Erika Harold talks to Moneyish about the ‘war on women,’ criminal justice reform and President Trump’s effect on the GOP
This would-be politico is ok with being called a beauty queen.
Erika Harold first came into the public eye as Miss America 2003, a position she used to advocate teenage abstinence and endorse George W. Bush’s faith-based initiative. In the years since, she graduated from Harvard Law School, worked as an attorney in Illinois focused on civil litigation and civil rights and unsuccessfully primaried an incumbent congressman. The 37-year-old Republican’s latest act: running for Illinois Attorney General.
Whatever Harold does however, the tag of her pageant win will be close behind. “It was initially unnerving to be subject to greater scrutiny and it doesn’t define me in totality,” she tells Moneyish. “But Miss America was also a wonderful experience and I embrace that now.” Harold adds that she competed in the beauty queen contest for reasons many will understand: it enabled the University of Illinois political science grad to complete Harvard debt-free.
Harold’s politics—specifically of a constitution-worshipping, social conservative bent—were formed early. “My interest in the law came from being a victim of racial and sexual harassment at ninth grade,” she says, noting that it forced her into transferring high schools. “The law then did not require schools to protect schools to protect students as it does now and at that time, I felt so powerless. It was formative in many ways.”
More than the typical woman office seeker, Harold has had to deal with heated rhetoric. When she previously sought election to D.C., a local GOP boss compared her to a “streetwalker;” he later resigned. More recently, a Democratic opponent flippantly referred to her as “Miss America”—he later apologized. “Women do face double standards, but I’m used to being underestimated,” she says. “It just makes me work harder.”
But how does she account for President Trump? Her party’s leader—Harold wrote in a candidate rather than vote for him or Hillary Clinton last year—has gained the enthusiastic backing of the GOP’s evangelical base despite a long record of comments widely regarded as misogynistic. “The people who unified around him thought that they finally found someone speaking in a straightforward way and were thus willing to overlook other issues,” she says. “I don’t believe the Republican Party has a ‘war on women.’ There are individuals who make comments that are sexist and should be denounced, but they don’t reflect” the entire party.
Her unique background—Harold’s father is white and her mother is of black and Native American ancestry— explains why Harold’s taken several stances outside the Republican mainstream. Consider Education Secretary Betsy Devos’ recent moves to soften Obama administration guidelines on handling sexual assault on college campuses—a bid cheered on by the right and almost universally denounced on the left. The candidate however, thinks D.C. should tread carefully.
Miss America 2003’s latest act? Try Illinois Attorney General https://t.co/lWyp1st9jn
— Moneyish (@Moneyish) September 25, 2017
“I don’t support anything that weakens protections for students…it’s taken such a long period of time to create a culture where schools feel responsible for the well being of their students,” Harold says. “It’s important to ensure that students’ rights are protected if there are criminal proceedings, but that shouldn’t stop schools from setting strong standards.”
She’s also been a player in the criminal justice reform movement that brought together the unlikely alliance of Barack Obama, Rand Paul and the Koch Brothers. For about a decade, Harold’s sat on the board of a major prison ministry alliance. If elected as AG, reforming sentencing guidelines and bail bond regulations—which overwhelmingly impact ethnic minority men—will be a priority.
Until this month, Harold faced tough odds to become Illinois’ top law enforcement official. She was set to challenge Democrat Lisa Madigan, a three-term incumbent whose step-dad is a major Illinois powerbroker. Recent successful Republican officeholders in Illinois have also been socially liberal, while Harold opposes abortion and gay marriage. (“Personal views shouldn’t determine how one treats Supreme Court precedence or upholding the law,” she says.) But Madigan, who’s always won at least 60% of the popular vote, announced that she wasn’t seeking reelection. And unlike her 2014 primary bid, the state GOP—including Gov. Bruce Rauner—has unified around Harold.
Harold’s not a fan of Madigan being among the sixteen Democratic state attorneys general who’ve filed a lawsuit against the Trump administration rescinding the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. “The president has the ability to rescind the executive order,” she says, though Harold adds that she hopes Congress will find a permanent resolution for illegal immigrants who were brought to America as children.
That said, she insists that she won’t be a lackey to Trump—or any other occupant of the White House. “If you believe the president has exceeded the scope of his or her authority, you have an obligation to stand up,” she says. “But I would not sue simply because I disagree with a policy.”
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