The keynote speaker at the upcoming National Conference on Local Governance will be former Oklahoma Senator Fred Harris, the last surviving member of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders (AKA the Kerner Commission), which released its ground-breaking findings on race relations in 1968.
Less remembered is Harris’s groundbreaking presidential campaign in 1976, a quixotic effort to revive the progressive New Deal populism of the Depression Era south and southwest.
Long before the presidential aspirations of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, Harris spearheaded a self-consciously populist effort to unite remnants of the civil rights and anti-war movements with consumer advocates, campaign finance reformers, disgruntled farmers and trade unionists.
A year earlier, the Vietnam War ended with the fall of Saigon. Two years earlier, Richard Nixon left the White House in disgrace because of the Watergate Scandal. Stagflation plagued the economy. Rising energy costs and financial hardship led to increased farm foreclosures.
Culturally speaking, the “Outlaw” trend in country music was in full swing with rebellious songs like Johnny Paycheck’s “Take This Job and Shove It” and James Talley’s “Are they Gonna Make us Outlaws Again?” topping the charts In Nashville.
Against this backdrop of political unrest and cultural ferment, Senator Fred Harris hit the road in a grassroots campaign for president, crossing the country in a Winnebago, staying at the homes of friends and taking advantage of the post-Watergate campaign finance laws to raise money with matching funds and small contributions of $250 and less.
Folksinger Arlo Guthrie did dozens of campaign concerts, ending each appearance with his father’s populist anthem, “This Land is Your Land.” CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite reportedly told Harris he might actually win the Democratic Party nomination.
In the end, it was another political outsider—"peanut farmer” Jimmy Carter—who got the nod, winning the presidency in 1976, but Harris placed a respectable third in the Iowa Caucuses, after Carter and Indiana Senator Birch Bayh.
Four years later, Ronald Reagan swept into office on a rising tide of conservatism that realigned the parties in the south and southwest. For a few years, neo-populists like Jim Hightower, Harris’s campaign manager, journalist Molly Ivins and Texas Governor Ann Richards, kept the tradition alive. But it was only a matter of time before the southwest went solid red.
By that time, Fred Harris had retired from politics to write books and teach at the University of New Mexico.
There is a national Civic League connection to the 1976 Harris campaign. John Parr, who served as president of the National Civic League from 1985 until 1995, managed the campaign in Colorado. It was during John Parr’s term as president that the National Civic League’s mission evolved from its original focus on municipal reform to its current mission of promoting civic engagement and collaborative problem-solving in communities.
Another veteran of the Harris campaign was Harry Boyte, the author and former civil rights organizer who founded the Public Achievement initiative. In their book, Civic innovation in America, Carmen Sirianni and Lewis Friedland give Parr and Boyte leading roles in what they describe as an emerging “civic renewal movement.” Unlike the Harris campaign, the civic renewal movement is decidedly nonpartisan, but the populist ideal of empowering everyday people is something the two movements have in common.
Fred Harris will speak at the National Conference on Local Government, June 22 in Denver, Colorado. For more information…