Earlier this summer, Rep. Gregg Harper cleared his calendar to fly home for the birth of his first grandbaby — a little boy named Lee.
Speaking in his Rayburn Building office two weeks later, the Mississippi Republican pulled out his phone to flip through pictures.
“I won’t show you the hundreds I have, but here’s a few,” he said. The first showed Lee in matching knitted hat and booties, the second was of him in his parents’ arms, and the third depicted the newborn and the family dog meeting for the first time.
After 10 years representing Mississippi’s 3rd District, Harper is retiring at the end of this term.
“I had 150 takeoffs and landings last year, and I thought, ‘You know, I think I’d be OK with a little less than that,’” he said.
He’s also happy he gets to go out on his own terms, when he still “might have gotten re-elected.” That is not to diminish his time in Congress, however, which Harper called the “greatest honor I’ve ever had.”
He recalled his first run for Congress in 2008 when he came through a seven-way Republican primary, for which he had raised about $280,000: “We weren’t huge, were probably viewed as No. 3 or 4 out of the seven.”
A true underdog, Harper was able to best a self-funder who spent $1.2 million on the campaign and another candidate with $700,000 to spend and statewide name recognition.
“My advice to young people thinking about running is, if you ever find yourself borrowing $20,000, tell your spouse you’re going to borrow money before they read it in your capital city newspaper,” Harper said.
Toward the end of the 2008 primary, the Harper campaign went broke.
“You can’t go dark on election weekend,” he explained. So he borrowed $20,000 to pay for TV ads. Luckily, he had already won the election by the time his wife discovered the borrowed money.
In Congress, Harper took a special interest in fighting on behalf of those with intellectual disabilities. His son has Fragile X Syndrome, a genetic condition linked to various developmental problems including learning disabilities. His law office in Brandon, Mississippi, had kids with special needs from a nearby high school come in to work, and Harper decided to bring that concept to Washington.
Eight years ago, he recruited students from George Mason University’s Mason LIFE — which offers a four-year non-degree program to students with intellectual disabilities — to work in five congressional offices. Today, over 170 Senate and House offices have asked to participate in the internship program, so many that there are not enough students to fill every office.
“I think you can always judge somebody’s character by how they treat somebody with special needs,” Harper said.
The congressman designed the program not only to give these students a unique experience but also to give many staffers their first experience working with someone with an intellectual disability.
“They see, ‘Hey, they’re like me.’ They open their hearts up to them. Those staffers may be running companies that are hiring people in 20 years, and we want them to look at them and hire some of those people,” Harper said.
Harper said his proudest legislative accomplishment was his work on the so-called Gabriella Miller Kids First Research Act. The law ended taxpayer funding of the Presidential Election Campaign Fund and instead diverted that money to pediatric research through the National Institutes of Health, a bonus which totaled around $125 million over a ten-year period. Gabriella Miller was a 10-year-old who died from brain cancer.
But Harper is arguably best known for his work to overhaul Congress’ sexual harassment policy in his role as chairman of the House Administration Committee. He is proud that all of Congress now partakes in mandatory sexual harassment training, from the lawmakers to staffers to interns.
“What we’re trying to do is change the culture on Capitol Hill. It has to be understood that taxpayers are not going to be responsible for someone’s bad behavior,” he said.
Even if the gender norms might not hold up, Harper still shares the following advice with young men: “Treat the young lady you’re dating with respect. Twenty-five years from now, you’re going to have some guy show up at your house, knock on the door and want to take your daughter out. You treat the young lady you’re dating now just like you want that guy to treat your daughter.”
As chairman of the House Energy Oversight Subcommittee, Harper also played an active role in a related matter: investigating the U.S. Olympic community over Larry Nassar’s criminal behavior in women’s gymnastics. U.S. Olympic officials testified before Congress about an alleged decade of passivity toward sexual assault claims made by athletes.
One thing Harper said he wishes he could have accomplished is the elimination of 14(c) certificates, which allow companies to pay employees with disabilities less than minimum wage. Harper repeatedly introduced a bill to do so, the so-called TIME Act, but it has not yet made it into law.
“It’s time to end this 1930s era policy and ensure that all workers, regardless of their disability enjoy equal rights and opportunities,” he wrote in an op-ed for The Hill.
As for what he’ll do next, Harper said he is unsure. One thing he does know: “I will never ‘retire’ from working, because I’ve been at home with my wife and she works me harder than any employer I’ve ever had. I wonder how that’ll look in print, I love my wife, put that down.”
Again, he pulled out his phone to display pictures of his wife, Sidney, and to brag about how young she looks. They’ve been together since Harper was 17 and she was 15, and recently celebrated their 39th wedding anniversary.
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