By now, Erika Harold — the main challenger to incumbent Rodney Davis in the 13th Congressional District’s Republican primary — has receded from the public eye. Harold, an Urbana native and attorney at the Meyer Capel law firm in Champaign, lost the Republican primary election: she snagged about 40% of the vote in comparison to Davis’s 55%. But in the months leading up to the primary, Harold’s campaign caused quite a stir.
She’s not your typical political candidate: her law degree is from Harvard, but she also has been part of the beauty pageant world and was crowned Miss America in 2003. And if she had won the primary and the general elections, she would have made history by being the first female African-American Republican member of Congress.
Last year, Harold’s campaign shook up the GOP when Jim Allen, a former Illinois GOP official, resigned over a number of offensive comments he made about her in an email. Allen referred to Harold as both “the love child of the DNC” and “a street walker,” suggesting that her campaign was masterminded by Democrats — not Republicans — in order to put pressure on Representative Davis in the primary. But meanwhile, her unusual resume and personal story earned her attention on the national stage: she appeared on Greta Van Susteren’s Fox News show and earned praise from The Daily Beast and The Weekly Standard.
Throughout the primary, Harold stayed focused on core Republican concerns despite the fact that most local party officials backed Davis. Her platform was based on “defending the vision of our forefathers” by respecting the constitution, promoting agricultural interests and economic growth through low regulation and low taxes for individuals and businesses, and “respecting human dignity” through pro-life policies and abstinence-only education. Her political message was on view at a number of local parades in our district, including the Parade of Lights in Champaign, in the form of a massive, trumpeting elephant alongside a sign reading, “Help America, Vote for Erika.”
I had the chance to exchange some emails with Harold in the weeks leading up to the primary election. Here’s what I learned about her from our exchanges.
Smile Politely: Could you share a specific memory of growing up in our community, Champaign-Urbana, that informs your political views?
Erika Harold: While I was a student at the University of Illinois, I had the privilege of taking an Economics course under the legendary Professor Fred Gottheil. His discussions of economic incentives and free markets contributed to my views on taxation and regulation.
SP: What are your favorite businesses or public spaces in C-U, and why?
Harold: Art Mart is one of my favorite businesses because it has such an eclectic and whimsical assortment of jewelry, cards and home accessories. I also enjoy running through Meadowbrook Park and seeing the sculptures contained within the Wandell Sculpture Garden.
SP: How has the experience of being a former Miss America helped or hindered your current campaign?
Harold: Serving as Miss America and having the experiences of traveling approximately 20,000 miles a month, delivering several speeches a day, being interviewed by national media, and mobilizing leaders around community service initiatives helped prepare me for the rigors of a Congressional campaign and taught me how to maintain a sense of perspective while on the campaign trail.
SP: What similarities or differences do you notice between beauty pageants and politics?
Harold: In the Miss America pageant, the judges ultimately are looking for the contestant whose community service platform and sense of passion for such platform can make a positive impact upon the country. In much the same way, voters are looking for the candidate whose policy ideas and commitment to achieving those ideals can improve our country.
SP: Who are your political heroes (on the international, national, state, or local stage), and why?
Harold: I admire Dr. Condoleezza Rice because she is a brilliant, thoughtful and sophisticated woman who has played important roles in both national and international affairs. While there are some issues on which we would differ, her voice is an eloquent and dignified one that is much needed in our political arena.
SP: Currently, the Republican platform is not strongly associated with diversity and support of women’s issues. How would you respond to these critiques?
Harold: I hope to see a greater level of diversity within the Republican party as a whole because the Republican principles of limited government, lower taxes and less regulation can appeal to people from a variety of backgrounds. Moreover, the Republican party needs to have broader discussions of the positive ways in which conservative principles can impact women’s lives, whether it is through economic policies that empower women who own small businesses, educational policies that provide women with greater school choices for their children, or foreign policies that promote our security interests.
SP: Some have criticized your decision to run against Rep. Davis, suggesting that you don’t have good odds of winning the primary and could hurt his chance of winning in the general election. How would you respond to these comments?
Harold: Primaries are a healthy part of our democracy and ultimately serve to ensure that voters select the party’s standard-bearer. Moreover, integral to the conservative ethos is the principle of free-market competition and the belief that competition strengthens the competitors and yields better outcomes. The same holds true for our political process.
SP: What Democratic Party political view are you most in agreement with?
Harold: Opposition to the death penalty. As an attorney, I have seen how human error can undermine the justice system and deny a defendant Constitutional due process and a fair trial. Accordingly, I do not support the death penalty because of the risk that an innocent person could be executed.
SP: What do you think is the most significant issue that Congress needs to address in the coming term?
Harold: My number one priority would be to pursue fiscal policies that create a climate conducive to the expansion of businesses and job opportunities within the 13th District. These policies include: a regulatory framework that does not inhibit innovation or create excessive layers of bureaucracy; a modernized and streamlined tax code that does not increase the tax burden upon individuals and businesses; and a strategic plan containing quantifiable benchmarks to reduce the national debt and indebtedness to foreign entities.
So what’s next for Harold now that the primary election is over? At this point, she plans on returning to practicing law full time. Time will tell whether or not she draws national attention in the years to come.
Photos courtesy of Justine Bursoni.