ROCKINGHAM — Mark Harris says he won’t accept soaring health care costs, vanishing jobs and a ballooning federal deficit as the United States’ “new normal.”
One of three Republican candidates squaring off in a June 7 primary to represent the 9th Congressional District in the U.S. House, Harris spoke to roughly two-dozen pastors and lay leaders at a Pee Dee Baptist Association luncheon Tuesday.
“If people continue to try to feed us that — ‘We are living in the new normal for America’ — we must reject that premise at every turn,” he said.
NEW 9TH DISTRICT
The First Baptist Church of Charlotte’s senior pastor, Harris delivered a combined sermon and stump speech, sharing lessons on leadership from the book of Nehemiah.
“I believe we need leaders in our day who demonstrate character and who are consistent in who they are and what they do,” Harris said. “There needs to be a new voice for a new day in Washington, D.C.”
Harris finished third in an eight-candidate field for the 2014 Republican U.S. Senate nomination, trailing Thom Tillis, who went on to defeat Kay Hagan in November, and runner-up Greg Brannon.
In the June congressional primary, he faces incumbent Rep. Robert Pittenger of Charlotte and Union County insurance salesman Todd Johnson.
The redrawn 9th District includes a portion of Mecklenburg County, where Harris lives, along with Union, Anson, Richmond, Scotland and Robeson counties and parts of Cumberland and Bladen counties.
Federal judges ruled early this year that North Carolina’s 1st and 12th congressional districts were racially gerrymandered, prompting state lawmakers to overhaul the districts after the March 15 primary ballots had already been printed. That led to a compressed election cycle.
“The vote is coming up on June 7 — eight weeks from today,” Harris said. “Eight thousand to 9,000 votes could win this primary, and if we win this primary, we will win the general election in November.”
Democratic candidate Christian Cano, a Charlotte businessman, has no primary opponent and will advance to the Nov. 8 ballot.
SPENDING, HEALTH CARE
Harris cast himself as a political outsider committed to curbing federal spending. He said he would support a balanced budget amendment and believes in fiscal restraint.
“People all over North Carolina and all over this district are fed up with Washington, D.C.,” Harris said. “They have good reason to be fed up — a $19 trillion national debt, $120 trillion in unfunded liabilities and no real plan for defeating ISIS.”
He criticized Pittenger for compromising with House Democrats and signing on to support a bloated budget.
“The person currently in this seat has voted twice to raise the debt limit, has voted for this omnibus budget bill which included funding for Planned Parenthood,” Harris said. “People are saying, ‘Enough is enough.’”
The Affordable Care Act, President Barack Obama’s signature health care reform, has raised the cost of health insurance premiums for small businesses and churches including his own Charlotte congregation, he said.
“Obamacare continues to place its heel on the neck of our businesses,” he said. “At First Baptist Church of Charlotte, our health insurance rates steadily go up. As a pastor of a church, I’ve seen it, and I’m sure some of you have seen it too.”
Harris supported House Bill 2, the controversial state law passed March 23 that limits transgender people’s restroom access and rewrites North Carolina’s nondiscrimination policies.
He was a leader of the citizens’ group Don’t Do It Charlotte, which lobbied the city council against passing an ordinance allowing transgender individuals to use the restrooms matching their gender identity.
“I have been a supporter of it from the beginning,” he said, “not only a supporter of it, I’ve worked hard to get it there, and I don’t mind taking a stand.”
Harris said the Charlotte council overstepped its legal authority and Mayor Jennifer Roberts picked a fight with the N.C. General Assembly after being warned that passing the ordinance would prompt legislative action.
North Carolina is a Dillon Rule state, he explained, meaning local governments derive their authority from the state legislature and can only exercise powers specifically delegated to them. The term is named for Iowa judge John F. Dillon.
HB2 touched off a wave of protests and has been sharply criticized by civil rights groups and more than 100 corporations who say the law sanctions discrimination against lesbian, gay, transgender and bisexual people.
Gov. Pat McCrory signed a Tuesday executive order adding sexual orientation and gender identity to the list of state nondiscrimination protections, but leaving intact the portion of the law that requires individuals to use the public restrooms and locker rooms that match the gender on their birth certificates.
FAITH AND VALUES
Harris said his hero and role model is his father, who was raised in a Methodist children’s home in Winston-Salem and “is the epitome of an overcomer.”
Harris’ dad fought in World War II as a waist gunner on a B-17 bomber and was captured by the Nazis after a 1944 plane crash during his ninth bombing raid. He emerged from the war “not bitter, but better,” attending N.C. State University, meeting and marrying Harris’ mother and starting a family.
Before his death in 2014, the elder Harris cautioned his son to “be careful” when he discussed running for U.S. Senate. Mark Harris said he chose instead to follow his father’s example of boldness and tenacity.
“Your generation looked at America from the 30,000-foot view,” he recalls telling his dad. “My generation — we’re the ones who have screwed this up. We’re the ones who have lived more for our individual selves than for the nation as a whole. I just hope and pray that someday my children and my eventual grandchildren will be able to look at me the way I look at you.”
Harris said Christians should be focused on having a positive influence in their cities, state and nation instead of being people who “live and die by the beauty of the stained glass in our churches.”
“Our role is to be relentless in getting out there and energizing the culture and making an impact,” he said.
Pee Dee Baptist Association members closed the luncheon by encircling Harris and praying over him. Campaign volunteer Jason Williams, vice chairman of the Gaston County Board of Commissioners, accompanied him on the Rockingham visit.
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who has himself served as a Baptist preacher, has endorsed Harris and will be appearing with him at an April 21 speech in Monroe.
Reach Editor Corey Friedman at 910-817-2670 and follow him on Twitter @corey_friedman.