Rogers, Harris vie for District 3 seat
by Tim Lockette
Oct 29, 2012 | 3914 views |  0 comments | 19 19 recommendations | email to a friend | print
John Andrew Harris
John Andrew Harris
MONTGOMERY — To John Andrew Harris, Alabama's District 3 is a classic Democratic big tent: a patchwork of black urban-dwellers, Auburn University students and rural whites who are all just waiting for the handshake of a politician willing to listen.

"I've got a good feeling for elections, and I think this one is going to surprise some people," he said.

To Rep. Mike Rogers, District 3 is the constituency: the people who've elected him time and again, people Rogers describes as fundamentally conservative and primarily concerned with economic growth.

"I'd like to see regulators move to Wall Street, where the problems are, and get off of local banking, because they're killing growth," he said.

One week from today, voters will decide which man will represent District 3, a district that covers a wide swath of eastern Alabama, from the northern fringe of the Black Belt to the sparsely-populated, heavily white Appalachian foothills of Cleburne County.

Harris is from Opelika, on the southern end of the district. Rogers is from Anniston, the district's northern anchor. It's a difference that shows up in each man's view of politics — and each man's approach to winning the district.

'Across political party'

"I'm not ashamed to say I grew up in the projects," said Harris, the Democratic nominee.

Harris worked for 34 years as a food preparer in the child nutrition department of Auburn City Schools. Along the way, he developed an interest in politics, serving first on the Opelika City Council, then winning election to the Lee County Commission, a position he's held for the last 16 years.

Harris said he is the first African-American elected to the commission, and the only Democrat currently serving. He said his experience working across lines of party and race gives him a skill Congress needs. The Republican House currently in place is too partisan to get things done, he said.

"You've got to work across political party," Harris said. "That's not what they're doing now in Congress. Their agenda is to get rid of the president, and they're putting party above the country."

Harris said he supported the Affordable Care Act and wants to protect federal funding for programs Republican cost-cutters sometimes dismiss — like school lunch programs.

"Some of these kids, when they eat breakfast in the breakfast program and lunch at school, those are the only meals they'll eat that day," he said.

Harris said he is opposed to gay marriage, based on his religious principles as a Christian. On defense spending, he said "we should keep up with what we need to keep up," maintaining an ability to fight two wars at once.

"We're spending more than China and Russia put together," he said. "My understanding is that we're in pretty good shape."

Still, he said he's just as concerned about providing services to veterans who are coming back. He said he'd like to see a jobs program focused on rebuilding building the nation's infrastructure.

"I'm not a person who wants to spend, spend, spend," he said. "But we've spent a lot of money on foreign countries. What's wrong with taking care of America?"

His own war for the District 3 seat has almost no funding at all. Federal campaign documents show that Harris has a little more than $3,000 in campaign money, much of it from a loan.

The situation was much the same for Steve Segrest, the Democratic nominee for the seat in 2010. Segrest spent almost nothing, and openly acknowledged that he ran largely to provide voters an option in a district that had become securely Republican.

To win the race, Harris will also have to overcome a recent gaffe. A biography on his website originally identified Harris as the former manager of a school child nutrition program. Actually, he was a cook and server in school lunchrooms. When the Opelika-Auburn News caught the error, Harris' website went down for a week.

Harris said the error was something he'd noticed and asked a staffer to correct, though the correction didn't get done. He said the staffer, a volunteer, is still working for him.

"She's a good person," he said. "She was just overwhelmed."

Even so, Harris said he sees a path to the Congressional seat through old-fashioned Democratic coalition building. He said there are 30,000 eligible black voters still unregistered in Montgomery County, part of which is in the 3rd District, though he's working on registration efforts. He said college students and educators are excited about his campaign, and are volunteering. And he said he is capable of winning over would-be Republicans in white, rural areas.

"I'm a county commissioner," he said. "If I can't reach them in the rural areas, I shouldn't be on the commission."

'Tough choices'

Rogers is himself a former county commissioner, serving on the Calhoun County Commission before his election to Congress in 2002. He also served for six years as a state legislator. He said he's never been a Washington resident, coming home to Saks every weekend when Congress is in session.

Asked about his vision for the next two years, he said everything depends on who wins the presidency and who has control of the Senate.

"If Gov. Romney is elected, we'll spend a lot of time trying to deal with spending," he said. Rogers said he expected a Romney administration to work with Congress first to reduce the discretionary budget, and then dive into issues such as Medicare. (Social Security and Medicare funds aren't part of the typical, annual budgeting process.) Tough choices are needed, Rogers said, to keep the United States from going the same route as troubled nations in southern Europe.

"If we don't want to become Greece or Spain, we're going to have to make tough choices," he said.

Rogers said he'd support cuts throughout the discretionary budget — but he doesn't want cuts to defense.

"We've just finished working to cut $470 billion from defense," he said, citing a 10-year budget projection often quoted in Washington. "I think we ought to be able to make cuts to the Department of Education."

Rogers' own campaign isn't hurting for cash. Federal campaign documents show he has $218,954 on hand, and that he took in and spent more than $900,000 in campaign funds since early 2011. Defense contractors such as General Dynamics, Boeing and EADS are among his campaign contributors. That money hasn't historically been controversial in the northern stretch of District 3, which is anchored by Anniston, where thousands work at Anniston Army Depot and local defense contractors.

Rogers isn't afraid to point out the advantages of his seniority in the office, noting that he's the most senior of three representatives up for chairmanship of the Homeland Security Committee in November. He said there's real potential to expand the Auburn University sniffing-dog facility at McClellan, one of a number of homeland security facilities on the former military base.

Rogers said he's concerned about the potential for an Israeli attack on Iran.

"If they do that, the whole region is going to swarm on them like hornets," he said. Rogers lays the blame for that danger at the feet of President Obama, who he said could have circumvented any Israeli effort to go it alone, had he shown willingness to use the U.S. military to stop Iran's nuclear program.

He's also critical of Obama's stance on banking regulation, which he says is a burden on small banks that weren't responsible for the 2008 economic crisis. That regulation plus the health-care reform, he said, are suppressing economic growth.

Rogers rejects the notion, pushed by Harris, that he and other Republicans have crafted their policies specifically to sabotage Obama. He said the president has taken a hands-off approach to Congress, which hasn't helped him make friends there.

"When I have been around him, he strikes me as arrogant and disengaged," Rogers said of the president.

Even so, Rogers said he did expect Congress to resolve its differences on budget-cutting after the election, avoiding the so-called "budget cliff." He said if a deal wasn't reached, legislators would find a way to put the issue off for another year.

And despite the end of the Iraq war and the expected end of involvement in Afghanistan, Rogers said he had hopes that contracts with other countries would keep Anniston's defense industries in business. He said his goal was to provide those facilities with enough business to keep them ready for full-scale production in the event of another war.

Asked what countries he wanted to sell defense materials to, Rogers said he was hoping for a deal soon with Greece. He acknowledged the irony of selling to a country that has come to symbolize government overspending.

"We won't take a check from them," he said, laughing.

Capitol and statewide reporter Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star
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