alena Allen, two children

Political career: Memphis City Council 2010-2014; elected to state Senate 2014; Senator Minority leader; Committees: Senate Energy, Agriculture and Natural Resource, Senate Government Operations, Senate Judiciary

Still, he says, “Democracy’s not working if you don’t have renewal and new energy from time to time. This is about having a citizen legislature, and I think that’s an important ingredient to democracy.”

Harris carries a liberal flag proudly, saying he wants to abolish the death penalty, take a harder look at non-violent crime and pass legislation allowing utilities to buy energy from customers who generate their own.

He’s also broached the idea of running for Congress against veteran state legislator and U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen, a Memphis Democrat, who also donated money to Harris’ 2014 campaign.

And, willing to buck Gov. Haslam, Harris and state Rep. John Ray Clemmons toured Tennessee over the summer to gather information from state employees about a proposed outsourcing plan of state departments.

The experience is leading to legislation requiring any contracts over $1 million to be presented to the Fiscal Review Committee.

Harris contends outsourcing, or privatization of state services and facilities management, is done at the governor’s discretion without much legislative input.

“We need to make sure the governor has some powers but that those powers are reviewed and scrutinized by the other branches of government,” he says.

Independent school view

Harris isn’t jumping on the wagon to eliminate the Achievement School District, which oversees 27 Shelby County schools and two more in Nashville, all in the bottom 5 percent for performance in Tennessee.

Rep. Antonio Parkinson, D-Memphis, wants to abolish the district and points toward a Vanderbilt study showing the ASD isn’t working as well as Innovation Zone schools overseen by local districts. The Legislature’s Black Caucus wants a moratorium on the Achievement School District.

Harris says the “good news” about the state’s district is it “produced” discussion about the performance of schools in Memphis and Shelby County where school districts are unified.

With that in mind, the Legislature should keep ASD in place, for now, he says, but the district should institute more “direct-run” schools instead of turning them over to charter schools, which he says are “a private interest” and could be pursuing education out of their own self-interest.

Harris also wants to see better communication between the Achievement School District and parents, as well as the Shelby County school system.

But he isn’t exactly in love with Shelby County Schools either.

While parents certainly carry part of the burden for education in the Memphis area, he believes the school system’s administration is bloated and a failure on many fronts.

Harris points toward a yearly optional school lineup in Memphis as one the main symptoms of a bigger problem.

It’s a time when parents set up tents outside the Shelby County Schools administrative office to enroll their children in one of two or three good schools in the system, he says.

For five to six days, his wife, Alena Allen, also a University of Memphis educator, waited in a tent to make sure they could put their two sons in a good school.

“The state of affairs is horrible and a lot of what I see happening is not contributing to success. I don’t mean to paint such a bleak picture, but it is a bleak picture,” he points out.

In response to Harris’ criticism, Shelby County Schools says it is committed to providing a high-quality education for students to prepare them for college or a career.

“Our 47 Optional School programs, nationally recognized iZone schools and our partnerships with colleges and universities are among the many investments made to boost student achievement,” the system says.

It further states the “overwhelming majority” of the system’s resources and investments go directly to schools and classrooms, with only 2 percent of its total operating budget paying for central office staff.

Yet, Harris says it still makes no sense for his wife to have to spend six days in a tent to put their children in a good school.

Meanwhile, the General Assembly “creates more instability and constantly chases whatever rabbit passes by, and that’s a huge problem” for education statewide, Harris contends.

“The only thing we have going for us are educators. We’ve got teachers really devoted to their profession and trying to do a good job.

“But they’ve got all the forces set against them,” he says.

For instance, the Senate recently passed legislation prohibiting teacher dues for the Tennessee Education Association to be deducted from payroll. Two Democratic senators voted for the bill, a decision he calls “shameful.”

The legislation cuts First Amendment freedoms, the result of special interests telling legislators the TEA “is bad,” he says.

Harris says he wishes the caucus would stick together on votes, but he says he’s never told anyone how to vote on a measure, even though he lays out the pros and cons of issues during caucus meetings.

“People have really got to decide for themselves. Because, again, I don’t like anybody telling me anything. I’m going to have the courage to stand alone and vote no,” Harris says.

The first-term legislator says it will take that type of courage for Democrats to return the state Legislature “to balance.” He expects to lose some battles, especially on social issues.

But, he contends, “We’re in it for the long term. We haven’t gotten there yet, but we will.”

Sam Stockard can be reached at sstockard44@gmail.com.