I recently spoke with Dr. Vernon Harlan who is running in the Democratic primary for the House seat in the 71st district. For Harlan, who is running against Roger Wilson (same name, but not the Democratic party poobah), and Donald Calloway (whom I interviewed last March), the primary will be the main event, since whoever wins the primary in this overwhelmingly Democratic district will face no opponent and will inevitably be the individual going to Jefferson City next year. At this point the contest seems to be mainly between Harlan and Calloway.  

By any measure Vernon Harlan is a strong contender. He is well-known in the district where he has been actively involved in the community for many years.  He is an educator and expert in the field of criminal justice which he currently teaches at St. Louis Community College-Forest Park. He has spoken widely and written about the prison system and youth gangs; knows the educational system, and knows the ins-and-outs of the local political environment where he has been active behind the scenes for a long time.

When I asked Harlan why he decided to run for office, he stated flatly that he sees people suffering every day and got into the House race because he  felt that somebody needed to stand up for them.  After receiving encouragement from St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley, he decided that he could be a strong contender in the state legislative race and succeed in giving this constituency a voice in Jefferson City.  As he says repeatedly, it is not about him, but about the people he wants to serve.

Harlan learned to empathize with the everyday struggles of working people the hard way.  As a child, his mother, sister and grandfather all suffered from multiple sclerosis, his mother and sister dying at age 35.  From an early age, he grappled with the demands of being a caregiver for his mother and sister.  This experience not only taught him first-hand about the vagaries of the healthcare system, but also, he says, helped develop his concern for the people around him.

As might be expected, this concern is reflected in Harlan’s legislative priorities:  restoring the health-care cuts made by the Republican legislature under Blunt; improving public safety; creating new jobs; increasing funding to public schools; and protecting the rights of workers from the depredations of the Republican congress.

When Harlan is pressed about how he would go about addressing these priorities his response often boils down to getting more money.   In the case of the educational dysfunction he so readily identifies, given his experience in the community college system where remedial issues are prevalent, the equation is simple: he sees better schools as a function of more money.  He rejects vouchers and charter schools because they siphon money from the public system.  The same goes for merit-based pay for teachers which he believes has the potential to backfire in a profession that already suffers from generally low-pay–the fall-out, he believes, could intensify the problems that many municipalities already have in retaining qualified teachers.

Harlan proposes to address educational funding issues by working in the legislature to reform the complex school funding formula so that it is fairer for those in the urban systems.  Citing the experience of Royal Oak, Michigan, he also indicated that it might be possible to pass bills that give incentives for private-public partnerships that would make more resources available to the schools.

Likewise, Harlan would address public safety issues with increased funding.  He talked about the problems that result from the lack of resources to help facilitate the reentry of ex-convicts into the community.  He also stressed the need for funds for community centers where seniors can overcome isolation in a safe environment, and where young people can find a safe, constructive alternative to the street.  

Although securing state funds for these initiatives is a major goal for Harlan if he is elected, he feels that he can bring resources into his community in other ways as well.  He notes that there is grant money available that goes untapped because people don’t know about it. Because of his background and the contacts he has developed over the years, he believes that he could proactively insure that this information reaches the relevant agencies and individuals.

Harlan also discussed merging services for some of the 22 municipalities in the 71st district in order to achieve economies of scale.  If several municipalities were to pool their police services, the result could be better service for all–whereas now it is a inconsistent patchwork of good, bad, indifferent, and, in some cases, no services at all.  

When we discussed jobs creation, Harlan gingerly put the idea of TIFs on the plate, stating that the issue for his constituents is simply “I want a job.”  He offered the city of Vinita Park as a “perfect model” of cooperation between government and business.  The city offers business and industry a friendly environment and they, in turn, step up to the plate to meet municipal needs.

I asked Harlan how he proposed to deal with the competing needs that inevitably arise in a district as diverse as the 71st.  His response was succinct:  communication.  He described an east/west divide in the district and identified communication along this axis as the real challenge, but added that he believes that all the municipalities have much to teach each other: “what one community does can help another.”

Harlan offered one rather counter-intuitive example of what happens when communication is opened up when he discussed the witches-brew of charges and counter-charges that has arisen (again) in the Northeast Ambulance and Fire District.  Since he was the director of the Mid-County Fire Protection District himself, one gives some weight to his wary opinion that the problem here is communication perverted by self-interest, rather than the racial or corruption scandal that is implied by the claims of the disputants.

In keeping with his emphasis on securing funding to achieve community goals, it is somehow appropriate that Harlan most recently made news by returning a contribution from Chris Koster’s Economic Growth Council.  As the St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s “Political Fix” blog noted:

Harlan cites “the recent revelation that aides to…Koster have been connected to laundering of political funds..”

Harlan was referring to reports, initially by the Associated Press’ David Lieb, that a Koster aide had delivered checks from an independent pro-Democrat campaign committee – the Economic Growth Council – to a representative for a legislative committee. That person then gave a donation from the legislative committee to the Koster aide.

Koster’s critics contend that action violated state campaign law, which bars donors from dictating to legislative committees which candidates get the money.

(For more background on how the “committee pass-through” system works, see this Post Dispatcharticle.)  

It is not surprising that Harlan, who understands the role of money in achieving social goals so well, also understands the importance of being very careful abou
t the role of money in achieving political goals–and also very consistent with the informed progressive that Vernon Harlan seems to be.