Hold Back the Don?
If you believe what you've read about Donald Harris, he's little more than a loudmouth crackpot out for retribution --and maybe a little tail on the side. The Democratic candidate for Maricopa County Attorney has barreled through his campaign without an endorsement from his party, dodging accusations that he's a loose cannon and a womanizer. Okay, so he called former governor Bruce Babbitt a "liar" and a "criminal," and announced himself the most eligible bachelor in the county on Primary Night (causing his Republican opponent, Andrew Thomas, to launch his spoofy "Win a Date With Don Harris!" Web site). But Harris, who briefly held the office of County Attorney in 1976, seems to have voters on his side despite what he likes to call his "outspoken ways." He prevailed in the September 7 primary, beating out Democrat Jonathan Warshaw, a deputy county attorney who ran with endorsements from Governor Janet Napolitano and Attorney General Terry Goddard. Harris doesn't need official endorsements, he says, because voters love him for the very reason that local politicians shy away from backing him: "I speak my mind, and that's what people want."
New Times: You've been quoted as saying that this campaign has been the "worst goddamned experience of my life."
Donald Harris: It's been a disappointment to me to read some of the things that have been written in the paper that aren't true. I was naive, perhaps, in the political arena. I thought [the campaign] was going to be about myself as a candidate against another candidate. He chose not to do it that way, and it got ugly, which carried forward into the general election.
NT: According to Arizona Republic editorial writer Phil Boas, you told the editorial board there would be "scores to settle" should you be elected. With whom?
Harris: That was in the context of "Nobody in this community is going to get away with anything in white collar crime." Other people have floated through in the last few years under the current administration. I was talking about cleaning up the community. It was an emotional thing. I had some things to get off my chest.
NT: Did you really take your war medals down there with you?
Harris: I brought a bag with my medals from Vietnam. I had Charitable Work citations, I had my Man of the Year award from the University of Arizona, and it was to make a point: I said, "When you wrote the endorsement for my opponent, you wrote that I have a lot of baggage. This is the baggage I have with me today. I've carried it with me most of my life. Before I answer any questions today, I want you to tell me what baggage you were talking about. I'm not a drinker, I've never hit a woman, I'm a decorated Marine officer. What does 'baggage' mean?"
NT: Andrew Thomas demanded that you either release the names of those you've targeted for retribution or withdraw from the race. What did you tell him?
Harris: I didn't know about that.
NT: You didn't read that in the Republic?
Harris: (Laughs.) No, sir. I never saw it.
NT: Boas wrote that you told the editorial board they'd just saved you $15,000 in psychiatric fees.
Harris: I did say that. I knew I wasn't going to get their endorsement. It's going to snow in Phoenix before I'll get their endorsement. I knew that going in, so I said, "Thank you for letting me vent." I meant it!
NT: Why do I want to vote for you?
Harris: Leadership and experience -- the most important attributes you can bring to an office. I ran a civil affairs unit in Vietnam. I handled funds, I sent out medical teams to treat local people, I distributed food to the natives. A lot of Vietnamese people are born with deviated septums. I started Operation Harelip. We would fly children into Saigon; three days later they'd come back with a whole new lip.
NT: That's very nice of you. But how does that . . .
Harris: It gives you leadership ability. Do you know what's wrong with [the County Attorney's] Office?
NT: Track lighting?
Harris: No. A lack of leadership. And morale is really low. When I was appointed County Attorney in 1976, the people were happier, they respected the office. I started a program where there were enhanced penalties if an officer was assaulted in the performance of his duties. Prisoners were locked up on entry of guilt, not out for months waiting to be sentenced.
NT: You were also pulled off the Don Bolles murder investigation at that time.
Harris: I wasn't pulled off it. Bruce Babbitt wanted that case. He said he did it because "Harris opened his mouth" about the case. It was a lie. So when I said that at a debate, the old-line Democrats turned on me because I attacked Bruce Babbitt.
NT: Yeah. Democrats sort of like Babbitt a lot.
Harris: I told the truth! If I have to suffer for this, that's life.
NT: You're doing okay, all the same: You won your primary, without any official support from Democrats' endorsement, which went to your opponent, Andrew Thomas.
Harris: He's shifted. "Oh, I didn't mean it when I said [drug dealers] should be put in stocks. I didn't mean it when I said mothers who put their kids in day care are worse than Susan Smith." Because he's being worked with. And he's dangerous.
NT: Why isn't the Democratic party behind you?
Harris: I don't know, sir. It's hurtful, and I don't understand it. I've lived Democratic principles my whole life. I'm a lifelong member of the NAACP. I believe in civil rights; I'm pro-gay marriage.
NT: Who is endorsing you?
Harris: I'm endorsed by the people. And [Maricopa County Supervisor] Mary Rose Wilcox [a Democrat]. She's stood behind me since Day One. I've been endorsed by animal rights [activists]; by AFSCME -- the largest union of public employees, 5,600 of them. Isn't that newsworthy, sir? The papers didn't print it. So when you ask me why do I think I'm being picked on, I point to something like that.
NT: Mayor Phil Gordon is backing your opponent.
Harris: Phil Gordon is talking out of both sides of his mouth. When Phil Gordon gets up there and endorses Thomas, who stands for everything opposite of what Mr. Gordon stands for, it's very strange. I've never done anything to Phil Gordon, or said anything to embarrass myself or the party.
NT: Well, you did call Bruce Babbitt a liar.
Harris: Everyone says it stems from that. But I thought politics was a game of "kiss and make up." After the primary, I see John McCain with his arm around George Bush. So I thought, After the primary, they'll rally around me. Instead, they sent out e-mails saying, "Write in Jonathan Warshaw's name." Instead of endorsing me, a guy who's outspoken, they get behind this other guy [Andrew Thomas], this creature out there.
NT: That "creature" has endorsements from [Maricopa County Attorney] Rick Romley and [former Arizona attorney general] Grant Woods [both Republicans]. Which seems odd, since Thomas is kind of a radical conservative.
Harris: I'm a mainstreamer! They all feel, the people who have sought Thomas' favor, that he carries an extreme right-wing base, and they all want to tap into that when they run. Grant Woods wants to run again for something. Romley wants to run for governor. . . . Phil Gordon would like to be something other than mayor someday. They've got half their rear end on a chair, and the other half is looking for a place to sit. So they're sitting in the Governor's Office, and it's, "Where do I put it next? I want to be a senator. I want to be president."
NT: Isn't that the nature of politics?
Harris: Yes, but I'm not a politician. I want my seat firmly planted in the County Attorney's Office.
NT: On paper, you seem like the most qualified candidate.
Harris: I am. On paper and off paper.
NT: And yet a lot of people seem to want to keep you out of office. Is it because you tend to shoot your mouth off?
Harris: Why do you have to say it so coarsely? Why can't you say because I'm outspoken? You've got a command of the language; use it, for crying out loud!
NT: It means the same thing.
Harris: No, it doesn't. When you say I shoot my mouth off, you're getting into the gutter. I'm not letting you off the hook. Ask me, "Mr. Harris, are you outspoken?" I'll answer that.
NT: Okay. How about this: People don't like you because you have really big opinions and you don't keep them to yourself.
Harris: Yes, sir. That's my failing. I don't think like a politician. I think like Donald Harris, and if something's on my mind, I'm gonna get it off my mind. Which the public found enchanting when I was County Attorney in 1976. The newspapers were blasting me the four months I was in office because I wouldn't play ball with them on the Bolles case. And Babbitt did, because he wanted to ride that case into the White House. Everybody knows that.
Harris: I don't need the paper to validate my life. My life's been validated by me. I've led a good life, and they print those innuendos --
NT: Like that you were recently caught in an endorsement scam.
Harris: What I put on my Web site was not an endorsement. When a high-ranking police officer wrote me, I put it on my Web site. I didn't say the police were endorsing me. That's not a scam. That's a Jonathan Warshaw lying tactic. The kid is a great liar. Can't I tell the public what the head of the Democratic party thinks about me, since the party has pushed me away? Can I tell what a police officer thinks of me, even though I don't have the PD's endorsement?
NT: You've been quoted as saying, "Politics is bullshit." So why are you running for office?
Harris: Because I'm not a politician. Obviously. I want to do some good in this community. And I take back what I said about this being the worst experience of my life. I'm glad I did it, and I really want to win this thing. Not for getting even with people. I want to win this because I'm the better man. I mean the better person.
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