At 84, Fred Harris is still advocating for issues closest to his heart

Fred Harris chats with Vice President Hubert Humphrey. Harris was co-chairman of Humphreys 1968 presidential campaign. (Courtesy of Fred Harris)

Fred Harris chats with Vice President Hubert Humphrey. Harris was co-chairman of Humphrey’s 1968 presidential campaign. (Courtesy of Fred Harris)

Fred Harris, a two-term U.S. senator from Oklahoma, still has the floor.

Harris, 84, who has written 19 nonfiction books and three novels, started teaching political science at the University of New Mexico about 40 years ago. Now a professor emeritus at UNM, he continues as director of the UNM Fred Harris Congressional Internship Program.

His influence is felt through the army of students he has educated, but also through his political activism.

“He is one of the most unusual and talented men I’ve ever met,” says friend and cycling buddy Ted Martinez, former president of Central New Mexico Community College.

Martinez describes a recent trip to Washington, D.C., where he and Harris had lunch with U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, who is originally from Oklahoma. “He’s still very well known in Congress. People stop and talk to him. Hopeful politicians call him for advice. They want to know what he thinks. They seek him out for his wisdom. But you couldn’t find a more humble man than Fred Harris.”

Bridget Condon began working for U.S. Rep. Steve Pearce through Harris’ internship program in 2013 and was later hired: “There is no question that New Mexico owes a great debt to Sen. Fred Harris. Not only has he dedicated his time to improving our communities through policy and education, but he has also made it a priority to ensure younger generations are ready to pick up the baton.

“I am only one of many Fred Harris interns to continue working for the New Mexico delegation,” she continues. “The program has cultivated relationships that help our offices work together. New Mexico is desperate for young leaders to step up and continue fighting for the prosperity of our state. Sen. Harris’ program has created a legacy to meet that need. Few people are so genuinely dedicated to improving the lives of New Mexicans.”

(The competitive undergraduate scholarship program is available to UNM students with 60 accumulated hours, with a limited number of internships available each semester. Visit polisci.unm.edu for information.)

Looking ahead

Most recently the University of New Mexico Press asked Harris to edit “New Mexico 2050,” a collection of essays by statewide experts who describe the state’s present situation, prescribe remedies to adjust course and to predict what success could occur if New Mexicans act on the recommendations.

It addresses economics, environment and water, education, health care, politics and demographics, and transportation. “We see this as a blueprint for New Mexico,” he says.

“Will we begin to act? I think so, because more and more of us are coming to see that it is our best interest to do so. More and more of us are coming to see that we’re in this thing together and that ‘everybody does better when everybody does better,’ ” he writes in the book’s epilogue. “Maybe you don’t agree with some or even all of the things this book recommends. That’s OK. But let’s begin the debate. Let’s talk. And then let’s act.”

Harris still advocates the same populist view, a redistribution of wealth and power, that he professed during his two presidential campaigns, detailed in a 1975 Rolling Stone interview with another activist, Tom Hayden. Hayden described the Harris of 40 years ago as someone who “looks and sounds like he’d be more comfortable at a farmers’ market in Oklahoma.”

Harris says the root of his views come from his hard-scrabble life as the son of a farmer in Cotton County, Okla. “I started bailing hay when I was 5. I started following the harvest when I was 12.” Harris says his father was finally out of debt in 1974, the last year of his life.

Outgoing national Democratic chairman Larry OBrien congratulates incoming chairman Fred Harris in 1969. (Courtesy of Fred Harris)

Outgoing national Democratic chairman Larry O’Brien congratulates incoming chairman Fred Harris in 1969. (Courtesy of Fred Harris)

‘Issue is privilege’

Harris, who served eight years in the Oklahoma senate, was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1964, serving as national Democratic chairman in 1969 and 1970.

He served on the Kerner Commission or the President’s Commission on Civil Disorders, a committee convened by President Lyndon Johnson to unearth the causes of bloody race riots that swept the nation in 1967. He sponsored legislation to return Blue Lake to Taos Pueblo, an area sacred to the pueblo, that was signed into law by then President Nixon in 1970.

“I’m still saying now what I was saying then,” he explains over iced tea in a restaurant in Corrales.

In the 1970s, Harris thought a presidential campaign, even an unsuccessful one, could make a difference: “I am especially proud of the fact that I ran for president of the United States and that, doing so, I said exactly what I believed in. One of our campaign slogans was ‘the issue is privilege.’ ”

That issue, stirred again by a new generation in the Occupy Wall Street movement, stems from a belief he held and ended all his speeches with, “There is plenty of money to do what needs to be done in this country, if we take the rich off welfare.”

The gap has widened since then, between those who have and those who don’t.

Now, like then, Harris believes the right kind of economic stimulus, such as the kind that brought the country out of the Great Depression and established a robust middle class after World War II, would help. “Did the United States go bankrupt? No, to the contrary. We proved what (economist John Maynard) Keynes said, what my tough cowboy dad said more simply, ‘You have to spend money to make money.’ ”

Fred Harris and his wife, Margaret Elliston, who have been married for 34 years, enjoy traveling but love coming back to their Corrales home, they say. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

Fred Harris and his wife, Margaret Elliston, who have been married for 34 years, enjoy traveling but love coming back to their Corrales home, they say. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

Choosing N.M.

And he would like nowhere better than his adopted New Mexico to prosper.

He remembers first coming to the state in 1957, with his then-wife, LaDonna Harris, now president of the Albuquerque-based Americans for Indian Opportunity. They stayed in a friend’s log cabin on the Pecos River. They rode horseback in Bandelier’s Frijoles Canyon, attended a performance of “Carmen” at the Santa Fe Opera and went to a green corn dance at Taos Pueblo.

“I thought this was the most exotic place I’d ever been. I thought if I ever got to choose where I lived, I would live in New Mexico,” he says. “I lived in Oklahoma, because I was born there. I lived in Washington, because that’s where the Senate met, but I chose New Mexico.”

He lives in Corrales with his wife of 34 years, Margaret Elliston. They married when Harris became a Fulbright Scholar in Mexico. Harris, who speaks Spanish fluently, has written three books in Spanish. They love to travel, but always love coming home, they say. They have a large extended family of children and grandchildren from their previous marriages.

Elliston says Harris’ focus and intensity may surprise some, because otherwise he’s very jovial: “Fred’s jolly and upbeat. He’s fun. We’re still having fun. He lights up a room. He makes the room a happy place.”

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