Returning to Roots to Make Virginia History: Black Republican Runs for Legislature

By Cain, Andrew | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), April 30, 1997 | Go to article overview

Returning to Roots to Make Virginia History: Black Republican Runs for Legislature


Cain, Andrew, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


CHARLOTTESVILLE - While he was a college student at Hampton University, Paul C. Harris took his first airplane flight, from Norfolk to a military base in Georgia.

He leapt from the next plane he flew in - a C-130 transport - as a U.S. Army paratrooper.

Mr. Harris, 33, is jumping again, this time into politics. The soft-spoken lawyer, raised by a single mother in a Charlottesville housing project, is trying to become the first black Republican in the Virginia legislature since Reconstruction.

Mr. Harris hopes to become the General Assembly's version of Rep. J.C. Watts, Oklahoma Republican, who has emerged as a key voice among congressional conservatives. Mr. Watts, who is black, delivered the GOP's response to President Clinton's State of the Union address in January.

"When I think about becoming the first black Republican state lawmaker, I take some inspiration from Tiger Woods and J.C. Watts," says Mr. Harris, a legal consultant to Jefferson National Bank in Charlottesville.

Mr. Harris is seeking the seat of Delegate Peter T. Way, a Republican retiring after six years in office. Thomas Jefferson and Gov. George F. Allen are among those who held the seat, representing Albemarle County and parts of Greene and Rockingham counties.

The chance to make history is "far less important to me than the principles that I believe will sustain Virginia into the 21st century, which are faith, family and freedom," Mr. Harris says.

He presents a delicate target for critics: A veteran who rose from humble beginnings to embrace conservatism, Mr. Harris has been taken to task only for opportunistically returning to his home district after 15 years elsewhere.

Mr. Harris says he is ready to do battle on the campaign trail and in the legislature. He developed a thick skin long before fellow Republicans started ribbing him about his middle name: Clinton.

His mother, Pauline Harris Jackson, was 19 when he was born. Although she never married his father, she taught Paul and his younger brother and sister the dignity of work, sometimes handling three jobs at once: working as a licensed practical nurse, caring for elderly people in their homes and cooking at a fraternity house.

"By the time we finish this interview, I will have spent more time with you than I have with my father in 33 years," Mr. Harris says as he guides visitors through Rose Hill, a community of tiny concrete homes where he lived with cousins as a toddler.

"He's done nothing for me, and I'm not bitter about that," Mr. Harris says, refusing to speak his father's name.

"I'm just thankful that I had a mother who is as dedicated and as responsible as she is."

In 1978, his mother moved the family to a low-income housing project in downtown Charlottesville known then and now for drug dealing.

In a visit to the complex last week, Mr. Harris finds beer and champagne bottles littering the yard of the house where he lived when he was in high school.

Brenda Fountain, 48, a former neighbor, smiles and embraces Mr. Harris when she spots the dapper visitor in the business suit. …

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Returning to Roots to Make Virginia History: Black Republican Runs for Legislature
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