Saturday, February 26, 2011

Mr. Harris Goes to Little Rock

Justin Harris is a nice guy.

A freshman Arkansas state representative, Justin is unassuming, speaks rather quietly, and looks younger than his actual age in his mid-30s. When approached by a constituent or someone else, Justin’s eyes are directly on the individual –you won’t see them darting around the room looking for someone more important to sidle up to.

He cares about people and he’s a genuinely nice guy.

Yet, Nice Guy Justin had his picture on the front page of the Northwest Arkansas Times twice this week, both times as the result of controversy.

That’s because he has gone to Little Rock to act on his convictions. Make those Convictions, with a capital C. And he won’t be pushed around because of it.

One would think as a legislative newbie Justin would play it safe and introduce bills about repainting highway welcome centers or placing new historical markers. Stuff like that.

Not Justin. He was barely unpacked in Little Rock when he introduced a bill that would ban illegal immigrants from receiving state funding except in emergencies. How’s that for a first pitch in the AAA league of politics?

The bill made a splash in the House. Proponents burned up phone lines and e-mail channels cajoling, pressuring, and in at least one case, even trying to shame Republican legislators to be co-sponsors. But the bill died in a party line vote in committee.

But not without repercussions to Justin -- he learned Democrats were poking around in his business affairs. He and his wife operate a Christian pre-school in West Fork. Last year, during the election, his opponent attempted to paint the Harrises as skimming off and pocketing big amounts of tuition the state provides for poor students. Of course, the money actually went to things like teachers’ salaries, operating expenses, things like that, but why let the facts get in the way of a juicy scandal story?

As a result of the immigrant bill, pressure increased on Justin. He was approached by a high-powered lobbyist who told him word was going around that there were a dozen children of illegal immigrants in the pre- school. Justin took that as a threat and told the lobbyist in no uncertain terms that by law Justin could not inquire about the legal status of children in his school. One witness to the encounter reported never recalling the lobbyist being dressed down like that.

Justin later learned that Sen. Sue Madison (D-Fayetteville) had been poking around the Department of Human Services to see if Justin’s school had any illegal aliens.

In response, Justin is introducing a bill that would require any state office to make a disclosure when a legislator inquires about the business affairs of another legislator.

Is Justin playing hardball? Not really

Despite the controversies in recent days, he reports discussing possible areas of agreement with Senator Madison on legislation. And, without backing down on his position, he apologized to the lobbyist for the tone he took in their encounter.

After all, Justin Harris went to Little Rock as a man of conviction.

But he’s still a nice guy.

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