Fred R. Harris:

His Political Career

Fred Harris portrait
Fred Harris childhood portrait

 

Fred Roy Harris was born November 13, 1930, in Walters, Oklahoma, to a poor dirt farmer. He graduated from Walters High School with honors and continued his education at the University of Oklahoma. He graduated with bachelor’s degrees in history and political science in 1952 and continued his education at OU’s law school. Harris served as administrative assistant to the dean while in law school and graduated with honors before passing the bar in 1954. By this time he and his wife, LaDonna, had been married several years.

Harris’s interest in politics began early. He ran for the Oklahoma House seat representing his home district in 1954 but lost by thirty-five votes. He moved to Lawton and set up a law firm in 1956, engaging in general civil law practice and working on the city’s desegregation process.

Left: Fred Harris as a child.

The 1956 Oklahoma State Senate election proved more successful. Harris won this election, becoming the youngest member of that body at twenty-six. He became known as one of the hardest working members of the State Senate, serving on or chairing all major committees over the next eight years. Legislation he introduced included a measure creating the Oklahoma Human Rights Commission. During his time in the Senate, Harris chaired the Senate Democratic caucus.

Harris continued his political career in 1962 by running for governor, placing fifth in the Democratic primary. Two years later, in 1964, he ran for Robert S. Kerr’s unexpired U.S. Senate seat. In the Democratic primary no candidate had a majority, so the top two candidates had a run-off. Harris beat former governor J. Howard Edmondson by 100,000 votes, securing the Democratic nomination. Harris ran against former OU football coach Charles “Bud” Wilkinson in the fall election, and his ties with the Kerr family and association with President Johnson helped Harris win a tight race. At thirty-three, he became the youngest senator-elect from Oklahoma.

Right: High school portrait of Fred Harris.

Fred Harris high school portrait
Freshman senators sitting at a table, c. 1965

He worked hard and made friends with high-profile people like President Johnson, the Kennedy family, and Walter Mondale during his freshman year. Harris had one of the highest voting records in the chamber and authored or co-authored more than a dozen bills during his first session, including a measure creating a Regional Development Commission for the Ozarka Region. He served on three major Senate committees and nine subcommittees and was named chairman of the Subcommittee on Government Research. His work resulted in a bill calling for an independent agency to approve social science research projects. Harris also helped develop a national science policy through this committee. His hard work earned him an easy re-election in 1966.

Left: Freshman senators Fred R. Harris, Joseph D. Tydings, Robert F. Kennedy, and Walter Mondale, c. 1965.

Harris served on the Public Works Committee and continued Kerr’s work on the Arkansas River navigation program and tributary development, including dam construction in Oklahoma. Harris also worked to further Indian health and community development and for general human rights issues in foreign policy. Harris served on the Select Committee on Small Business and the Government Operations and Finance committees.

He remained active during his second term. President Johnson appointed Harris to the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, or the Kerner Commission, after race riots erupted in early 1967. In 1968 he co-chaired then-vice president Hubert H. Humphrey’s presidential campaign, and in 1969 Humphrey appointed him head of the Democratic National Committee, a position he held for a year. As head of the DNC he set up two committees to open the party to more active minority and female participation..

Harris began criticizing the Nixon administration in the early 1970s. He called for a fairer distribution of wealth, income, and power and for government to serve the people instead of special interest groups. He also called for more idealism in foreign policy. These positions became the basis for his New Populism.

Instead of running for re-election in 1971, Harris ran for president. From the beginning, he faced many obstacles. His popularity had dropped in Oklahoma, he took positions on issues but had no plan for changes, and his stances were similar to other candidates’. He did not attract any endorsements or much financial support, and his staff did not have much experience. He remained positive, though, and aimed for a successful showing in the Florida primary. His campaign did not last long enough, though, ending two months after it began.

 

Right: A.S. Mike Monroney, Carl Albert, Fred R. Harris, and Ed Edmondson on the steps of the Capitol, mid-1960s.

Oklahoma delegation on the steps of the Capitol, mid-1960s

Harris set up an international trade law firm in 1972, taught at American University, and published New Populism. He monitored current events and kept many of his political connections, which led him to run for president again. He laid out his ideas on issues like taxes, housing, and health care to friends and potential backers in June of 1974. Harris planned to be honest with the American people and show them he was a fellow worker. He believed a candidate could win on a small budget if the campaign started early and focused on the grassroots level.

By the time he announced his candidacy in January of 1975, several states had organizing committees and he had an experienced staff of volunteers. Local committees signed up supporters and raised money. His big push came that summer with his cross-country camper trip. Harris and his family traveled from Washington, D.C. to California in thirty-five days, making fifty stops and covering over 5,000 miles. The trip raised enough money to keep the campaign going and garnered more support.

Fred and LaDonna Harris in a camper.

Harris had more support financially and politically in this campaign. Most of the fundraising money qualified for matching funds under the Federal Election Campaign Act, he received endorsements from labor leaders and celebrities, and he had more press coverage. Harris still faced several obstacles, though. His positions were similar to those of other candidates in the crowded field. Some matching funds were withheld after the Supreme Court struck down parts of the election law amendments of 1974. Organization within the campaign proved to be an issue. State committees handled local concerns, but volunteers needed more support from the national headquarters to keep up with these concerns.

Harris’s tactic of focusing on early primary and caucus states seemed to pay off, though. He placed third in the Iowa caucus and first in the Oklahoma primary. He placed fourth in New Hampshire, though, and after a poor Massachusetts showing focused all his efforts on the Pennsylvania primary. After another poor showing, Harris stopped actively campaigning in April 1976.

He retired from politics after the 1976 election and moved to New Mexico, teaching political science at the University of New Mexico. He also published several nonfiction and fiction books. Harris served as chairman of the New Mexico Democratic Party in the late 1990s and currently resides in New Mexico.

Left: Fred and LaDonna Harris on their camper campaign trip, summer 1975.

The Carl Albert Center's Congressional Archives is home to Senator Harris collection of papers. To access the complete inventory and collection description online, please click this link.


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