University of New Mexico professor Fred Harris is a former US senator, former chairman of the Democratic National Committee and ran a populist campaign for president in 1976. He also is one of New Mexico's super delegates.
SFR: You are the only New Mexico Democratic super delegate to endorse Barack Obama. Why?
Well, the defining issues in my political career have been race and poverty. And I just felt like it was once in a lifetime you have an opportunity to support an African-American with the kind of vision and ability to mobilize the country that Barack Obama has.***image1***
How did you become a super delegate and do you feel bound by how New Mexico voted-for Hillary Clinton, that is-in terms of how you should vote at the Democratic National Convention?
In 1982, the Democratic National Committee changed the rules. We had reformed them back when I was the chairman back in 1969 and 1970. Back then we outlawed ex-officio or automatic delegates. Now they're called super delegates. We outlawed them back then with the reforms I presided over. But then in 1982, the Democratic National Committee backslid, I think, and provided for 795 super delegates. They include governors, members of Congress and party chairs. And included in the list that they approved are former national chairs of the party. That's the category in which I fall. All the others are tied to states. I'm a national super delegate. I'm not bound by the [state's] vote.
Is it good we have super delegates?
I really don't like the idea of super delegates. As I've said jokingly, 'I was opposed to those super delegates and now I are one.' I've been one since the 1984 convention.
Why did the Democratic Party want to bring super delegates back?
There had been considerable embarrassment with senators and House members and governors and others not being elected national convention delegates from their states. Some decided not to even try to be elected because they didn't want to stand the possibility of a defeat…So governors and senators and party officials and others were among those who pushed for these 795 spots.
Are you worried about a contentious, brokered convention between Obama and Clinton?
Well, I don't think there will be any problem with that. That is, as long as everything was fairly done. I think it would be a disaster if the Democratic Party changes the rules and seats the present delegations from Florida and Michigan. In Michigan, Obama's name wasn't even on the ballot, and in Florida he and Hillary were prevented from campaigning by the rules. I think that would be a disaster and lead to defeat in the fall. I think it would be the same result like in 1968 where [Hubert] Humphrey got the nomination but many people felt the convention didn't represent the views of rank-and-file Democrats because the process wasn't democratic. But I think that's a process that's not going to happen. We've never had the super delegates split up different from how the pledged delegates split.
You ran for president in 1976 and came up short. Why did Bill Richardson come up short this year?
Well, a person really only has about one real shot at running for president and you can think of a lot of people in the past who might have, in a different period, been nominated. For example, Richardson in almost any other year, for example, when I ran he would have been surely one of the top-three candidates out of Iowa and New Hampshire. But he happened to run where there were a couple of rock stars running [laughs]. Richardson just happened to run at the wrong time.
What did you make of a column last month by conservative Washington Post columnist George Will comparing you to John Edwards?
Well, John Edwards, I admire him very much. He was the first national political figure since me, I think, who made the elimination of poverty a really important part of his concerns and platform. He once said to me, 'You've always been a hero of mine.' And what George Will was doing-in a real critical way-was now that John Edwards has withdrawn, he'll become like Fred Harris, populist candidate before him, he'll be a trivia question eventually. But Will did write admiringly about the funny thing I said when I withdrew from the race after New Hampshire. I said, 'Well mine was a campaign for the little people and it looks like they were not able to reach the levers.' [laughs]
You recently retired from teaching full-time at UNM. Why did you retire and what are you doing now?
The University of New Mexico has been wonderful to me. It's a wonderful place. I've taught there full-time for 31 years. And then at age 75 I formally retired, but I entered into a contract with the university to teach one course, the University of New Mexico Fred Harris Congressional Internship Program, which was established four semesters ago. I was honored they named it after me. So what I'm doing is, I teach, I write and I lecture a great deal.
You've also written a number of books, most recently a couple of novels. Why the foray into fiction?
Well, I like writing fiction. You can make people do what you want them to do, which I was never able to do with nonfiction. And it's really fun. The novel I'm working on now is a mystery and it's set in contemporary New Mexico. I've written or co-edited or produced 18 nonfiction books. The most recent will come out April 15. That will be my 21st book. It's called Does People Do It? It's a memoir and the title comes from a thing an uncle of mine used to say. He said, 'Does people do it? If people do it, I can do it.' I think that's a great attitude.