Politics & Policy

The Illinois GOP Judges Miss America

Miss America 2003 Erika Harold speaks at the Republican National Convention in 2004.
The county chairmen might run a beauty queen for the House.

Republicans may be on a roll when it comes to recruiting intriguing new candidates for Congress. Last weekend, Utah Republicans surprised many when they handed the nomination for the state’s new congressional seat to Mia Love, the 37-year-old daughter of Haitian immigrants who is now the mayor of Saratoga Springs, which is south of Salt Lake City. Ms. Love, who says her favorite economist is 19th-century libertarian hero Frédéric Bastiat, is a strong contender to win in the fall.

Now Republicans in Illinois have to decide whether they want to make their own bold choice. The GOP nomination in the 13th congressional district, which stretches from collegiate Champaign-Urbana to the state capital of Springfield, is now vacant because of the sudden decision of incumbent Tim Johnson to retire a month after winning the Republican primary. His replacement will be chosen on May 16 by a vote of all 14 GOP county chairmen in the district.

The accelerated process has attracted the interest of Erika Harold, a black woman who grew up in Urbana before winning the Miss America crown in 2003. She went on to graduate Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Illinois and then from Harvard Law in 2007. She now practices civil litigation with a Chicago law firm, but could easily move back to Urbana, where her parents still live.

“I have spoken with some county chairmen,” she told the Bloomington News-Gazette this week. “I will be assessing in my own heart whether I felt I was the best person to represent the 13th district. If I did I would likely put my name forth.” Last week, she conveniently “dropped in” at the annual Lincoln Day dinner for Republicans in Champaign County, one of the largest in the district.

#ad#When I first met her at the Republican National Convention in 2004, just after she had given a formal speech to delegates, Erika Harold was already someone you knew was going places. She openly told me she planned to run for high national office some day, and made it clear what platform she would run on. “I’m a conservative who believes in the free market, is pro-life and pro–Second Amendment,” she told me back then. “I also am not afraid to put my point of view forward.”

Indeed, when she became Miss America, she had a fight with pageant officials because she wanted to add sexual abstinence along with youth violence and anti-bullying to the portfolio of issues she would promote during her year-long reign. She refused to bow to pressure, and after two days of discussions with officials, she won them over. She estimates she spent 20 percent of her time discussing sexual abstinence with young people. “If I had become silent on this issue once I became Miss America, it would cause young people to whom I had already spoken to question where I stood on these issues and to question whether or not I still maintained my commitment,” she told reporters at the time.

Her crusade against bullying had personal roots, because in the ninth grade she was viciously harassed. It ultimately reached the point that one day she found girls in the hallway discussing how to pool their lunch money so they could buy a rifle and kill her. The electricity in her home was short-circuited one night, and a carton of eggs was thrown through her window. Given little support from school authorities, she ultimately had to transfer to another school during her sophomore year. “After that, I am ready for whatever politics will throw at me,” she laughed when we talked at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, which she attended after she gave up her title.

#page#Her experiences have also strengthened her faith, and led her to work closely with Chuck Colson in his Prison Fellowship Ministries; she eventually joined the group’s board. Because he died this month at age 80, she regrets not being able to consult him on whether or not to run for Congress: “I would have loved to have asked his advice on this particular decision, because he’s been a mentor and a role model.”

Harold will have lots of competition for the nomination should she run. The current front-runner is Jerry Clarke, who used to serve Representative Johnson as his chief of staff. Many county chairmen suspect that Johnson waited until after he won the primary to leave the race in order to give his former employee a leg up in the rush to win over county chairmen. As evidence, they point to the fact that Clarke registered his congressional campaign website some six weeks before the March GOP primary and two months before Johnson made the announcement he was leaving Congress. State senator Kyle McCarter, who has decided not to run for the seat, bluntly says: “Anyone in the public would say, ‘He said he didn’t know about this, but a month before, he registered his campaign site?’ . . . The people’s vote was taken away from them.”

#ad#Both Clarke and Johnson deny any impropriety, and Clarke says he merely set up the website in preparation for a run for Congress in 2014. Johnson spokesman Phil Bloomer noted that his boss wasn’t formally endorsing anyone to succeed him.

With recriminations about the manner of Johnson’s departure rattling around the district, Harold could come in as a fresh face not beholden to any of the party’s local cliques. John Parrott, the GOP chairman of McLean County, which includes Urbana, is enthusiastic about her: “I think she’s an extremely viable candidate.”

If she won the GOP nomination, Erika Harold would have to be viewed as the favorite to win the seat in the fall. Her Democratic opponent would be David Gill, a physician who has overwhelmingly lost three previous races to Representative Johnson, and has taken left-wing stands in favor of national health care that goes beyond Obamacare and an immediate withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan and Iraq.

The district has been made more liberal thanks to a Democratic gerrymander. Barack Obama carried the district by ten points in 2008, but in 2010 the losing Republican candidate for governor, Bill Brady, won the seat by six points and GOP senator Mark Kirk won it by eight points. The district overall still leans Republican.

Harold is quite aware of how her fame as a beauty queen will be a mixed blessing. “It will gain you attention, but it does carry some misperceptions that you have to dispel,” she candidly observed in a 2003 interview. She was no doubt referring to the stereotype that beauty queens are bubble-headed and not serious.

But Harold will have little trouble convincing people of how serious she is, from her mastery of opera singing, which clinched her the Miss America title, to her time mentoring prison inmates and young runaways, to her corporate legal work. Should she get all the way to Congress, she will attract notice as much for her brains as for her beauty.

— John Fund is the national-affairs columnist for NRO.

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