Talking to Kerri Evelyn Harris, the Mom, Vet, and Mechanic Staring Down Delaware's Political Machine

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Illustration: Kerri Evelyn Harris/Jim Cooke

This piece is part of Splinter’s series The New Guard, where we interview progressive candidates who are running in 2018 midterm races across the country to shake up the Democratic Party establishment.

Senator Tom Carper has been in elected office in some form since 1977—first as Delaware’s state treasurer, then in the U.S. House of Representatives, then as Delaware’s governor, and finally in the U.S. Senate, where he has been in office since 2001.

Carper is a centrist, corporate-friendly Democrat. He is an honorary co-chairman at the centrist think tank Third Way, which serves as a useful shorthand for his politics. Earlier this year, Carper cosponsored a bill that would loosen some of the financial regulations put into place in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. The bill, which passed in March, limits the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau from collecting data on banks’ lending practices to families of color, thus opening the door for banks to discriminate against prospective homeowners with little oversight. Carper was also one of 33 Senate Democrats who voted to reopen the federal government in January—leaving hundreds of thousands of young, undocumented immigrants in legal purgatory after Trump announced he was ending DACA.


Enter Kerri Evelyn Harris, who wears many hats: veteran, community organizer, auto mechanic, mom, and now, Senate candidate. Harris is challenging Carper in September’s Democratic primary. She supports single-payer healthcare, universal pre-K, a $15 minimum wage, stronger antitrust laws, and stricter regulation of Wall Street and the pharmaceutical industry, both of which have an outsized presence in Delaware.

Carper is a political powerhouse—perhaps the second-most powerful and entrenched Democrat in the First State after Joe Biden. With her primary challenge, Harris is tilting at a particularly formidable windmill. I spoke with her about the issues that matter the most to Delaware’s working class, her experience job searching as a veteran, and her work fighting the opioid crisis at home.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Why did you decide to run in this primary?

Prior to being able to be a full-time organizer, I worked at gas stations and cleaned houses and cut people’s lawns to make ends meet, and then I worked as an auto body mechanic. I realized just how crushing our government has been on the spirits of the American people, and policies aren’t truly affecting people in a way that truly moves us forward. To go forward, even the best-intentioned policy leaves out portions that are essential to ensuring that it actually works for the people. In my community organizing, I would hear the stories firsthand. I was taken aback, and I knew something had to change.


When Carper continued his track record of not standing up for the people when push came to shove—when it comes to saying no to the Keystone Pipeline, or whether it’s voting in favor of pharmaceutical companies and financial institutions against the best interests of his constituents—there’s a problem. There’s a lot of damage to be done when we have Democrats who are in who don’t stand their ground when it’s time to stand up for people. What use is your power if it’s not used to stand up for the people?


I often used to say that words without action are mute, and I realized that I was fussing a lot about the need to be a change, and there was no candidate I was able to get behind that was willing to take up the charge to disrupt the status quo, not just in Congress but at the state level. If I was just fussing and not backing a candidate who could be that candidate, then I had to be that candidate. Otherwise I would be a hypocrite.

The average person in Delaware looks like me. Most people are living paycheck to paycheck, they can’t afford an emergency. I know those struggles. I’ve lived those struggles, even now running the campaign. I drive a beater 1999 Volkswagen, and I could fix the car but I don’t have time to fix the car. I know what everybody’s going through, and I’m going through it with them as I’m running the campaign. I am with them. It’s a humbling experience, to say the least.


Carper has been cagey on voicing support for a single payer health care system, which more than half of Americans now support. Why do you support single payer? 

Time after time, we see that single payer works for not only other nations, but for our own nation: Medicare, Medicaid, and the VA system are our best examples. Ask someone on Medicare, Medicaid or the VA if they like their health care. My parents are on Medicare, and I know they wouldn’t trade it. Could there be changes? Could it improve? Of course. But I’ve been in a place where I only got services through the VA. I didn’t have to worry if I was able to pay for emergency services. I know people without access to those types of services who cannot.


If all of the people who are using these government-run services are willing to stay with them, then how can you tell me in another breath that they don’t work? And the return on investment would be substantial. You’d have a stronger workforce. Our children would do better in school. All the way around, it would promote a nation that is socially just. The only people who stand to benefit from not having a single payer health care system are all the people who already are benefiting: large pharmaceutical companies, insurance companies. And if that’s the reason why the rest of us are suffering, then that’s inexcusable.


Can you talk a little about your military background and how it’s informed your politics?

I joined the military in May 2001, not to be patriotic or anything like that, but so I could eventually get an education. I come from a long line of service members in my family. I was going to be security forces, and then Sept. 11 happened. After Sept. 11, it did become a patriotic thing. That was before I knew we were lied to about our reason for invading. I changed my job from security forces to being an aircraft roadmaster.


I actually got sick from the anthrax vaccine, so I was no longer deployable. I was medically retired in 2008, and had it not been for my family, I would have been one of the numerous veterans who are homeless, to be honest. They kept my head above water while I figured out how to get a job. A lot of people say they support the troops, but then you get home and you can’t find a job.

Secretary of Veterans Affairs David Shulkin was recently pushed out of office. Koch-funded interest groups like Concerned Veterans for America are trying to lead us toward privatizing the VA, and Congress just passed a $1.3 trillion omnibus spending bill that boosts defense spending. How would you judge the Trump administration’s record on serving veterans?


The president and other politicians often use veterans and active duty service members as campaign billboards. And they love to have us standing next to them with our different hats from whatever operation we’ve been in. And yet people wait years, still, to get their disability benefits. We still have too many people leaving the service unable to find jobs.

The only people getting better [from the omnibus] are Boeing and Lockheed and Blackwater, whereas if you are a military family of four, you could still qualify for food stamps. No money is getting thrown toward making sure we help these children. Spouses are constantly moving jobs along with their service member spouses, so we’re not helping them.


People get lost in privatization, regardless of industry. The military has its saying, ‘No soldier left behind,’ but you’re going to start leaving us behind once you start privatizing. And again, the only people getting richer are these large corporations. I am really tired of people saying they are for the troops, and then what the troops really need is forgotten or limited. So yeah, I’m not OK with a large spending bill where you can’t actually prove how it’s supporting our military members.


Let’s talk about Senate Bill 2155, the banking bill Carper supported. Can you talk a little bit about the influence of the financial industry in Delaware? 

Delaware doesn’t have much industry. In northern Delaware, we have a ton of banks. In Kent County and Sussex County, we have a number of factories, from Kraft to Perdue, but banks still rule the day here. Our state has made it a priority that we make it as comfortable for the banks as possible, even if it means the people don’t benefit. Our leaders in power tend to side with these corporations. When it comes to standing up for the people, Tom Carper will yield to corporations. We have a huge issue with inequality for black residents in Delaware, especially in Wilmington. And what really stands out about that is that Wilmington is also the home of all the banks.


For many of the people there, the only way to get to the American Dream is to purchase a mobile home. This bill allows mortgage companies to increase the percentage rates on mortgages for mobile homes. The average family income for somebody purchasing a mobile home is $30,000 or less. That’s not a lot of money! To me, it’s an underhanded way to take advantage of people who don’t have the time or means to recognize that they’re being taken advantage of. Who’s going to have the time to read Senate Bill 2155? Who’s going to have the time to call their senator and say, “I don’t want this”? You’re lucky if you get to the polls to vote because one of your two or three jobs lets you get down to the elementary school to vote. We need to change that.


Let’s talk about the opioid crisis in Delaware. Do you think pharmaceutical companies should be held accountable for the crisis? 

There has been no push to hold the pharmaceutical companies accountable for this new opioid crisis. When you have evidence of how addictive your pills are that you are pushing—not unlike the pushers on the corner—you are responsible for the effects. There shouldn’t be people going around to different medical professionals saying, ‘If you prescribe this pill, we’ll give you a kickback.’ How can you say that is acceptable in any way? So the pharmaceuticals should be held accountable, but our government has a role in this too by allowing this to happen.


The opioid crisis is killing more than 115 people a day. Delaware is the sixth smallest state, yet in 2016 we had the ninth-highest overdose rate in the nation. It’s affecting our young people, and it’s weighing heavily on our community. Everybody knows somebody who is using drugs or has died from opioids, or is currently dealing with this addiction. We can’t stand by idly and let this continue. The Delaware attorney general is participating in a lawsuit against some of the pharmaceutical companies. We have to do that nationally as well.

This is a simple question, but it seems like you have a lot of jobs, on top of being a mom and running for Congress. Can you list all of your current jobs for me?


I work with the Opioid Network, which is a subset of Center for Popular Democracy. I’m going to be in DC on April 18, doing an action at the Smithsonian, where we put down medicine bottles from a bunch of different people to show, this is where this new opioid crisis has spawned from. I also work with an organization called the Delaware Alliance for Community Advancement, along with Metropolitan Women’s Urban League. I also work with Achievement Matters, where I’m a facilitator for a fellowship program to close the achievement gap and foster new leadership in communities of color.

So what you’re telling me is that you’re not busy at all. 

Well, you can’t stop until it’s done, right?